Finding Their Niche
Independent insurance agencies that specialize in niches and focus on technological improvements are getting a leg up on their competition — and reaping greater profits, according to the 2013 Best Practices Study by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.
By focusing on niches, agencies have increased their targeted leads and referrals, improved retention rates and boosted their competitiveness, according to a study of “best practice agencies,” chosen by the in Alexandria, Va.-based trade group and Reagan Consulting for their “outstanding management and financial achievement.”
Specializing in certain product lines or courting specific industry sectors has paid off: The average revenue growth rate in total commissions and fees was 9.8 percent for agencies with net revenue of more than $5 million, up from 4.5 percent in last’s year’s study. For agencies with net revenue less than $5 million, the growth rate was 9.4 percent, up from 2.1 percent last year.
Agency revenue was also boosted by the results of higher technology spend, including for search engine optimization and social media marketing, as well as by increased hiring and improved producer accountability.
Finding niches is key, said Madelyn Flannagan, the trade group’s vice president of agent development, research and education. Many agencies are adding personal lines such as auto insurance to their product mix, often bundling them with commercial lines to enhance offers to business clients.
Some agencies are also specializing in cyber liability insurance.
“Almost every business now has to safeguard information about their customers and employees, and they need to have the correct liability insurance for when security breaches occur,” Flannagan said.
Specializing for Assurance Agency, with offices in Schaumburg, Ill. and Chesterton, Mo., means focusing on particular industries, including temporary staffing companies, contractors, nursing homes, manufacturers, municipalities and school districts, said Jackie Gould, chief operating officer.
“The benefit of specializing in our clients’ industries is that it allows us to dig deeper into their business and understand the issues they are facing, so we can be better at solving their problems with special coverage they might need,” Gould said.
“We have the right carriers in place to handle their exposures, and our claims advocates and safety advocates know how to deal with claims and risk control issues,” she said.
M.F. Block in Paragould, Ark., concentrates on serving family farms, said partner Phillip Greer. Few carriers are in that market, so there is less competition.
“We understand family farms, so we can price the insurance right,” Greer said. “We also try to go above and beyond insurance, and offer other services to family farms, such as loss control and risk management.”
Firms cited for their best practices in the study also were noted for increasing their technology spend.
Agencies with annual revenues above $5 million invested more in agency management systems, while smaller firms spent more in Internet SEO marketing and social media marketing.
Agencies of all sizes devoted more staff time to social media marketing: On average, 1.3 employees spent 10 percent of their time marketing via social media.
“Social media is becoming more important to agencies as they try to get a leg up on their competition,” Flannagan said. “They use it to become more visible in their communities, which makes them more effective in selling and marketing in those communities.”
Assurance Agency has “a very big initiative around social media,” geared toward enhancing the firm’s relationship with its existing clients and attracting prospective clients by posting articles on topical issues, Gould said. The firm also uses social media to publicize its seminars and webinars on hot topics, such as on health care reform.
“We help hundreds of employers to figure out how to manage their benefits programs, and that can be very different, depending on the industry, such as the temporary staffing industry,” she said. “It’s a moving target, so we help employers by giving them a step-by-step playbook on what they can do now to prepare.”
Pierson & Fendley Insurance LLC in Paris, Texas, increased its SEO marketing spend to use on sites such as Google and Yahoo! to attract more clients, said partner Matt Frierson. Moreover, the agency has a Facebook page and its producers are encouraged to post topical information and helpful advice on their own Facebook pages, which are tied to the firm.
“Facebook is a great way to get your brand out for an inexpensive price,” Frierson said. “It’s a media that’s far more encompassing than anything the agency has seen before.”
The agency also encourages its producers to post updates on their LinkedIn profiles to trigger push emails to their connections.
But the company’s growth is mainly attributed to buying two other agencies as well as hiring additional producers, he said. In 2010, Pierson & Fendley had three producers; it now has eight.
Stuart S. Durland, vice president, operations at Seely & Durland Inc., said the Warwick, N.Y.-based company has been “consistently growing” due to IT implementations including imaging, eSignature, real time technology, consumer website ratings and a “sophisticated” website.
“Agencies have got to have an agency management system — and use it, as well as technologies that take advantage of marketing capabilities and those that enable us to work in real time,” Durland said.
“Instead of taking four hours to input information for a quote to four different commercial line carriers, we use our agency management system, Applied Systems, that enables us to input the information just once, and then send data to any of our real time carriers.
