Cornish Mutual is changing but staying true to its roots

Insurance is changing but Cornish Mutual is not following the crowd, says managing director Peter Beaumont. He is leading his board in a different direction, with farming at the centre of its plans.

With the agricultural industry going through the most significant changes since the Second World War, the ‘classic insurance response’ for businesses in the supply chain might be to diversify into other industries, says Peter Beaumont.

As Managing Director of Cornish Mutual, he understands the need to adapt to survive in a changing world, but remaining true to the organisation’s roots is essential too.

The company was founded by Cornish tenant farmers in 1903 and now provides insurance to farming and rural properties and businesses across Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Peter took over the reins from predecessor Alan Goddard in December 2019, having served the company as Finance and Operations Director for 10 years. Navigating the Covid pandemic provided an early challenge for him in his new role, but one the organisation emerged from with a clear purpose.

By then, the future picture for farming post-Brexit was beginning to emerge and although still layered with uncertainty, one thing was clear; farming businesses will need to become more efficient, sustainable and resilient.

“In 2019 we called ourselves ‘rural insurers’. This could reasonably have led to us expanding our insurance products to wider rural businesses and beyond, but this wasn’t what I felt was right for us,” says Peter.

“Having a larger playing field may seem like an opportunity, but Cornish Mutual was founded by farmers and farming is still very much our heartland. I believed the risk of diluting ourselves and our offer was high if we diversified away from agriculture.”

With significant and ongoing change across the insurance sector, Cornish Mutual is very much surrounded by challenges, says Peter.

“The insurance industry is becoming more commoditised and automated. Not long ago, customers had to fill out forms for insurance quotes, but now most choose to use comparison sites.” Automation via apps and websites has also had a big impact on delivery methods.

“The relationship side of the industry is disappearing,” he says. “But we can’t compete as a purely digital business; Cornish Mutual is still very much based on relationships. We are in a very privileged position being able to engage with our Members and gain their interest in all we do.

“We have direct relationships with our Members and really care about their success. Not many services can say that. And that’s not just in the boardroom, our employees actively demonstrate it every day and as a result our Members trust us.”

Many in the team have close links to farming or are farmers themselves, including current chairman Jeremy Oatey. “Our farming roots are a big reason many of our employees want to join us,” Peter adds.

Being a relatively small organisation is another advantage, he says. “We are a team of just over 100 people so big enough to have some clout and resources to get things done. But not so big as to become faceless and corporate.”

Peter’s vision is that the organisation strengthens its role as an ally to its Members. “Our risk survey last year showed farmers are deeply concerned about the removal of subsidies, the changing climate, rural crime and many other issues. The results showed many do not feel ready to cope and do not know where to find reliable information or advice.

“We want to make things better, not just send out cheques when something goes wrong,” he says.

“It’s important to note we are not losing focus on insurance, but we are identifying additional tools to help farm businesses build profitability and resilience, increase natural resources and protect people.”

Support services

In particular, the team is looking for new technology to help farmers manage risk. One early example is the HAYTECH wireless probe launched this year in partnership with Quanturi. The device monitors the temperature of hay bales and alerts the farmer if overfermentation and spontaneous combustion becomes a risk.

“It’s a simple solution that can make an enormous difference if a farm fire is avoided. We see all too often the devastating consequences of fire on individuals, businesses, livestock and the environment,” says Peter.

Information and advice provision will also be central to services going forward to help address a gap, he says. The first of these is Health and Safety advice, offering a pragmatic service rather than ‘finger wagging’ rules. Cornish Mutual’s free guide provides templates for farmers and farm managers to develop their own policy. Those needing more tailored advice can access further Health and Safety services which involve a farm assessment visit and a ‘no stone unturned’ approach to cover whatever is needed. This includes a farm Health and Safety policy, action plans, risk assessments, COSHH, vehicle inspection records and fire safety as well as ongoing support and advice.

“Our Future Farming Programme which provides information on the main issues faced by the industry and shares farmers’ experiences is another important part of what we are doing. We are also supporting the growth of farmers coming into the industry through our Young Farmer Bursary Scheme and Next Generation Group, centred on building knowledge, skills, contacts and resilience.

“There is no doubt farmers have continued uncertainty and a bumpy road ahead, with many making significant changes to their businesses as a result.

“We hope that with the expansion in our services, alongside strengthening our commitment to agriculture, we can continue to serve the industry we care so passionately about.”