Pros and Cons of Specialty Consolidation
Merger and acquisition activity is rife in the insurance space and in the specialty brokering market in particular. According to M&A advisory firm MarshBerry, there were 220 acquisitions in the U.S. broker sector in 2014, and 49 of them involved wholesale brokers and managing general agents and underwriters (MGAs and MGUs).
“Making this surprising is that specialty distributors are significantly outnumbered by retail insurance agencies,” the firm said, noting that there are approximately 1,250 specialty distributors in the U.S. compared to 25,000 retail agencies. In other words, specialty M&A accounted for 22 percent of all broker M&As despite specialty players being outnumbered 20 to 1.
According to Julie Herman, associate director of financial services ratings at Standard & Poor’s, consolidation in the specialty brokering space mirrors M&A activity among insurers, many of whom have been buying specialty teams as a way of managing their underwriting cycle in a low rate environment.
“Brokers follow the trends of insurers, so it makes sense they would follow them into specialty,” she said.
“Cheap debt, low interest rates and private equity capital entering the space, combined with competition driving up multiples, makes a plentiful M&A environment. And there are so many opportunities out there, especially in the U.S. broker markets — there are thousands of brokers and the market is very fragmented.”
Herman added that insurers are increasingly focusing on streamlining the number of distribution partners they do business with, exacerbating the broker consolidation trend.
“It is becoming harder for small brokers to compete against bigger players in a softening market in which there is a need to be more sophisticated. Most small players don’t have the resources to invest in big data and technology, so it often makes sense to sell,” she said.
“The losers are the specialty wholesalers who don’t want to sell but might not to be able to adapt to the marketplace and get left behind.”
RIMS board director Gordon Adams is chief risk officer for Tri-Marine International, a fishing company with specialty marine risks. He said he’s seen little evidence of contraction in the marine broking space, but in other areas such as credit insurance there are very few specialist brokers and there is consolidation.
“That is a concern as there are less competitors and therefore we have less ability to do an RFP. Insurance is a personal relationships industry. Companies may miss out on developing personal relationships with boutique brokers in favor of using the big brokers. The larger brokers try to be all things to all people, and that’s certainly not always successful.”
In September 2014, JLT — the world’s largest specialty brokerage — began a concerted push into the U.S. According to Doug Turk, chief marketing officer for JLT Specialty in the U.S., the broker may consider joining the M&A party.
“We’re very open and interested in seeing what’s out there, but we are going to be very selective to make sure any acquisition target fits within our specialty strategy and also with the culture of JLT,” he said.
Impact on Clients
However, Turk challenged the view that broker consolidation leads to less choice for the client. Large clients have had limited choice for some time, he said, while JLT’s move into the U.S. as a retail specialty broker has helped meet demand for more choice when it comes to specialty risk.
“[Consolidation] doesn’t change the markets we go to or the solutions we offer. Underwriting consolidation is something we have to deal with, but with most consolidations, teams remain largely intact. It’s a good time for clients because they can get more out of their relationships with brokers,” he said.
There is no doubt that if a small broker is bought out by a more sophisticated buyer, its clients should benefit from an array of value-adding services.
“There are always two sides to every coin but right now the positives outweigh the negatives for the insurance buyer, if successful operational and financial execution is in place,” said Herman.
Scott Burton, a partner with Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan in Atlanta, agreed.
“Ultimately, the effects of consolidation on resulting scale and the continued gains in efficiency and expertise should result in better rates and terms for many clients,” he said.
Larger brokers absorb the specialist expertise of small wholesalers but can then use their superior infrastructure to scale up these operations, bringing specialty capability to a wider audience. The key is of course to ensure the acquired teams are not dismantled, diluted or commoditized by the merger.
Companies that don’t sell up must capitalize on their ability to offer bespoke service.
“Smaller brokers can compete by differentiating and having a product,” said Herman.
“If they are able to maintain key relationships and use their niche expertise to design specialty programs, carriers will still want to do business with them.”