“That has significantly reduced the process, which not only saves us money, but frees up time to allow my [customer service representatives] to do more important things, like cross-selling and writing new business,” he said.
At Insure-Rite, a Norman G. Olson Co. in Evergreen Park, Ill., each generation of the family-owned business grows the enterprise by taking “it to the next level,” said Pete Olson, who works alongside his father and grandfather.
Over the past several years, processes have been turned “upside down” to improve producer accountability, he said.
“We’re focused on placing business where it belongs, not just how it could help our profits,” Olson said. “We place according to what’s best for the client, not on what’s best for us.”
The trade group’s study also showed that profitability improved at many best practices agencies over the past year.
While profit margins in the prior year’s study “remained stubbornly flat” due to waning contingent income growth, that trend has reversed — contingent income grew an average of 10.7 percent for those with revenue of more than $5 million, and an average of 21.8 percent for agencies with revenue less than $5 million.
Moreover, agencies did “a much better job” of controlling expenses so that operating profits grew faster than contingent income, according to the study. As a result, larger firms averaged 22.7 percent proforma EBITDA, and smaller to midsized firms averaged 29.3 percent.
Every three years, the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America collaborates with Reagan Consulting to select “best practices” firms throughout the nation, nominated by either an affiliated state association or an insurance company.
The agencies are grouped into six revenue categories: less than $1.25 million; $1.25 million to $2.5 million; $2.5 million to $5 million; $5 million to $10 million; $10 million to $25 million; and more than $25 million. Financial and benchmarking information for the participating agencies are also reviewed and updated.
Sixteen insurance companies and four industry vendors provide financial support for the research and development of the best practices study: Agency Business Solutions/Amerisure Insurance, Applied Systems, Beyond Insurance, Central Insurance Cos., Chubb, CNA, EMC Insurance Companies, Encompass Insurance, Erie Insurance, Great American Insurance Group, The Hanover Insurance Group, Harleysville Insurance, Imperial PFS, InsurBanc, Kemper Preferred, Liberty Mutual Agency Corporation, Main Street America Group, Ohio Mutual Insurance Group, Travelers and Westfield Insurance.
Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
From Drones to Defects: Planning for Construction’s Top Challenges
The construction industry is firing on all cylinders. New projects spring up every day, but not all go according to plan.
Three out of every four construction projects fail to finish on time. Every party involved – owners, designers, contractors and subcontractors – expects perfection, with the final product delivered on schedule and on budget. Those expectations leave little room for uncertainty, so even a small hiccup can have ripple effects that disrupt a project for everyone.
“There’s often a big disconnect on the front end of project planning,” said Doug Cauti, Senior Vice President, National Insurance, Chief Underwriting Officer, Construction, Liberty Mutual.
Proactive risk mitigation is also important to manage emerging challenges facing the construction industry ‒ drone regulations are evolving, commercial auto losses are rising, and so is uncertainty about which party might be held responsible for a construction defect. Without the proper planning, these issues can easily be overlooked and result in major losses and project disruption.
Liberty Mutual’s Doug Cauti discusses key challenges facing the construction market.
“Key risk management strategies have to be aligned among all parties from the beginning to minimize these uncertainties.”
Before construction begins, there are actions that project owners, designers and contractors can take to address these challenges and better protect their projects and businesses:
Drones can be useful tools on construction sites, providing an extra set of “eyes” for large commercial projects or tall buildings. They provide a real time aerial glimpse of works in progress, giving supervisors an added perspective to spot potential flaws, assess safety hazards, and check on workers. But many challenges remain in the safe — and legal — operation of drones.
Liberty Mutual’s interactive infographic highlights risks related to managing drones at construction sites, and also includes a pre-planning drone use guide and a pre-flight checklist that includes making sure to review the latest drone regulations.
How construction buyers can manage the insurance implications of using drones in their operations.
General contractors and project owners need to stay up to speed on FAA regulations, which changed in August, 2016.
“For one thing, operators need to have the drone in sight at all times,” Cauti said.
“And you need to make sure any operators are appropriately licensed and trained, that the drones are regularly maintained, and that the machines don’t impede on others’ safety and privacy.”
Clear flight paths and work zone boundaries can minimize the risk of a drone striking another property, or worse, a person. Operators should also know how to conduct an emergency landing if the drone suddenly loses power. It’s also important to consider how you are going to manage and use drone footage. Advertising liability can be a concern if third party images are captured and released. Know who is in charge of the data collected, who has access to it, and how you are going to protect it.
