Master of all you survey

John Noble, chief executive of the Salvage Association, looks at the challenges facing the restyled organisation, and at why good surveyors need good support and advice from their liability insurers.

THE Salvage Association has been an integral part of the London insurance market for as long as anybody can remember. Fundamental changes within the last two years has seen it reborn as an independent entity, but it still retains the same objectives and needs as the original organisation.

The old Salvage Association was run by a committee of London market underwriters and managed on their behalf by an executive committee. Its work was 100 per cent for the London marine insurance market. In addition it was funded for most of its life by a levy based on a percentage of the premiums paid to underwriters and, in the case of bigger jobs, by a certain amount of fee income.

Although the old SA was a not-for-profit business, it entered the new millennium losing in the region of £3m a year, and in 2001 was bought out by British Marine Technology (BMT). From that moment on, it became an independent organisation. It still works mainly for the London insurance market, with about ninety per cent of its work continuing to come from that source. But it is no longer tied to any market association, and its objective is to continue providing the highest quality of service and expertise while achieving commercial viability.

The man chosen to head up the new Salvage Association was John Noble, a seafarer who came ashore in the late seventies to work briefly for the UK P&I Club before embarking on the marine surveying career with Murray Fenton that was to make his name. John moved quickly to address critical issues within the SA, rationalising admin, cutting back on certain ancillary services, and sharpening core activities - and it’s working. Today, the SA is in operating profit, and is retaining its traditional insurance market work while attracting business from new sectors.

Initially, the SA retained all the surveyors who worked for the old organisation. Some have since retired or been relocated, but the emphasis now is on increasing the size of the workforce while maintaining its quality and expertise. John does comparatively little hands-on surveying these days, but he hasn’t forgotten the pressures under which today’s surveyors are obliged to operate.

All SA surveyors are salaried, full-time employees. John sees it as a priority to keep in touch with them, travelling to meet them to better understand the difficulties under which they operate. Since taking over at the SA, he says he has on occasion been “horrified” at some of the practices he has found which have served to increase the pressures on surveyors while profiting the bank balances of unscrupulous principals. “People know it goes on,” he says, “but they look at it as the cost of doing business. That is just not acceptable. Against this background, it has been said by one or two people that the SA needs to be more flexible. But I would rather be inflexible than corrupt. Client interests must be protected. All our surveyors may have to speak for their reports in litigation.”

John understands well the importance to surveyors of the sort of support that can be provided by a good liability insurer. He has a long association with ITIC, which currently provides the SA’s errors and omissions insurance. He recounts specific instances over the years when has he has been grateful for the support provided by ITIC, sometimes all the way through to litigation.

“It is very difficult for a surveyor to operate without insurance cover,” explains John, “and that is becoming increasingly the case. It may be tempting for the one-man-band operation to try it, but the consequences of getting it wrong are just unthinkable. But of course getting the right sort of cover at a reasonable cost is not so easy. As the liabilities - and the potential for them – get bigger, so the cost of providing cover increases. In my experience, survey companies like ITIC because of the add-ons it provides. ITIC offers ongoing support and advice. You can pick up the phone, and you know you will get a sympathetic hearing and some sensible advice. ITIC is also a popular choice with surveyors because it will chase bad debts on their behalf, an important service for all surveyors, big and small.”

The Salvage Association produces guidelines for its surveyors covering everything from certification and standard formats for reporting, to health and safety. This year it is launching its ShipShape document, which incorporates generic conditions to cover condition surveys, which the SA can carry out for hull and machinery underwriters, charterers, P&I clubs and others. The guidelines are important, but not as important as finding the right people.

John Noble says it is not easy finding good surveyors. The Salvage Association is more fortunate than most, and received more than sixty quality responses to a recent advertisement for a surveyor to fill a vacancy caused by retirement. But it is important to get the right person for the right job. There are plenty of marine engineers who would make good surveyors and who are looking for survey work, but comparatively few master mariners in the same position.

So what qualities does it take to make a good surveyor? John Noble doesn’t have any doubts. “Quality and integrity are the most important requirements,” he says, “and the ability to write an articulate report which is respected by professionals and capable of being understood by laymen.” All that, plus the comfort of knowing that you have professional support and advice when things go wrong.

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