Turk agreed that while many of the largest brokers look at business in terms of yield and commodification, specialists use their industry expertise to create unique and innovative products for their chosen client bases. This is, he said, what makes specialty-focused JLT different than the likes of Marsh, Aon and Willis.
“There is an increasing role for true specialty brokers who have industry knowledge — an ability to understand business first and risk second, and the ability to translate that understanding into customized solutions,” he said.
Tri-Marine’s Adams is a strong believer in the value of working with the most specialized brokers out there.
“Having a department that is able to service a specialty area is not the same as specializing in a specialty area,” he said, contending that boutique brokers are more likely to have a closer relationship with the client and offer dedicated, individualized service than broad-brush broking houses.
“We want our broker to have expertise and a predilection to our areas of business. The broker we selected at our last RFP said ‘we are heavily focused on marine, and because of that we don’t offer the same abilities in property/casualty or workers’ compensation, so we’d like to partner with a very strong regional broker who can provide these areas.’ That’s the direction we went in, and together they provide what we need.”
For many companies, choosing a one-stop-shop broker may be equally, if not more appealing than using a patchwork of specialists. One area the large buyers have a clear advantage over their smaller target firms is in their ability to service a rapidly internationalizing corporate sector.
“Globalization is fundamentally changing the expectations of our clients. International clients today demand seamless global coverage,” said Turk. “There’s a growing requirement to comply with local regulations in international locations. The world is becoming so much more complex, and companies demand that the brokers they work with have the knowledge to make sure they are in compliance with local regulations when placing policies.
“I’ve been in the industry 44 years and I’ve seen expansion and contraction a number of times during my career.” — Doug Turk, chief marketing officer, JLT Specialty in the U.S.
“Smaller brokers don’t have a global umbrella capability. The problem for them is that virtually all large clients now require it. Even if you are a very niche specialty broker you have got to have that global capability,” he added.
Adams said that as long as a broker can access major insurance markets, the carriers can take care of the global program.
“We have offices across the globe, and buy insurance on a global basis through our corporate risk management program. What is important is to have a global insurance carrier that can address those needs, and a broker that can access the resources of that carrier,” he said.
“I don’t find it limiting to use a specialty broker with only two or three offices because they deal with the likes of Lloyd’s, ACE and AIG, who have boots on the ground all around the world. One call to the local broker means we can access those boots on the ground pretty much any place we have a need.”
Global brokers are, however, more likely to be able to access increasingly popular alternative risk transfer channels such as insurance-linked securities (ILS), as well as being able to offer far superior analytics than small independents.
According to Turk, “data analysis and insight is increasingly driving how insurance is procured and how companies assess their risk.”
Adams, however, said that there are still pockets of industry for which data is not yet a necessity.
He also said that while consolidation is rife among specialty brokers right now, it’s nothing new.
“I’ve been in the industry 44 years and I’ve seen expansion and contraction a number of times during my career. Every time there is a consolidation and the big brokers gobble up the specialty brokers, it’s not long before you see people peeling off and starting again, and the cycle starts over.”
For now, according to Herman, specialty M&A is set to continue.
“All the ingredients that made for an active M&A market in 2014 are still there and I don’t see why it would slow,” she said.
“The opportunities are still there and there are so many brokers that are ripe for being acquired.”
This could mean less choice for insurance buyers in an increasingly commoditized market. For those whose glasses are half full, the trend may mean specialty expertise is available to a wider audience.
The Fate of London
The industry has changed beyond recognition since Edward Lloyd opened the Lloyd’s Coffee House on Tower Street in 1688. But in the centuries that have ensued, one thing has remained constant — London’s status as the insurance capital of the world.
That status has for so long been taken for granted. But in recent years, there’s been a shift.
A study by PwC released in December found that underwriting confidence in London is on the wane, with respondents assuming an average combined ratio of 97 percent for 2015 and one in five materially reliant on investment returns to make a profit.
In one sense, London is being impacted by factors that are affecting the industry in general.
An abundance of capacity has led to substantial rate declines over the past year, with aviation the only line projected to remain flat in the short term; sound familiar?
