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.”
To Keep Cool in a Crisis, Companies Need a Comprehensive Solution
Threats against corporate security come in many forms, from intentional acts of violence to civil unrest to cyber-attacks. The perpetrators don’t discriminate by company size or sector, and the consequences can range from several thousand dollars lost to several lives lost.
The recent shooting in an Orlando nightclub that killed 49, for example, or last year’s San Bernardino shooting that killed 14, are somber reminders that terrorism and violence can erupt anywhere and in any type of business. In addition to loss of life, violence can translate into business interruption and property damage. In Ferguson, Mo., riots lead to over $4 million in property damage.
Cyber-attacks have also become commonplace, with hackers infiltrating private networks to steal data or hold it ransom.
Is your organization prepared for these risks?
“A lot of companies have a crisis response plan on paper, but they don’t have outside resources to come to their aid if there is an incident,” said Reggie Gibbs, Underwriter and Product Manager, Starr Companies.
Mid-size companies especially tend to lack comprehensive insurance coverage and crisis management services for a variety of security events due either to limited resources or an underestimation of their exposure.
Starr Companies’ Cyber and Terror Response (CTR) solution provides three coverages as well as crisis response services tailored to meet the needs of these companies. Each of its components addresses a common security threat.
“We don’t just want to indemnify the security risks our clients face; we want to help them actively manage them.”
— Reggie Gibbs, Underwriter & Product Manager, Starr Companies
Terror and Political Violence
“Political violence can be defined as a strike, riot, protest, or any type of unrest that gets out of hand and turns violent,” said Gibbs, who specializes in terrorism and political violence, workplace violence, and crisis management.
In the case of the Ferguson protests, any first party property damage or third party liability incurred by the disruption would be covered under the terrorism and political violence segment of the CTR solution.
In the case of a terror attack, organizations cannot necessarily rely on TRIA to pick up property losses. In the case of the Orlando shooting, for example, the likelihood of TRIA being invoked is low because property damage will not meet the threshold for coverage to kick in.
TRIA, reauthorized in 2015, provides a federal insurance backstop in the event of a terror attack. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, U.S. Attorney General, and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security must declare an attack to be an act of terrorism, and property damage must exceed $5 million to trigger TRIA.
“We would still view the Orlando shooting as an act of terror, however, because of who the shooter claimed he was working for regardless if the ties to terror groups are clear or not. Therefore, our coverage would apply,” Gibbs said. Even if TRIA was enacted, however, companies would still have a lot of pieces to pick up following an attack. They may have injured or deceased employees, or face legal action from third parties.
For these situations, and any other incident of violence not driven by terrorism, the workplace violence component of Starr’s CTR solution would act as an umbrella to cover other liabilities such as legal liability, loss of life benefits, psychiatric care, and other crisis response services.
One such incident struck a Boston-area Bertucci’s in early May. An attacker wielding a knife drove his car into a Boston shopping mall before making his way into the nearby restaurant. He killed five, including restaurant workers and patrons.
“There was no ideological or political motivation behind it. He was just deranged.” Gibbs said. “Our workplace violence coverage can handle the loss of life benefits for both the employees and patrons killed in situations like this one.”
In the best cases, though, violence can be prevented altogether.
“If an employee reports a stalking threat, the policy would cover the expense of security guards,” Gibbs said. “In this case, it’s more of a pre-workplace violence coverage. It would de-escalate the situation.”
Attacks can also be non-physical.
Cyber extortion in particular is on the rise. Phishing scams lead employees to click on malicious links, unknowingly downloading ransomware onto their internal networks. The cyber criminals then hold companies’ networks ransom, asking for a sum of money in return for the release of data or to prevent a business interruption. The ransoms can be low — amounts that organizations can afford to pay.
“The hackers don’t want to attract the attention of law enforcement or regulatory agencies,” said Annamaria Landaverde, National Cyber Practice Leader & Professional Liability Underwriting Manager, Starr Companies. Landaverde specializes in the cyber component of the CTR coverage. “The FBI may not get involved if someone asks for $5,000. They are more likely to get involved if someone asks for $5 million.”
Since companies are not required by law to report cyber extortion —like they are for data breaches — many choose simply to pay the ransom and move on without generating any negative news headlines.
“The hackers don’t want to attract the attention of any law enforcement or regulatory agencies. The F.B.I. won’t get involved if someone asks for $5,000. They will get involved if someone asks for $5 million.”
— Annamaria Landaverde, National Cyber Practice Leader & Underwriting Manager, Professional Liability Division, Starr Companies
“A California medical center recently had an incident like this where the hackers asked for $17,000 in ransom,” Landaverde said,” but the amounts can vary.”
While the ransom itself may seem manageable, many companies fail to recognize other costs associated with the identification and removal of the malware from their system. There may also be costs associated with forensics investigations, legal experts, public relations firms, third party lawsuits, and notification and credit monitoring.
“The cyber arm of the CTR coverage extends to liability that an organization would suffer as a result of a breach, or failure of security of the insured’s network,” Landaverde said. That includes not just cyber extortion, but outright data theft or denial-of-service attacks.
Crisis Management Services
“We don’t just want to indemnify the security risks our clients face; we want to help them actively manage them,” Gibbs said.
The fourth component of Starr’s CTR solution – crisis response — provides two outside consultants to insureds, with one specializing in “hard” security services like guards or instances of cyber extortion, and another focusing on crisis communications.
Without these outside services, there is only so much insurance can do in the aftermath of a crisis. Experienced consultants provide a range of security preparedness and response services to complement coverage and help insureds recover from an episode of violence or cyber event.
“From a communications perspective, our consultants can manage the public relations front to create clear and consistent messaging, but they can also stay in touch with families after a terror or other violent attack to make sure everyone stays informed,” Gibbs said.
They also serve as a first point of contact for insureds immediately after an event. If they need guidance quickly, consultants await at the ready.
“When a client purchases the product, they get a 24-hour hotline set up with one of our consultancies,” he said. “They can report an incident at any time, and our consultant will help either resolve a situation or deal with the aftermath in whatever way they can.”
While the Cyber and Terror Response package provides a comprehensive solution tailored for mid-size companies, Starr also offers standalone cyber liability and crisis management coverage on a primary and excess basis.
“For companies with greater exposure to a particular type of risk, or who simply want higher limits or greater customization, we have those standalone polices.” Landaverde said.
For more information on Starr Companies’ Cyber and Terror Response solution, visit https://www.starrcompanies.com/Insurance/CyberAndTerrorResponse.
Starr Companies is the worldwide marketing name for the operating insurance and travel assistance companies and subsidiaries of Starr International Company, Inc. and for the investment business of C. V. Starr & Co., Inc. and its subsidiaries.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Starr Companies. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.