Real Life: Where there's smoke there's business: Geraldine Bedell meets a loss assessor with burning ambition and a winning lifestyle

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Indy Lifestyle Online
JUSTIN Balcombe has been up and working since 4am. It's 6pm now and he's about to go for a seven-mile run, then out for dinner until 11pm. During dinner he'll only break off from his patter when his bleep goes (which it does four times), or to listen to someone on his mobile phone, which he takes everywhere. Then it's home for a few hours' sleep, and up again at 4am.

This is Justin's story, anyway. I can vouch for the dinner bit, because I was there. And I'd guess the rest is substantially true. But then Justin is pretty plausible. He needs to be: he makes his living by turning up in the night when buildings are burning, when confused and frightened people are watching their homes or livelihoods go up in smoke. He talks them into hiring him to argue with their insurers and, in return for wading through the small print, gets to keep up to 10 per cent of their insurance money.

For any substantial loss, insurance companies appoint a firm of adjusters to gauge the validity of the claim. Justin offers himself as an advocate for the other side, for you and me, 'the insured'. He is 21, though he talks - in a Mancunian accent tinged with mid-

Atlantic - like someone twice that. He originally wanted to be an artist or fashion designer - 'but it wouldn't deliver the kind of lifestyle I wanted. My father said 'in eight years' time we'll see you painting the pavement: have a look at industry, see what it's like, no one's pushing you.' So I took a year out, went into the business, and I'm still here.'

'The business' is the family firm of insurance assessors, the Balcombe Group plc. Justin is fifth generation: his grandfather, now 81 and a former Lord Mayor of Manchester, still works at head office in that city (and still swims 25 lengths before work); Justin's father works in the London office. Justin himself rises at 4am to find out whether there have been any fires or similar disasters. If so, he gets into his Armani suit, forces himself to eat a bowl of muesli, and sets off in his Alfa Romeo to see them.

He depends heavily on local radio for information, but cultivates as many other sources as possible. 'I mix with all sorts of people. The other day the chief executive of a fund management company called me from his car phone; he'd just driven past a fire. Students know me as Justin the fire-engine chaser. And then there's the media - you're at a fire, sitting round having a cup of tea, and you swap cards. In Manchester I know everyone.' He denies that there's anything in it for his informants - 'well, I might buy them a drink.'

These days, more and more assessment business (probably about 70 per cent) comes via recommendations from brokers. But it's still important to be at the fire. To survive his punishing regime, Justin runs every day and works out at the gym. He's given up meat and smoking, drinks gallons of water, and has alcohol only once a week. 'So far, I'd say no, it isn't possible to do this job and sustain a relationship,' he says, using his car phone to dump some girl he was supposed to have been taking out for dinner. 'My directors have all been married and divorced, all had girlfriends and lost them. Not that it bothers me at the moment: I've got too many villages to pillage, too many maidens to carry off.'

The day I met him, a big fire had broken out the previous night on the seafront at Rhyl. Justin had pitched up at 5am; so had several of his competitors. Who gets the job in these circumstances and for what fee depends heavily on bullshit-quotient.

Justin's is high, although generously laced with charm, so you almost don't notice. The owner of the devastated clothes shop at Rhyl is even younger than Justin - a 17 year-old Asian, driving a Mercedes AMG with a personalised number plate, and dripping with gold jewellery. 'He can identify with me,' says Justin, sleek in his expensive suit, glued to his mobile phone, preternaturally confident; and sure enough, he gets the business.

For tramping through the burnt-out building, Justin covers his designer outfit with yellow jacket and trousers, hard hat, and steel reinforced boots. The building is dripping, filthy, and dangerous; the sickly smell lingers in the mouth for hours. Downstairs, piles of cheap cardigans lie in sopping heaps in the charred shop; upstairs a pregnant woman in a sari is dolefully feeding her toddler cornflakes in their damp and sooty flat. Her husband works in one of the family's businesses. As tenants, they didn't have any insurance, which would have got them moved out into a hotel. But neither, it turns out, did Mr Personalised Number Plate.

He asks to speak to Justin privately. 'You watch this,' Justin whispers: 'he'll either tell me he's under-insured, or not insured at all.' Sure enough, he confesses that he was too young to get insurance. His estimated pounds 50,000 of stock is irretrievably lost. And so, it would seem, is Justin's fee.

The building, however, was insured - and it's owned by Personalised Plates's father. Unfortunately, he's given the assessing job to someone else. Justin gets the son to call his father on the mobile phone and tell him what a great guy Justin is. Then Justin takes over. 'Watch this,' he hisses: 'the big sell.'

'You've got severe structural damage,' he yells into the phone. 'Now, we've already met with the insurance adjusters, because we were under the impression your son owned the whole lot, and we've agreed various bits and pieces. The assessors you've spoken to - they're also acting for the people next door. So you've got what's called a conflict of interest. Now, you won't have signed anything with this other lot . . . '

Incredibly, the father hands the business over to Justin. The building is worth an estimated pounds 200,000; after a bit of haggling, it's agreed that Justin will take 5 per cent. The other assessors are left with some much less valuable smoke damage in a building two doors along. It's difficult to discern a possible conflict of interest.

According to The Claims Men, a film about assessors and adjusters, to be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow, most insurance companies now regard up to 40 per cent of claims as fraudulent. Last year insurers paid out pounds 1.18bn - half of it for arson. And the Association of British Insurers recently announced the worst ever losses, which will mean bigger premiums all round. Not surprisingly, insurers rely on adjusters; Justin claims that in such a climate, having an assessor can improve a settlement significantly.

There is, meanwhile, one genuine potential conflict of interest at Rhyl: the fire brigade says that the fire, which started in an amusement arcade next door to the clothes shop, was 'malicious ignition' (arson). There will be months, probably, of investigation, and should the culprit be found, Personalised Plates will be able to claim against him, for 'uninsured losses'. But, says Justin cheerfully, that sort of thing is very difficult to prove. 'Innocent till proven guilty,' he says blithely, and leaves one of his staff waiting for the arcade owner, in the hope of picking up his business too.

'The Claims Men', Cutting Edge, Channel 4, tomorrow, 9pm

(Photograph omitted)