Property reinsurance and energy (direct and reinsurance) have seen rate declines of as much as 10 percent, and PwC predicts that mid-sized generalist reinsurers will be under extreme pressure in the current environment. London is also a relatively expensive place in which to operate.
In mid-January, hundreds of London jobs were put in jeopardy when U.S. insurer XL announced cost-cutting plans after acquiring London-based rival Catlin for $4.22 billion, the largest-ever takeover of a Lloyd’s underwriter.
XL pledged to cut at least $200 million in annual costs, and with London the biggest area of staff overlap between the two firms, many London underwriters could be redundant within the year.
Meanwhile, London’s share of the global reinsurance market declined by 15 percent between 2010 and 2013.
And in 2014, London fell for the first time in seven years to second place as both a financial services center and insurance market behind New York in the most recent Global Financial Centers Index Report.
London professionals admit that the finance center is facing an unprecedented challenge, with Lloyd’s CEO Inga Beale declaring the market is “at a crossroads.”
The London Market Group (LMG) embarked last summer on an immense soul-searching exercise resulting in a 50-page report on the threats to London’s prosperity.
According to Steve Hearn, deputy CEO of Willis and chairman of LMG, London needs to introspect and redefine its identity. The report found that while London is keeping pace with commercial specialty insurance growth, it is losing 2 to 3 percent of market-share globally in reinsurance and major insurance lines such as energy, while its share of emerging market business shrunk by 20 percent between 2010 and 2013.
“Other centers are growing faster than London and we are losing our position relative to the rest of the world.” — Steve Hearn, deputy CEO, Willis, and chairman, LMG
Asian premiums grew 11 percent from 2013 to 2014 and London’s share of those premiums slipped by 0.5 percent, while Africa grew 5 percent and London’s share fell by 1.3 percent.
“Other centers are growing faster than London and we are losing our position relative to the rest of the world,” said Hearn.
“We need to recognize that 300 years of very important history cannot be our raison d’être. The world is changing, and we need to identify the threats and grab hold of the opportunities that creates for London,” he said.
Largest Specialty Market
It is important to note, however, that despite its challenges, London remains comfortably the largest commercial speciality risk market in the world at around $60 billion, well ahead of Bermuda ($37.78 billion), Switzerland ($28.72 billion) and Singapore ($6.05 billion).
According to LMG’s report, London’s annual growth rate of 4 percent keeps it well in the hunt with its competitors.
It is also financially stable, with many underwriters currently enjoying some of their most profitable years ever.
It’s clear that London will remain a force in the global insurance space and that its competitive challenge lies not with international carriers or other global hubs, but with the carriers increasingly soaking up business in their own regions.
According to the LMG report, the increasing preference of global insurance buyers to use carriers in their local markets puts $19.65 billion to $27.20 billion (30 to 40 percent) of London premiums at risk.
“People in my region understand my specific risk and company better, so assuming they have the required underwriting expertise I am very happy to place business with them. Only when I can’t do that would I go to a global hub,” one Latin American risk manager was quoted in the report, aptly summarizing London’s predicament.
As a result, London’s underwriting and broking stalwarts find themselves walking a delicate tightrope. Clearly they must grow their businesses in alignment with global opportunities — their shareholders would expect nothing less — yet there is a palpable loyalty to their home market.
Lloyd’s underwriter Beazley, for example, now writes 60 percent of its business in the United States. However, CEO Andrew Horton is sensitive to the need to keep specialty business flowing into London; Beazley’s U.S. platform concentrates primarily on small risks and any large, complex risks still make their way into the Lloyd’s market.
Ultimately though, profits will always trump brownie points; and for the majority of major players it is more a case of limiting the damage to London’s premium flows than protecting the market at all costs. Indeed, one word keeps cropping up to describe their position on where to win and write business: “agnostic.”
“High growth markets are already mopping up business that historically used to come to London. That is happening in spite of us, not because of us,” said Rupert Atkin, CEO of Lloyd’s underwriter Talbot, deputy chairman of Lloyd’s and chairman of the Lloyd’s Market Association.
