The North East’s riverbanks may not reverberate to the pounding beat that once fashioned thousands of water-borne goliaths, but the area nevertheless remains an influential component in the global seafaring sector. Leading international marine insurance group North calls the region its home and, with 160 years’ experience of protecting shipowners and operators globally, it continues to plot a course for future success. Steven Hugill speaks to North’s chief executive Paul Jennings to find out more

Butted against densely packed Wallsend terraced streets, the World Unicorn’s giant bow protrudes ominously over lines of grey rooftops.

Peering into the private lives of back yards and top floor bedrooms, the harshness of the tanker’s huge metallic bulk jars with the playful innocence of children skipping in streets below.

The famous image, captured in the early 1970s when the vessel was under construction at Swan Hunter, is an iconic snapshot of a time when the North East’s waterways – and their associated shipyards – defined the region globally.

Long venerated key channels of commerce, the area’s manufacturing powerhouses were a breeding ground for colossal ocean liners, cargo haulers, oil tankers, aircraft carriers and destroyers.

Indeed, such was the region’s muscle that Sunderland was once responsible for a quarter of all the world’s ships, with Newcastle an equally respected engineering epicentre.

The World Unicorn, which launched in 1973, was just one entry in a vast production logbook that included the equally behemothic Esso Northumbria and Tyne Pride tankers and, decades earlier, the RMS Carpathia cruiser, which sailed to the rescue of hundreds of Titanic passengers in 1912.

Today, however, the scene is altogether different.

The yards and their crowd-pulling launches have gone, as have the Wallsend streets once so synonymous with their super structure neighbours.

Yet while the region’s currents fail to stir with the same activity, the North East’s impact on global shipping remains no less diminished.

The international marine insurance group North – which includes the flagship North P&I Club – has been ingrained in the region for more than 160 years and remains deeply rooted to the origins and ideologies of its founders.

Operating from its head office on Newcastle’s Quayside, its near 300-strong team delivers reassurance to the shipowners and operators they insure trading around the world.

With a global market share of 12.5 per cent, it provides insurance for one in eight merchant ships, with its numerous support strands spread across the vast maritime spectrum.

Those elements include its specialist protecting and indemnity insurance (P&I) – which covers crew and passenger injury,
cargo damage, wreck removal and pollution clean-up and compensation – and security for operators afflicted by loss and damage caused by war or terrorism.

Furthermore, its dedicated freight, demurrage and defence lawyers – described by the company as the world’s largest in-house team in its sphere – support members on a myriad of areas that include cyber-crime, infectious diseases, sanctions and trading ranges and rights.

The business’ new North Hull division, launched in July, delivers blue water hull and machinery cover for ocean-going ships, and is complemented by the fixed premium P&I team, which was recruited to operate from North’s London office last year.

Additionally, its Sunderland Marine arm – a key part of North’s diversification strategy after being absorbed into the group following a 2014 merger – provides insurance for small vessel owners, fishing and passenger boats, commercial craft and fish farms and angling lakes.

It is a business, says chief executive Paul Jennings, that is intensely proud of its global links, which sees satellite offices in the USA, Australasia, China (Hong Kong and Shanghai), Japan, Singapore, Greece and Ireland complemented by its Newcastle site.

However, it is, continues Paul, a company that is equally delighted to be prolonging the North East’s seafaring past, a position he says it is determined to bolster further by using the achievements of yesteryear to nurture the successes of tomorrow.

“There isn’t any shipping in Newcastle any longer, but the maritime culture, identity and DNA of the city and the wider North East within the industry continues with us,” he tells CONTACT.

“Newcastle and the North East are still renowned in maritime terms around the world, and there are people across the globe who started their career journeys in the city, and Sunderland too, who are now running shipping companies.

“Some of their children are coming through now, so the link is very much still there.

“Over the years, our service offering and global office network have grown, but our business has remained grounded where it all began; the North East of England.

“We are one of the oldest and most successful businesses in Newcastle and the wider North East, and are fiercely proud of where we come from,” continues Paul.

