“The merger with Verlingue was an obvious move”

Mathieu Berrurier heads Groupe Eyssautier and Ucamat (union of French marine and transport insurance brokers). At the head of one of the leading transport insurance brokers in France, a member of Armateurs de France, Mathieu Berrurier talks to us about his vision after his company was taken over by Verlingue.


Why join forces with a group that had no operations in the transport sector and is less international than you?

Verlingue is quite familiar with the maritime sphere and also carries out more than 35% of its business internationally. Our two companies are similar and share the same values since their inception in the 1930s. The merger was an obvious move since our first discussions with Jacques Verlingue, when we decided to exit the LBO that we set up six years ago.


Have you been approached a lot by potential buyers?

Without any false modesty: yes; many brokers have been interested in us, considering Groupe Eyssautier as a rare opportunity still available, given our knowledge of the market and our reputation. But Verlingue was the most attractive and most obvious answer. Verlingue is the guarantee for us of a stable, family-owned shareholder. This is a very important aspect for our French, Greek and Norwegian shipowners, who, for the most part, are still owned by the founding families and are very fond of it.


What interest is there for Verlingue to set foot in shipping, a complicated sector?
Verlingue is a very large insurance broker that wants to expand internationally – we are 60% owned – and in specialties. The insurance sphere is undergoing major changes. By 2022, Verlingue is investing €40 million, in particular to develop its digital business with a “digital factory” based in Nantes. Groupe Eyssautier employs many young managers who are enthusiastic about this project.


The marine insurance market is in difficulty, what is your take of it?
Premium volume is stagnating while claimability is increasing. The alarm needs sounding. While there are fewer total ship losses, there are more and more natural disasters – look again in recent days in Japan – and the cost of ship repair is rising. In the past, the two markets for the insurance of hulls (ships) and cargo insurance were complementary. Now both are in loss.


What are the possible consequences?
If insurance companies limit themselves to a purely financial analysis of their balance sheets, the maritime sector is clearly under threat! About twenty out of 70 unions at Lloyd’s London have already disappeared. Big names such as Swiss Re or Navigator have stopped subscribing. Policyholders are now under threat of a sharp increase in premiums.


The French market is also suffering?
It is responding quite well. We were 7th in the world and are now 6th, overtaking Italy. The French market has been restructured with leading companies (Axa XL, Allianz, Generali, Helvetia, etc.) that have a good reputation, a good rating and are more resilient than the London market. The Parismat initiative, in which I am very involved, advocates and promotes the interests of the Paris financial centre.


Does Brexit have a positive effect on Paris?
Yes, clearly. Shipowners and shippers are turning to Paris or Oslo, markets that are recovering. Paris, for example, is seeing more Greek shipowners coming in, to the detriment of London or the Italian market. Africa offers good prospects. But this may only last for a while. We are brokers at Lloyd’s and we know the British market well. The English are undisputed leaders, very good and very responsive. At a time when no one knows the outcome of Brexit, we know they will try to take advantage of it.


Is the insurance broker profession threatened by digital?
On the contrary, at a time when insurance upheavals tend to put customers on the backburner, the broker – that’s their remit – is there to defend them. We bring added value and forge relationships. Our clients, especially large groups, appreciate more than ever having a specialist from each sector, hull, cargo and P&I.


Do US sanctions have an impact on your business?

We must be extremely cautious because there is a risk of widespread gangrene given the links between all operators in the shipping sector. The objective should be to insure as much as possible in euros to avoid excessive exposure to the dollar. 


Interview by Thibaud Teillard – Le Marin