“Nowadays, Lloyd’s is one of many markets. Global brokers have lots of choice as to where to place the business so you have to go out and work with them — you write where there is an opportunity to make money.”
The United States still offers huge growth potential, and for companies like Beazley, it is excellent growth in U.S. business that is keeping their balance sheets above water, while London-based broker JLT also made a major push into the States last year.
“There is nowhere on the planet like it — it’s much better having all the underwriters in one place to bounce ideas off each other rather than spreading expertise around.” — Andrew Horton, CEO, Beazley
One prominent broker warns that even firms loyal and committed to London will only continue to be so as long as London can meet the requirements of its clients.
“I certainly aspire for us to always be a London market player, but whether we will or not depends on whether external factors outside our control play out — regulatory regimes; capital gains tax; the ability to attract business into the market,” he said.
“Protectionism continues just under the surface of many emerging markets around the world, and we continue to see actions that prevent the free flow of capital. All these factors pose threats to London.”
The broker does, however, laud the expertise London possesses. After all, London leads the way when it comes to highly unusual, complex or catastrophic risk, and there is nowhere that can match the City of London for density of talent and specialty capacity (350 market participants within slightly more than 400 yards of Lime Street.)
“We have a strong, capable, powerful specialty business here in London; I need the intellectual capital that resides in London working with our now global distribution and sales teams to create the right outcomes for our clients,” he said.
Beazley’s Horton added that the reputation of Lloyd’s has endured through the recession, and the market continues to have pulling power — most notably attracting its first Chinese syndicate (China Re) as recently as November, as well as seeing interest from American wholesalers.
“It’s quite a buoyant and healthy market,” he said. “There is nowhere on the planet like it — it’s much better having all the underwriters in one place to bounce ideas off each other rather than spreading expertise around. London has got the balance of being a great market for service and an innovative environment.”
Seizing the Day
Lloyd’s CEO Beale said the London insurance market has “real power” — with a commercial and specialty market more than twice the size of Bermuda — $222 billion in paid claims over the last five years and representing 8 percent of London’s GDP. It’s hard to argue.
“If that’s not power, I don’t know what is,” she said, before making the stakes clear: It is now or never for London to define itself and prosper in the new world order.
“The London market has the talent, skill and discipline to prosper as the world changes. I know that we will,” she said.
“This is a significant opportunity for us all. It is a unique opportunity, which will come along perhaps just once in the lives of the London brokers and underwriters. We can underwrite the digital revolution, just as we did the industrial revolution.The London market is, I believe, on the edge of a golden era.”
Ultimately, with the global insurance market currently awash with surplus property & casualty capacity and rates continuing to soften, the best way London can capitalize on this golden opportunity is to carve out a niche — by reinforcing its reputation as the home of specialty underwriting.
“Talent and intellectual property is at the heart of all of this,” said Hearn.
“The growth for us is in specialty classes that require intellectual property and sophistication in pricing, placing, product design and structuring. Specialist insurance and reinsurance and complex large account business is what we do, and we do it better than anywhere else in the world. We need to continue to protect and grow that capability.”
Or as one European risk manager quoted in the LMG report put it: “London’s role in the commercial specialty market is contingent upon innovation and flexibility; it is advantaged when there are products which no one else can offer.”
The prominent broker agrees, but believes innovation has stalled and London has a long way to go. Even Hearn admits the likes of Zurich, Munich and even some emerging markets are more innovative than London right now.
“I worry about the lack of innovation,” said the broker, who questions whether U.K. lawmakers and the Franchise Board of Lloyd’s are “truly enabling our industry to innovate.”
“London was always the place innovation would start, but now I see it more offshore and in the U.S.,” he said.
“If we don’t innovate, London will become less relevant, and the LMG report shows that to already be the case. We do have extraordinary intellectual capital residing in various businesses in London which enables us to be the market leader in insurance. Can we maintain that? It’s questionable. We need all the right ingredients to make that work, and I’m less positive than I ought to be.”
