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.”
Sparking Innovation and Motivating Millennials
Two trends in the insurance industry, if they continue, could compromise its vitality in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven business world: slow innovation and a scarcity of millennial talent.
The quests to develop innovative solutions and services and to recruit young people to the field have raised concerns in the industry for several years, causing some insurers to think about how they will stay viable in the future when senior-level managers begin to retire.
But Lexington Insurance Company, a member of AIG, may have found a way to spark innovation that also engages millennial minds.
Innovation Boot Camp started three years ago as a one-off project meant to identify young, high-potential employees, give them exposure to senior management and evaluate their teamwork and leadership capabilities.
“The original concept was fairly straightforward. We would bring together a group of about 30 high potential employees for some semblance of team project work and it would allow management to gauge and assess talent,” said Matt Power, Executive Vice President, Head of Strategic Development, Lexington Insurance.
Little did he know how well the program would not only generate a plethora of innovative ideas that would drive the company forward, but also reinvigorate younger employees.
“The boot camps would be focused on innovation, with the idea that if we ended up with a concept or product that we could commercialize, then the boot camp would have been effectively self-funded. When they came back at the end of the 12 weeks, we were absolutely shocked because they produced about half a dozen products that have since been commercialized and are in some phase of being rolled out.”
— Matt Power, Executive Vice President, Head of Strategic Development, Lexington Insurance
New Ideas Emerge
The inaugural Innovation Boot Camp began with a two-day kick off meeting for participants— consisting of six teams with five or six participants. Each team was tasked with developing a business plan, and began to connect virtually over the next 12 weeks. The plan would culminate in a presentation to a senior management judging panel at the program’s conclusion.
“The boot camps would be focused on innovation, with the idea that if we ended up with a concept or product that we could commercialize, then the boot camp would have been effectively self-funded,” Power said. “When they came back at the end of the 12 weeks, we were absolutely shocked because they produced about half a dozen products that have since been commercialized and are in some phase of being rolled out.”
Power credits the program’s success in part to the participants’ youth. They were tuned in to different trends and issues than their more experienced counterparts.
Cyberbullying, for example, was a problem that didn’t exist for Power and his contemporaries as they grew up, but was salient for millennials. Based on the presentation of one group, Lexington developed coverage on their personalized portfolio for exposures associated with cyberbullying.
Likewise, “they educated us on the emergence of the craft brewing industry and how rapidly it was growing in the U.S.,” Power said. “That led to us launching a whole suite of products for craft brewers.”
Another team brought forth the concept of how rapid sequencing laser photography could be used to create a three-dimensional picture of a construction work site. That would allow contractors or claims managers to virtually walk through the site at a given point in the construction process to identify deviations from the original blueprint plans.
The images could memorialize the building process down to the millimeter, to every screw and wire. If a loss emerges later on due to a construction defect, the 3D map would be a valuable investigation tool.
Innovation Boot Camp proved so successful that Lexington expanded it to other arms of AIG all over the world.
“Suddenly we started getting calls from London, Copenhagen, Brazil,” Power said. “We were doing these programs for our global casualty team, for our lead attorneys in New York, for our financial lines group, and so on. We recently embarked on the 16th iteration of this program in London, with additional programs in the works.
“It’s a journey that has evolved from trying different things and not being afraid to fail, not being afraid to try new ways of thinking about the business.”
Engaging Millennial Minds
In addition to generating new product ideas, Innovation Boot Camp also engages younger employees more fully by offering the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to the company through independent work that requires some creative thinking.
Past participants are often great crusaders for the program.
“A program like IBC is something rarely seen at a large corporate conglomerate, and really a concept for new age startup companies,” said Alyson R. Jacobs, Vice President, Broker and Client Engagement Leader in AIG’s Energy & Construction Industry Segment. “But we were given a chance to work with people of all different professional backgrounds, and that environment unearthed concepts and solutions that have made a significant impact in the lives of our insureds and their employees.”
The chance to do work that makes a difference, both for the success of their company as well as the clients its serves, is what attracts millennial employees to the program and motivates them to devote their best effort to the project.
“Millennials want to be able to share their ideas and make meaningful contributions at work,” Power said. “Innovation Boot Camp has evolved into the perfect forum for that.”
David Kennedy, Esq., Product Development Manager for Lexington Insurance and former Coach for two Innovation Boot Camps, said the program engenders an “entrepreneurial spirit of developing something new, of applying analytical rigor to emerging risks to create unique and timely solutions for our clients and the marketplace.”
Exposure to senior executives doesn’t hurt either.
“It provided a platform for me to not just interact with our Senior Executive leadership but present a concept that could potentially be adopted by our company in the future,” said Ryan Pitterson, Assistant Vice President, AIG. “It helps to build your internal network, elevate your profile in the company and connects you with our client base as well.”
At a time when recent college graduates choose employers based on how much opportunity they’ll be given to have meaningful input — as well as opportunities for advancement — projects like Innovation Boot Camp could be the answer to the insurance industry’s struggle to pull in millennials.
“We give them the time, space and resources to create something new,” Power said. “When employee engagement is done right, it inspires passion and creativity.”
As multiple arms of AIG adopt Innovation Boot Camp around the globe, both the quantity and quality of new ideas are bound to flourish.
“The bottom line is, many heads are greater than one, and AIG has figured out how to leverage this. AIG hears their employees’ voices and enables those ideas to take our company into the future,” Jacobs said.
To learn more about Lexington Insurance, visit http://www.lexingtoninsurance.com/home.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Lexington Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.