Barry Taylor ... new man at the First Link helm

07 March 2007 First Link / Clear Distinction

Pulling out all the stops comes naturally to Barry Taylor, new CEO of First Link, the nationally represented short-term insurance broker.

Within the short-term industry, however, he is better known for his knack of creating a positive outcome in challenging times.

On the question of FAIS, at the time this was introduced, many were wary of the new Act; others were quite antagonistic. In contrast, Taylor saw FAIS as an opportunity to strengthen the sectors image and credibility.

"I saw FAIS as an opportunity, not a threat. I still do," says Taylor. "Any initiative to reinforce the professional status of our people is surely beneficial. Significant opportunities open up if you maintain a positive mindset."

It is no accident that over the FAIS formative and implementation years, First Link accelerated its programme of strategic growth. In a little over three years, the short-term broking arm of the FirstRand Group acquired 13 independent brokers in various regions.

From 2003 to 2006, First Links revenue grew by 89% and operating profit by 266%.

Taylor was part of the senior management team spearheading the quest for growth and prior to taking the reins from Keith Young in early 2007 was MD of First Link's Commercial Segment. In the financial years 2002-06, the revenue of this business unit grew 308% while operating profit increased by 600%.

"First Link's acquisitive growth has been significant," says Barry, "but so has organic growth. Our substantial investment in systems and people is often overlooked, but I regard support for our people and the quality of our team as the key to success.

"You can't grow your business without developing your people."

He joined the insurance industry in 1968 at the Protea Assurance Company. In 1974, he joined Barclays Insurance Brokers, now First Link, moving into management in 1978, initially as Fire & Accident Manager. Secondment to CT Bowring Reinsurance, London, followed in 1981.

He returned to South Africa two years later to head the Bowring Barclays Reinsurance Division. A series of senior posts then prepared the way for his 1995 appointment as managing director of what was then the Transvaal operation of First Bowring Insurance Brokers.

By 1999, he was assistant MD of First Bowring Insurance Brokers.. In 2005, he became MD of the Commercial division of First Link Insurance Brokers.

Recent years have been notable for increasing direct competition across the industry. Typically, Barry Taylor sees positives in the development.

He observes: "The direct writer has a place in the market, however its important to maintain focus on ones own business. The direct model has kept us on our toes and forced us to add even more value to our interaction with the customer.

"The direct writer reminds us there is no room for complacency in business. But the factor that stands out most clearly is the broker's resilience and continued relevance. We've not wilted under pressure, we've thrived on it."

Today, the changing market cycle poses a new challenge, with underwriting margins under pressure and rates starting to rise. Again, the new First Link CEO sees opportunity in a changing environment.

"This is when investment in systems, people and product development pays off," notes Taylor. "You differentiate yourself by the value you add. That value comes under most scrutiny at this stage of the cycle. Its an opportunity to secure competitive advantage and strengthen your relative position.

"We certainly won't be calling a halt to our growth strategy. If there is any change there, it will be to step up the pace of acquisitions while renewed product development will drive organic growth."

Looks like the new CEO will be pulling out all the stops for quite a while to come

* Taylor is a member of the SAFSIA Short Term executive committee.
* He and wife Lynette have two children and two granddaughters. Barry is chairman of the Board of Management of St Andrews Presbyterian Church, Germiston, a church elder and church organist.



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