According to Horton, London players need to be more proactive in the way they promote the market, including opening up to issuing documents in local languages.
“To do this we need to change culturally,” he said.
“We need to do as much as we can to market the benefits of coming to Lloyd’s — offensively rather than defensively — so that Brazilian firms, for example, know why it may be in their interests to write large complex risks at Lloyd’s rather than at home.”
Let’s be clear. London is here to stay.
But the strategic moves it makes in the next few years may determine whether it stays at the top of the tree for generations to come or becomes, as many foresee, just another option in an expansive global marketplace.
The TLC Behind the Roar
Their iconic machines are renowned the world over, embodying care-free thrills on the open road. Yet behind Harley-Davidson’s roaring engines and glinting chassis is a measured approach to manufacturing — particularly when it comes to employee safety.
Indeed, so comprehensive is the company’s approach to its workers’ health that it scooped a 2014 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award.
Dave Eslinger, a Milwaukee-based senior vice president of claims with the Hays Cos., has seen firsthand how Harley-Davidson’s workers’ compensation program has evolved over the last few years. He believes the company has become unrivaled among its peers when it comes to the allocation of resources and expertise for reducing claims.
“The program is different [from others in the manufacturing sector] primarily because of the team Harley-Davidson has assembled to monitor its claims. Other employers often don’t devote that type of resource to their claims function,” he said. “They are doing a great job.”
Beth Mrozinsky, head of workplace health and safety at Harley-Davidson, admitted that sweeping improvements to the company’s approach to safety have been “a very expensive proposition,” but she believes the outcomes will far outweigh the costs. The numbers already speak for themselves.
Due to the nature of the business, which revolves around the production and testing of high-spec motorcycles, often involving moving heavy machinery, the majority of claims are musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. In 2009, these injuries accounted for 80 percent of total claims. But thanks to widespread initiatives to improve risk awareness and safety procedures, that figure fell to 50 percent by 2013.
Total injuries fell from 778 in 2009 to 252 in 2013. Meanwhile, workers’ compensation claims were reduced by 68 percent in that time, and more than $3.6 million in annual workers’ compensation claim costs have been wiped off the bottom line of the business, while insurance renewal rates are down.
Not bad, considering a recent change to the company’s manufacturing operating system allows it to increase its workforce up to 30 percent during high-cycle production times — resulting in an influx of untrained temporary workers. The average age of Harley-Davidson’s manufacturing employee base is currently between 45 and 50 years old.
So how did Harley-Davidson improve workplace safety so dramatically in such a short time? The first challenge was to overcome lingering liabilities from years gone by. It placed all legacy claims on individual action plans with the goal of complete resolution — and to date has closed 95 percent of these claims and their long-term liability risk.
Looking forward, the steps Harley-Davidson has taken to improve the safety of its employees and claims costs to the company are wide-reaching. Having severed ties with unwanted vendors, the company created a “hybrid workers’ compensation claims model” through which a focus group comprised of Harley-Davidson and vendor partners, including health and physical therapy center staff, field nurse case managers, consultants and brokers regularly report and analyze claims developments.
Harley-Davidson has also invested heavily in health, safety and risk management-related staff. Indeed, Harley-Davidson’s employees have access to a range of health facilities, from wellness centers to gyms and physical therapy centers, all designed to keep them in optimal shape and reduce the risk of injury.
On-site employee medical resources include nurses, case managers, physicians, occupational/physical therapists and athletic trainers, in addition to full service health and fitness centers. This has proven one of the most effective ways of reducing claims costs.
In the last year, the company boosted its on-site physical therapy center resources in the form of full-time certified athletic trainers to complement its existing early intervention program for musculoskeletal disorder issues; it hired a dedicated medical director; and also put in place a full-time ergonomic specialist at each manufacturing location to identify and eliminate risks in the workplace.
“Harley-Davidson is very aggressive with early intervention,” said Eslinger. “They have athletic trainers on staff to treat minor strains, for example, which can take care of the claim right there without the need for any outside medical intervention or attention.”
