Adam Miller, IT director at Markerstudy Group, discusses the tech choices made to deliver remote working, whilst supporting M&A in insurance
The past 22 months since the first COVID-19 lockdown has seen the importance of IT catapulted to the fore and pivotal to all organisations, given the droves of staff required to work from home. The demands on IT departments has been immense, with IT professionals having to pull together to deliver remote working really quickly.
In our case, this was further complicated given Markerstudy Group is highly acquisitive; the business has made 35 acquisitions since it started trading 20 years ago. In 2020 when the pandemic started, we were midway through purchasing the Co-op Insurance underwriting business – a deal which made Markerstudy the UK’s sixth largest motor insurance provider. We also bought Brightside Insurance in 2021 and, this year, subject to regulatory approval, Clegg Gifford, a Lloyds Broker, and the insurance operations of BGL Insurance – owners of Compare the Market, the price comparison website.
The group therefore is a diverse collection of insurance related businesses employing over 3,500 staff. We have a retail broker division – with a range of brands like Zenith, Lancaster and Purely Pets – and a Managing General Agent division dealing with insurance pricing, underwriting and claims. Called Markerstudy Insurance Services, this has 1,000 broker partners and more than 3 million policy holders.
We also own Auto Windscreens, which repairs and replaces car windscreens; Vision Track, which offers IoT video telematics systems along with vehicle tracking services; and Vision Vehicles Solutions, which provides credit and intervention hire to motorists involved in road traffic accidents.
Acquisitions like the Co-op are complex: 750 staff required onboarding, with four new floors in the Manchester Arndale Centre kitted out – a project completed exactly when the Government mandated the first workplace exodus to occur.
We had to work fast in response. Two weeks was the window to get people working at home properly, taking calls, serving clients and generating income. Other IT directors might nod sagely – that’s a head spinning challenge to grapple with.
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Working from home and M&A onboarding: how did we do it?
Fortunately, Markerstudy has used Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktop for some years running on premise in our two data centres. But it wasn’t a group-wide solution, and only a small number of users worked from home connecting to it.
For a complete group-wide transition, our Citrix Platinum Partner, CloudDNA, advised that we shift to Citrix Cloud Services to make the switch quick and seamless.
The other key component to deliver home working and the integration of the new companies has been standardising on IGEL OS. We’ve used it to convert laptops, desktops and third-party thin client hardware into ‘locked down’ encrypted and centrally controlled devices.
Prior to IGEL, we had another thin client solution but the OS was clunky, difficult to manage and painful to support. For example, pushing device updates over the Internet was unreliable and things would often crash which meant bringing the unit into be completely reflashed.
IGEL is the reverse. Its OS is lightweight – about 1 GB – and the software is written and optimised for remote management and support.
This is crucial given we have a geographically dispersed workforce: premises in Bristol, Chesterfield, London, Manchester, Portsmouth, Southampton, along with hundreds of Auto Windscreen fitting centres around the country.
IGEL OS is being used as it’s tightly integrated with Citrix and offers a powerful, secure and fast way to access virtualised cloud workspaces. To enable work from home, devices were preconfigured, boxed up and delivered to staff at home by courier.
Today, 85% of our users have an IGEL-Citrix solution, with 3,000 IGEL OS licences purchased, along with IGEL Cloud Gateway which connects and manages the home-based devices outside our corporate network.
IGEL Universal Management Suite (UMS) – a management console for all IGEL OS connected devices – then provides a single window into the whole estate allowing simplified control, along with remote shadowing of staff.
The features within Citrix Cloud Services have been central to how we implemented remote working and staff onboarding so quickly, too. First, multi-factor authentication using virtual tokens is included with our subscription. This means security can be guaranteed when staff connect to their virtual desktops and avoids the time and expense of buying extra third-party security for everyone. We’re using Microsoft Authenticator as part of this.
Second, the log in process is easy. Citrix provides a dedicated portal page where staff simply input their username, password and password token to gain access to their desktops. They then use Microsoft Office and various underwriting platforms to serve customers.
Third, Citrix runs this access layer which removes a considerable management overhead compared to our previous on-premise solution. We now don’t have to worry about updates, patching or access security. It’s an excellent security boundary which has allowed us to mobilise people from home.
As part of its remit, cloudDNA supports the whole IGEL estate and they have been a very close, professional and technically skilled partner.
Put simply, IGEL OS has rationalised our end-user computing. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach given the range of businesses in the group. There’s no difference between some-one working from home, travelling or in the office – the login process and desktop is exactly the same.
With COVID, we advised colleagues to take their computers home, plug them in, connect them to the Internet, authenticate and they will work. They did.
IGEL OS is also delivering various other benefits:
- We’re recycling hardware inherited from the companies we’ve acquired. This extends the lifespan of endpoints and saves money. If you take the Co-op, for example, we’ve been able to repurpose around £1 million worth of hardware – that’s over 1,000 devices – which we would otherwise have had to purchase. This extends the life of equipment, sweats assets longer and supports our environmental, social and governance agenda.
- We can onboard staff quicker as devices can be preconfigured and shipped out. A build server is created and 200+ devices connected to a network can be reflashed in one batch. We’ve managed the Co-op integration like this and we’ll do the same for around 350 staff joining from Brightside Insurance, too.
- We’ve standardised IT within the group. The combination of Citrix Cloud Services and IGEL OS means we’ve created a template for our desktops such that each time we buy a company, we have a consistent end-user computing platform onto which we just add more people. It’s very elastic and means that we don’t have to scale-up IT support either.
- We’ve enhanced security. This enables us to meet Cyber Essentials certification and other compliance obligations which is hugely important given the group is a regulated financial services business.
How hybrid working is impacting operational efficiency
What about next steps?
We were early adopters of a hybrid approach to staff working across our multiple locations. Today, work from anywhere is the new normal. The combination of Citrix Cloud Services and IGEL facilitates seamless secure access to our platforms and a consistent user experience both boosts end-user adoption and ultimately staff productivity, lowers cost whilst continuing to enable our acquisition growth strategy.
Historically, Markerstudy has been very much as broker-based organisation. With our recent acquisitions, the business is moving into a direct B2C engagement model.
To support this, we’ll be working closely on application development and in-depth engineering to drive better digital customer and employee experiences, beyond what is already in place. It is really a very exciting time to be leading the technology function.