“We are part of the International Group of P&I Clubs – which between them cover around 90 per cent of the world’s ocean-going tonnage – we have a very high skills base and want to support the North East and do whatever we can to strengthen the region and level up the country’s economy.

“Additionally, when we are talking to people in other countries and markets, we are acting as ambassadors for this area to further forge global connections and raise awareness of the region,” adds Paul, who was previously joint managing director of North alongside Alan Wilson until the latter’s retirement in 2018.

Its commitment to clients and emissary duties was perhaps never more important than during the recent months, when, like all businesses, both North and its members were faced with the choppy waters of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The group acted swiftly, closing its international office estate and rolling out remote working to ensure services remained fully functioning as pandemic- related enquiries spiked.

Its website carried – and still does – a dedicated COVID-19 section listing measures taken by ports and countries around the globe, as well as advice and guidance from leading bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Maritime Organization.

Furthermore, a comprehensive COVID-19 online tracker – using data from International Group of P&I Clubs’ correspondents and industry authorities, which is accessed through North’s MyGlobeView portal via partner Geocollect – provides live updates on case numbers, deaths and recoveries.

Such has been its success that the tool, which also alerts operators to countries most at risk and ports’ tackling of the disease, has been shortlisted for the Safety4Sea Technology Award.

In addition, North emerged from lockdown a sturdier outfit physically, using the period to bolster its global workforce with a number of senior promotions and 18 new faces across areas including claims and underwriting. “Our expert team is the greatest asset we have in enabling our members to trade with confidence,” explains Paul, who is an adopted North Easterner, having left his native Suffolk in the 1980s to study law at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic.

“This year is uniquely challenging for shipping operators who face the impacts of COVID-19 and our expansion will make sure we can deliver high-quality cover, support and advice.”

Alongside its recruitment drive, another key stave in North’s growth during the post-pandemic landscape and beyond will be its recent re-branding exercise, which was complemented by the introduction of enhanced digital resources.

Using North as an all-encompassing name for its work – it had long been known to many as North P&I Club,
which itself is an abbreviation of The North of England Protecting and Indemnity Association Limited – Paul says the change more accurately reflects the business’ modern outlook and progression into new domains.

“We have developed a diversified business model,” says Paul, who entered the shipping insurance sector in 1984 when he worked on claims and associated issues at the former Newcastle P&I.

“Protection and indemnity is still our core business, but we have gone into other areas to increase our sustainability for the future.

“We had to get bigger and grow; North is now the brand and what we want to be known as globally.

“Everything from protection and indemnity, to freight, demurrage and defence and Sunderland Marine – which is a very important part of our strategy – comes under the North umbrella.

“Additionally, our new roundel symbol denotes shipping routes and our position as a member-centric organisation.”

North’s improved digital toolkit includes MyGlobeView and MyNorth – a function that allows members to access exclusive content and confidential risk and vessel data – which Paul says puts it at the “cutting-edge” of technology.

“The changes to our website are, in many cases, market-leading in our industry,” he says.

“We are responding to the digital access our members want, but we are also aware, and open to, them wanting personal connections because this is very much still a relationship business.

“Our service culture is key to maintaining our growth,” adds Paul, who combines his role with North alongside that of group chairman at the International Group of P&I Clubs.

“We are a safe home for members, which is a major differentiator for us.

“We get a lot of comments highlighting our friendly and supportive nature compared to companies in
London, for example.”

And it is this commitment, he says, that will help North – and its members – to continue meeting their long-term objectives.

“Shipping is still about supply and demand; we had a blip with the global financial crisis and we now have COVID-19,” adds Paul.

“But the global need for goods continues and we still need things moving around.

“We recently came through a year- end that was another successful period in our growth ambitions, and we have a very clearly defined strategy.

“We like being here in the North East, we like the culture and heritage, we are successful and what we are doing is good for the region.

“We have goals we want to achieve to maintain our financial position and maintain our trusted status as a financial services institution in the global shipping industry, and we are very confident of achieving them.”