The company has also hired a dedicated workers’ compensation adjuster for each region, each with a maximum caseload cap and the creation of an annual “Adjuster Summit” to align findings.
The company instigated corporate-wide ergonomic projects to educate staff on the risks associated with each particular task, as well as numerous other initiatives to raise risk awareness among the workforce — including the two-year implementation of a health and safety technology system to standardize safety programs.
The three top incident types at each manufacturing location are also subject to their own focus groups, while complex claims are subject to weekly case management reviews.
Harley-Davidson has also developed return-to-work and stay-at-work policies including lifestyle assistance, while also updating its employee selection process to include comprehensive medical screening to determine the employee’s capability to safely perform the job.
“This didn’t start overnight — our program has morphed over the years. Every step of the way we would analyze what was going well, and what was not, and we would revamp our process and go again,” said Sue Gartner, corporate health services manager at Harley-Davidson.
“We were never sitting still — we were always moving, like a chess piece,” she said.
But more challenging than implementing any of the individual initiatives has been the process of effecting an organization-wide attitude shift — resulting in increased accountability, risk awareness and discipline.
“When we were initially involved, there was a loose set of procedures in place that have tightened up significantly with respect to the performance of people across the team,” said Eslinger, reflecting on how far the company has come.
“From defense counsels to nurse case managers, to third-party administrators and broker consultants; everyone has responsibility to the program.
“The company has created an awareness that it is serious about its workers’ compensation program and is trying to curb costs. It’s been a culture shift that has evolved over time.”
“We were never sitting still — we were always moving, like a chess piece.” — Sue Gartner, corporate health services manager at Harley-Davidson
Eslinger added that Harley-Davidson’s investment in its program has led to fewer claims disputes — not only does it apply a more rigorous approach to claims investigation, but perhaps more significantly, the provision of on-site health services for its staff has reduced the need for third-party medical treatment and challenges to settlements through independent medical exams.
“The big emphasis is on timely contact [with employees], treating workers fairly, paying the claims you owe, and denying and defending the ones you don’t. If someone is injured on the job they are taken care of, but if there are questions concerning the claim or accident, it is going to be investigated.”
Along the way, Mrozinsky and Gartner faced a number of obstacles, including a misalignment of stakeholder interests and needs.
“We knew we needed to change the culture but we were not prepared for the level of resistance,” Mrozinsky said, commending the “personal and unwavering leadership support and involvement by Harley-Davidson’s CEO, vice president of HR and other senior company leaders,” as well as the role of vendor partners such as third party administrator Gallagher Bassett, in getting the message across.
“It’s truly a partnership with our vendors, both internal and external. We couldn’t do it if we didn’t all agree to the strategy and were aligned philosophically,” said Gartner.
Mrozinsky added that she is particularly proud of the way the workers’ compensation program has become holistic — both in its organization and also the approach to managing employees’ general health.
“We went from talking about the health center, the fitness center, the therapy center, to talking about the wellness center collectively rather than its individual components,” she said, while Gartner added: “We had great program in the past but things were fragmented. We’ve pulled together and are working as a team. We are all of one mind-set and know what direction we are going in.”
“We try to think outside of the box to respond to employees’ needs, and look at employees’ whole wellness, not just responding to work-related incidents,” Gartner said.
That means going out to the shop floor to talk to employees, instead of waiting for employees to come talk to the claims team.
As well as saving Harley-Davidson millions in claims losses last year, the provision of wellness services has also contributed to improved employee engagement and productivity.
Read more about all of the 2014 Teddy Award winners:
Building Value with Trust: Honda of South Carolina boosted its involvement with injured worker cases, making a positive first impression on employees and health care providers.
The TLC Behind the Roar: A proactive and holistic approach to employees’ well-being has resulted in huge reductions in work-related injury claims for Harley-Davidson.
Quick to Act: Compass Group is lauded for its safety initiatives and for a return-to-work program that incorporates all of its business lines.
Healing the Healers: Teddy Award winner Cold Spring Hills Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation proved that even small organizations can make a huge difference in their employees’ lives.