“If the contractor owns the drone, it takes on more liability. The contractor should review its insurance policies to make sure the coverage will respond to that risk,” Cauti said.
“As an insurance carrier, we may have a role to play in those proactive discussions. We are uniquely positioned to help project stakeholders see their risks and work to minimize them.”
— Doug Cauti, Senior Vice President, National Insurance, Chief Underwriting Officer, Construction, Liberty Mutual Insurance
Contractors and project owners can protect themselves through enhancements to their commercial general liability policies or through separate aviation policies, he said.
If a general contractor leases a drone through a third party, “they bear the responsibility of making sure the vendor is fully insured,” Cauti said. Vendors should have “non-owned” aviation coverage with limits suitable to handle the size of the risk.
Commercial auto losses challenge many business sectors, and construction is no exception.
More vehicles on the road and more miles driven, combined with fewer experienced commercial drivers, are driving up the frequency of accidents. On construction sites in particular, congestion created by closed roads, piles of materials and roving heavy machinery may lead to work zone accidents. Rising medical costs and repair and replacement costs of high-tech vehicles increase claim severity.
“I don’t see this trend reversing any time soon,” Cauti said.
Mitigating commercial auto losses begins with driver hiring practices.
“Pay attention to who you put behind the wheel,” Cauti said.
“Motor vehicle reports (MVRs) and driving history can alert employers to previous accidents or tickets. But there also needs to be regular communication with the drivers you do hire, and clear protocols in place that define expectations of how the job should be performed,” he added.
Ways construction buyers can manage rising commercial auto loss costs and better protect their fleets and employees.
Those protocols include requiring the use of seat belts, prohibiting cell phone use while behind the wheel, mandating scheduled breaks, outlining maintenance procedures, defining if company vehicles can be used for personal use, and establishing crash report procedures that delineate who to contact and what information to collect in the event of an accident.
Contractors can also monitor fleet performance through telematics systems. These on-board systems can track unsafe driving behaviors like hard braking, sharp turns, and speeding. But the data is only as good as the person analyzing it. Contractors and project owners should partner with an insurer who can use fleet telematics data effectively to pinpoint common causes of accidents and recommend specific risk mitigation strategies.
Liberty Mutual’s Managing Vital Driving Performance is one tool that leverages insureds existing telematics data to identify unsafe driving behaviors and accident patterns.
“Our risk control consultants can drill deeper into the data and interview drivers to identify patterns and find out the root causes of bad driving behaviors in the first place,” Cauti said.
For example, a post-accident interview with a driver could reveal that he had been skipping breaks and spending too many hours on the road, leading to fatigue and inattentive driving.
Identifying those connections enables consultants to make specific risk mitigation recommendations, such as adjusting drivers’ schedules and workloads to reduce overtime, or adjusting dispatch protocols so employers can ensure drivers aren’t working too many shifts in a short period of time.
Another uncertainty project owners, designers and contractors have to face is how insurance coverage will apply should a project end up in a dispute. “The struggle is around the definition of ‘faulty workmanship’ and who is responsible for the defect. Is it in the design or the build?” Cauti said.
“There can be a lot of finger pointing involved. This reinforces the need for contractors to have a systematic quality assurance (QA) program that adheres to best practices, and for every party to have a role in it.”
Elements of a QA program could include testing of construction materials, conducting regular walk-throughs and obtaining approvals from the owner at key phases, and final sign-off by the owner at the project’s completion.
How construction defects and the current legal climate are affecting projects.
Construction defect claims can affect a business’s reputation, profits, and ability to maintain insurance coverage. That’s why it’s so important to be vigilant about avoiding construction defects, whether you’re a designer, developer, owner or general contractor.
Ultimately, though, these risks should be addressed before ground is broken. Discussing these challenges and collaborating on loss prevention strategies up front reduces the likelihood that any “hiccups” will throw off project timelines or increase costs for the various stakeholders.
Pre-planning discussions also offer the opportunity for these parties to take advantage of carrier partners’ risk control services.
“As an insurance carrier, we may have a role to play in those proactive discussions,” Cauti said.
“We are uniquely positioned to help project stakeholders see their risks and work to minimize them.”
To learn more about Liberty Mutual’s solutions for the construction industry, visit https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance/industries/construction-insurance-coverage.
 Managing Uncertainty and Expectations in Building Design and Construction SmartMarket Report
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.