Willis warns of rough conditions ahead

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Willis Corroon warned yesterday of continuing tough market conditions as the insurance broker reported first-quarter pre-tax profits marginally down at pounds 48.1m. "Operating conditions in all sectors in which we undertake business have deteriorated since the end of last year," said John Reeve, chairman.

Despite weaker brokerage rates, Willis said it had been able to rely on higher volumes to maintain or even slightly increase overall revenues in all divisions during the first three months of 1996.

Retail operations in the US and UK saw premium rates down 10 per cent year-on-year. Most dramatically, marine insurance premiums were roughly 25 per cent lower year-on-year with the decline accelerating.

The quarterly results came in at the bottom end of expectations. Amidst worries over margins, analysts yesterday pared back full-year earnings forecasts. "The top line is being squeezed with the cost base not showing reductions and that is a continuing worry in the sector. All in all things are slightly worse than expected," said one.

While pre-tax profit slipped by 1 per cent, revenue from brokerage and fees rose 2 per cent to pounds 198.5m. Excluding the effects of the disposal of its interests in Heddington Brokers and Gryphon Holdings and foreign exchange movements, underlying profits at Willis Corroon rose 4 per cent to pounds 46.7m.

Earnings per share rose to 7.3p from 7p. The company is to pay a dividend for the quarter of 1.65p per share, unchanged from a year earlier.

Max Taylor, chief operating officer, was confident that intense competition between brokers and the reduced brokerage available in some areas of the market would eventually force some players to cut their coverage. Willis had no plans to narrow its scope, he said.

Willis is currently carrying out a strategic review, initiated by Mr Reeve after his appointment last November, having recently completed a first review begun in late 1994. This resulted in the loss of 855 jobs last year, and is said to have produced savings of pounds 28m in 1995 and pounds 39m from this year onwards.

Nevertheless, operating expenses in the first quarter increased slightly to pounds 162m from pounds 160m. The main findings of the current review are to be made public in November, along with the third-quarter results. "The increasingly challenging business environment reinforces the necessity for our current review of strategy," said Mr Reeve.

Richard Dalzell, group finance director said cutting costs was not enough and Willis needs in the longer term to improve revenue from brokerage and fees. "We have to grow our top line," he said.

Operating profits rose to pounds 38.4m from pounds 37.6m in the UK and from pounds 6.3m to pounds 6.5m in the US. The company's shares closed down 3p at 147p.