Mark Bates, the man behind one of the market’s largest insurance providers, opens up about how the business is run with mobility retailers in mind and why supporting its family of dealers is key to its own growth.
With so many of the market’s retailers made up of small, family companies, a great deal of businesses in the mobility industry know the value of close-knit relationships with staff and suppliers.
In an inevitable climate of consolidation and acquisitions, few companies at the opposite side of the supply chain have managed to stay in the same hands over the decades. There are though, a handful of companies supplying dealers that still have a strong grasp of their roots.
Mark Bates set up his eponymous insurance firm in the 90s and has been trading with mobility dealers for nearly three decades. Over that time he and his team, part led by son Danny Bates, have worked to sharpen the company’s offering and its strategy to ensure it is never resting on its laurels.
It now provides cover for everything from mobility scooters, caravans and homes and even offers funeral plans. For the founder and managing director, being an established player is not enough in today’s industry and blazing a path is a core part of its strategy to ensure it remains one step ahead of stiff competition.
Under Bates’ stewardship, the company has spearheaded a number of insurance industry firsts and Bates has no intention of easing off the accelerator any time soon.
Drawing on the example of introducing three months free cover on mobility scooters, Bates says: “For years we have led the market. We’ve always set the standards in the development. Our new technology allows us to look after the [mobility] dealers much more and to facilitate this extra income that they can earn.”
“This is the 27th year of mobility scooter insurance business I’ve been involved in and I’m as keen now to provide dealers with proper support as I was when I was the one knocking on the doors asking them to come on-board”
The technological advances Bates refers to include an online portal introduced for this year. It is designed to give dealers a much better and more data-driven insight into their customers and catch those end-users who would otherwise usually slip through the net.
It can be used to see exactly how much commission policies are generating for the retail business, for example. The portal is geared towards making the relationship between Mark Bates Ltd and its clients even more transparent with the aim of helping the retailer to make the most out of every customer who purchases a policy with them.
Bates explains: “What we really want out of the portal is for dealers to be able to see that customers who buy their scooter insurance from the shop then go and buy home and car insurance.
“This portal will show the dealer the subsidiary income building in a pot that they can access any time. What it’s doing is further securing this wonderful relationship we have with our dealers. We’ve got the most dealers in the country and there’s a reason for that.”
As any dealer selling insurance policies will know, they can be a steady stream of income throughout the year and help to keep bottom lines afloat during the quieter months.
And for Bates, insurance can be something very exciting for businesses to get their teeth into, especially when they can see exactly how and where it is benefiting revenues with the new portal. As he sees it, Mark Bates Ltd’s policies can now provide a strong and diverse income for distributors.
The company now offers pre-paid funeral plans, for example, and is constantly looking at how it can broaden is coverage, which has a positive knock-on effect on retailers.
Bates comments: “That customer who has bought mobility insurance might go and buy home insurance, so that triggers monthly payments for the dealer every time the customer pays that. They’ve then got car insurance so there’s monthly payments there. Then you’ve got our pre-paid funeral plan. That one sale is £50 income, although there’re obviously no renewals there.
“We’ve had some of our dealers for over 25 years. At long last now we can provide them with a mechanism to enjoy real good income levels with us going through the journey together. They can put leaflets in their stores for home insurance, car insurance, for caravan insurance – especially if they’re on the coast – for all these different things.”
Aside from technological developments designed to help boost revenue streams for retail partners, Mark Bates Ltd has also invested heavily in its general capabilities as an insurer. For example, it boasts an in-house claims team, which is a highly unique string to its bow in the mobility sector.
“In the past dealers used to make their profit out of just selling the product but now it’s in the insurance”
A specialist group of employees provides the company with the luxury of being able to revisit ‘grey area claims’. The team is able to consider whether each claim is genuine and look at alternative ways of helping the customer – which has on some occasions included Bates personally getting his wallet out.
“That’s rare,” he says. “Sometimes we take a commercial decision based on the fact that we don’t want the dealer to be in a mess. I would not make an outrageous statement saying we always pay out but we have kept so many more of our dealers because business after business will tell you that we are good at looking after them.
