Inez Cooper

Today, Expat Assure meets William Russell, an international insurance intermediary founded in the UK in 1992.  With headquarters near London and regional offices in Brussels and Hong Kong and customers in over 160 countries, it is a family-owned independent company specialising in international health, life and income protection for expatriates and international citizens, as well as providing employee benefit solutions for businesses.

This summer William Russell is turning 30 years, so Inez Cooper (pictured), Managing Director and Co-Founder of William Russell, provides an insight into the company, and shares with us her vision of the international health insurance industry.

What is the core mission behind William Russell Ltd?

The company was founded by my brother James Cooper and me. Over the years, it’s grown from a family-run business to one of the leading insurance providers of international health, life, income protection and employee benefits cover. Expat Assure consultants can explain the benefits of these policies with you.  William Russell insurance plans are worldwide, fully portable across countries and renew annually so customers aren’t locked into long-term contracts. The plans are insured by AWP Health & Life SA, an insurer in the Allianz group of companies with which William Russell has a close working relationship.

Like Expat Assure, William Russell provides insurance with a personal touch. We have some of the best customer ratings in the business: we believe in named advisors, not claims centres; fairness and transparency, not hiding behind terms and conditions; and honest communications rather than corporate speak and insurance jargon.

We want to help people when they are going through hard times. To make sure they feel supported, both financially from their insurance policy, and emotionally – whenever they contact us, to feel that they can rely on us. That is very important.

We too are real people, and we have a responsibility to treat people as we would want to be treated ourselves if we were going through the situations our clients experience.

So, the core mission behind WR is simply to provide financially, and empathetically, when we’re needed.

Who do you cover and how have you specialised to be able to offer products specifically for them?

We generally cover expatriates – of all nationalities – anywhere in the world. Where we have local insurer partnerships, we cover local nationals who want international cover. As our brief is so wide, we have developed products that allow our customers to choose where they have their treatment. Recognising that our customers do not have access to an NHS the insurance cover is very comprehensive – extending to complementary treatments, and cover for screening and vaccinations, plus a range of expatriate benefits such as medical evacuation and repatriation.

Figures released in May 2021, by William Russell, highlight that the highest claims paid for medical treatment overseas in the period 2019-20 were for cancer treatments, with 25 claims worth over $100,000 including five over $300,000. Other treatments associated with huge sums included maternity care (highest claim $42,527.40), dental treatment (highest claim $8,336) and diabetes (highest claim $6,541.26).

Cancer Treatment

An estimated 5.5 million British people live in other countries, either permanently or for work. Many live in countries that require residents to pay for healthcare out of their own pockets, including popular destinations such as India, UAE and USA. British citizens already living in or planning to move to other countries are therefore urged to seek private medical insurance, lest they be left out of pocket by potentially life-changing sums, such as the ones revealed by above.

Insurance as an industry is starting to really digitise – how is this going to enable insurers like William Russell to offer increasingly granular and global products?

We’re a boutique provider competing with insurance giants. Our advantages are our ability to accelerate digital transformation using platforms like PowerApps – together with our Service – no insurance giant can deliver the personal service we can. Embracing & adopting technology will revolutionise the pricing and the design of insurance products and will enable our customers to manage their cover remotely.

Even though it is our intention to offer our customers a fully self-serve service, we also want them to know we are here for them, and we encourage our staff to call, rather than email, when it’s appropriate. AI will also help us identify trends, and fraud, which unfortunately is a problem.

Has the insurance industry been guilty of not digitising in the past?

Of course. But there are many reasons for this. Insurance has been a very traditional and sleepy industry until quite recently. Most businesses are hampered by one or more, old-fashioned legacy systems.

The way that business has been conducted has been slow to change. However, I do think that over the past few years the industry has woken up. The skill is going to be how do we combine technology with empathy.

At WR we want to get that balance right. We want to provide all of the convenience technology has to offer, but sometimes, customers just want to make that phone call, and when they do, it’s important that there is someone at the end of the line that will listen, and will be able to inform and advise, so that the caller is confident that they have been heard and that their request will be acted upon.

Gender diversity in C-suite positions in insurance firms is still lacking. Women held 19% of senior level positions. 14% of board seats and 2% of CEO roles in financial services firms. How has WR been able to promote gender diversity and beat all these terrifying statistics?