“Because we’ve got our own claims team we can always assess where we need to be. And that means quite clearly we help more people than anyone else in the market. We really try. We try very hard.”
Another scheme Mark Bates Ltd recently introduced is insurance on short-term mobility scooter rental. Dealers in coastal areas are now able to hire equipment out to tourists for short periods alongside highly affordable cover.
Bates says that while the initial premium is too small to provide dealers with a sizable margin, the repeat custom from the same client purchasing other policies on their home, for example, makes sound business sense.
He notes: “This kind of scheme is a wonderful thing and is another thing that further enhances what we’re trying to do to help dealers and our relationship with them.
“This is the 27th year of mobility scooter insurance business I’ve been involved in and I’m as keen now to provide dealers with proper support as I was when I was the one knocking on the doors asking them to come on-board.”
For all his firm’s innovations, new schemes and technological developments, Bates believes in good old-fashioned dealer support and getting out on the road to provide real sales training and advice. This means having a wide presence out in the field, which has expanded recently. Bates says that even he himself is ‘coming out of retirement’ to visit a local dealer to train its staff.
“We’re still going to go down that support route,” Bates says. “We don’t just turn up with a few doughnuts and ask if they’ve got enough leaflets. We want to interact with the staff and show them why they must look after anyone that’s using a scooter.
“We’re supporting dealers more now than ever before because at last we have another way of producing more income for them simply by selling a product and selling insurance with it. In the past they used to make their profit out of just selling the product but now it’s in the insurance.”
One of the frustrations Mark Bates Ltd has is when end-users buy on price alone. Bates believes that often, insurance policies sold online do not offer much cover or flexibility. He asks what good it is to offer a policy at half the price of a comprehensive one if it has so many restrictions that the customer cannot be paid when they make a claim.
He says: “We’ve always gone down the route of saying lets charge the right premium for the right cover. It has to be fair and we are trying to do that. It’s hard. We are hoping that the new portal and being to provide all this extra income for dealers will discourage retailers from offering insurance from a cheaper online company.”
Nevertheless, Bates is confident in his proposition’s resilience and likewise, the longevity of the bricks-and-mortar model in the mobility retail sector. He does not think that our industry will see high street shops replaced by online sellers and hopes that Mark Bates Ltd’s support for its partners will help them to keep turning a profit.
Bates says: “The great thing about insurance is that dealers don’t have to invest in loads of stock, it’s literally just there for them. We want to show them how to best put that across. You can’t just say to a customer at the point of sale: ‘Do you want insurance, yes or no?’ We are in the process of putting together a new library of e-learning videos that the dealers can use for their staff.”
It is reassuring to see one of the top insurers in the care sector devoting so much energy and resources to its dealer network. While it strives to enter new markets with its policies, mobility retailers form a core part of Mark Bates Ltd’s business and its management’s confidence in the longevity of bricks-and-mortar stores reflects its sureness in its own model.
Although competition from online sellers is placing physical stores under increasing strain, Bates is excited by the prospect of rivalry along the supply chain.
“We respect our opposition – they are very, very good companies. They are really playing a great part in all of this and in an ideal world an MD would say they want the whole market. But I don’t. I think there’s a lot to be said for keeping us on our toes.
“I don’t want to ever be complacent, we need to be sharp and develop. If we can bring this whole raft of new business and provide that ever increasing level of commission to a dealer then we can work together closer than ever before and that’s really exciting.”
It would seem that Mark Bates Ltd is placing its future largely in the mobility retail channel and so it is hardly surprising it is ploughing investment into its dealer support programmes. Plenty of manufacturers offer their own back-up initiatives, some of which are extremely forward-thinking and clever.
But Mark Bates Ltd’s approach seems to set itself apart. Its policy of investing in genuine relationships and dedicating itself to its customers has payed dividends over the years. We might speculate that this approach stems from the family-orientated way in which the business is run.
In any case, insurance will become an increasingly important part of a dealer’s business in the future and working with providers more closely will no doubt benefit everyone from the supplier, through to the dealer, end-user and pedestrian.