My first job was a summer job. The boys earned a higher hourly rate than the girls. I did not really question this at the time – although I obviously registered it as I remember the conversation with a male co-worker to this day. I think what people forget today is that back in the 70’s this was happening, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Women owe so much to the women that did question it, and who made it the norm for us to call it out.

I have never seen my gender as a disadvantage and having my own business I never had to face discrimination. I hope that I encourage all of our staff to be confident and feel empowered that they can do it.

At WR, females make up 65% of the total employee headcount and 47% of the senior management team. Crucially, women occupy senior positions such as head of transformation and regional sales manager that—at William Russell’s competitors—are almost exclusively held by men.

Senior Management Team

Insurance is a product that everyone needs. What can diversity and inclusivity bring to an insurance organisation?

Our customers come from all points of the globe. Having a workforce that is diverse in gender, age, & nationalities, reflects our customer base, increasing our awareness and understanding.

As a truly global insurance organisation can I get your insights into how the pandemic had an impact of claims across geographies?

The growing discussion on how vaccination might affect the cost of international private medical insurance illustrates just how important the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the insurance industry is. However, it is still unlikely that vaccinated expats and expats that are not vaccinated are to have different IPMI premiums as generally individual IPMI plans are not claims rated. It will be particularly worrying if an insurer would offer a lower premium to someone who was vaccinated, because someone else may have a perfectly legitimate reason for not having the vaccine.

It is worth remembering, however, that COVID-19 is here to stay and like the Flu jab, COVID-19 vaccines will need to be adapted as new variants emerge. We think that the longer term impacts of COVID-19 on IPMI plans is likely to depend on how successful vaccine programmes are vs new variants of the virus globally. Having international health insurance can give expats the reassurance of access to high quality private hospitals and clinics, in preferred locations, at a time of their choosing, and with multi-lingual practitioners.

The big question is whether or not there will now be a backlog of non-essential treatments, mental health treatment and other serious disease due to delayed diagnosis as vaccinations reduce admissions and free up the capacity currently diverted to COVID-19 treatment. International health insurance can protect you from some of the costs of medical treatment abroad, giving you a safety net if you and you or your family require special or urgent healthcare. With more than 29 years’ experience in global insurance, William Russell has built up an international reputation for personal service, fair prices, and clear communication.”

Has Brexit made relocation and buying a home abroad more difficult for people wanting to move and live abroad?

Certainly, Brexit has made things more difficult to move into Europe. Previously one could disappear to any European country with minimum hassle. Now, Brits will need to negotiate the visa requirements of individual governments. And of course, COVID-19 restrictions have hardly made it easier moving elsewhere in the world. However, we expect many countries to open up digital nomad schemes or hassle-free visas for expats. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic recession and governments want to encourage wealthy expats who will continue to spend. Even before the pandemic, certain EU countries were appealing to British expats (e.g., Spanish islands, Greece, Finland).

That said, 2021 could still be the year to make a big move and join the expat community. A recent study by William Russell Ltd suggests that, despite an overall dimming in attitudes to relocating abroad, countries in Southeast Asia and the Far East are becoming more desirable at the expense of the traditional draws in North America and Western Europe.

Retire to the sun – is it more difficult now? What do you need to be more aware of?

A: Post-Brexit, some reciprocal agreements on healthcare in Europe have changed. So many expats now need to apply for residence to access state-funded healthcare. For anyone not permanently living in the new country, it’s important to have a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC).  If you’re not eligible for state-funded healthcare, or would like additional peace of mind you may want to consider international healthcare insurance.

You also need to be more aware of potential mental health challenges when living abroad. Our recent survey of expats across the globe shows the ongoing importance of providing mental health resources dedicated to supporting expatriates, who may feel the effects of events, such as the pandemic, much more keenly than others.


New member discount to celebrate 30 years in business

15% discount applied to new health insurance plans starting on or before 31 December 2022 (excluding clients residing in the UK or Hong Kong , and a 7.5% discount when that plan renews. For more details, please ring 0203 137 2857 and speak to an Expat Assure consultant or send us an enquiry and one of our consultants will contact you.


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