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.”
Commercial Auto Warning: Emerging Frequency and Severity Trends Threaten Policyholders
The slow but steady climb out of the Great Recession means businesses can finally transition out of survival mode and set their sights on growth and expansion.
The construction, retail and energy sectors in particular are enjoying an influx of business — but getting back on their feet doesn’t come free of challenges.
Increasingly, expensive commercial auto losses hamper the upward trend. From 2012 to 2015, auto loss costs increased a cumulative 20 percent, according to the Insurance Services Office.
“Since the recession ended, commercial auto losses have challenged businesses trying to grow,” said David Blessing, SVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for National Insurance Casualty at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “As the economy improves and businesses expand, it means there are more vehicles on the road covering more miles. That is pushing up the frequency of auto accidents.”
For companies with transportation exposure, costly auto losses can hinder continued growth. Buyers who partner closely with their insurance brokers and carriers to understand these risks – and the consultative support and tools available to manage them – are better positioned to protect their employees, fleets, and businesses.
Liberty Mutual’s David Blessing discusses key challenges in the commercial auto market.
“Since the recession ended, commercial auto losses have challenged businesses trying to grow. As the economy improves and businesses expand, it means there are more vehicles on the road covering more miles. That is pushing up the frequency of auto accidents.”
–David Blessing, SVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for National Insurance Casualty, Liberty Mutual Insurance
More Accidents, More Dollars
Rising claims costs typically stem from either increased frequency or severity — but in the case of commercial auto, it’s both. This presents risk managers with the unique challenge of blunting a double-edged sword.
Cumulative miles driven in February, 2016, were up 5.6 percent compared to February, 2015, Blessing said. Unfortunately, inexperienced drivers are at the helm for a good portion of those miles.
A severe shortage of experienced commercial drivers — nearing 50,000 by the end of 2015, according to the American Trucking Association — means a limited pool to choose from. Drivers completing unfamiliar routes or lacking practice behind the wheel translate into more accidents, but companies facing intense competition for experienced drivers with good driving records may be tempted to let risk management best practices slip, like proper driver screening and training.
Distracted driving, whether it’s as a result of using a phone, eating, or reading directions, is another factor contributing to the number of accidents on the road. Recent findings from the National Safety Council indicate that as much as 27% of crashes involved drivers talking or texting on cell phones.
The factors driving increased frequency in the commercial auto market.
In addition to increased frequency, a variety of other factors are driving up claim severity, resulting in higher payments for both bodily injury and property damage.
Treating those injured in a commercial auto accident is more expensive than ever as medical costs rise at a faster rate than the overall Consumer Price Index.
“Medical inflation continues to go up by about three percent, whereas the core CPI is closer to two percent,” Blessing said.
Changing physical medicine fee schedules in some states also drive up commercial auto claim costs. California, for example, increased the cost of physical medicine by 38 percent over the past two years and will increase it by a total of 64 percent by the end of 2017.
And then there is the cost of repairing and replacing damaged vehicles.
“There are a lot of new vehicles on the road, and those cost more to repair and replace,” Blessing said. “In the last few years, heavy truck sales have increased at double digit rates — 15 percent in 2014, followed by an additional 11 percent in 2015.”
The impact is seen in the industry-wide combined ratio for commercial auto coverage, which per Conning, increased from 103 in 2014 to 105 for 2015, and is forecast to grow to nearly 110 by 2018.
None of these trends show signs of slowing or reversing, especially as the advent of driverless technology introduces its own risks and makes new vehicles all the more valuable. Now is the time to reign in auto exposure, before the cost of claims balloons even further.
The factors driving up commercial auto claims severity.
Data Opens Window to Driver Behavior
To better manage the total cost of commercial auto insurance, Blessing believes risk management should focus on the driver, not just the vehicle. In this journey, fleet telematics data plays a key role, unlocking insight on the driver behavior that contributes to accidents.
“Roughly half of large fleets have telematics built into their trucks,” Blessing said. “Traditionally, they are used to improve business performance by managing maintenance and routing to better control fuel costs. But we see opportunity there to improve driver performance, and so do risk managers.”
Liberty Mutual’s Managing Vital Driver Performance tool helps clients parse through data provided by telematics vendors and apply it toward cultivating safer driving habits.
“Risk managers can get overwhelmed with all of the data coming out of telematics. They may not know how to set the right parameters, or they get too many alerts from the provider,” Blessing said.
“We can help take that data and turn it into a concrete plan of action the customer can use to build a better risk management program by monitoring driver behavior, identifying the root causes of poor driving performance and developing training and other approaches to improve performance.”
Actions risk managers can take to better manage commercial auto frequency and severity trends.
Rather than focusing on the vehicle, the Managing Vital Driver Performance tool focuses on the driver, looking for indicators of aggressive driving that may lead to accidents, such as speeding, sharp turns and hard or sudden braking.
The tool helps a risk manager see if drivers consistently exhibit any of these behaviors, and take actions to improve driving performance before an accident happens. Liberty’s risk control consultants can also interview drivers to drill deeper into the data and find out what causes those behaviors in the first place.
Sometimes patterns of unsafe driving reveal issues at the management level.
“Our behavior-based program is also for supervisors and managers, not just drivers,” Blessing said. “This is where we help them set the tone and expectations with their drivers.”
For example, if data analysis and interviews reveal that fatigue factors into poor driving performance, management can identify ways to address that fatigue, including changing assigned work levels and requirements. Are drivers expected to make too many deliveries in a single shift, or are they required to interact with dispatch while driving?
“Management support of safety is so important, and work levels and expectations should be realistic,” Blessing said.
A Consultative Approach
In addition to its Managing Vital Driver Performance tool, Liberty’s team of risk control consultants helps commercial auto policyholders establish screening criteria for new drivers, creating a “driver scorecard” to reflect a potential new hire’s driving record, any Motor Vehicle Reports, years of experience, and familiarity with the type of vehicle that a company uses.
“Our whole approach is consultative,” Blessing said. “We probe and listen and try to understand a client’s strengths and challenges, and then make recommendations to help them establish the best practices they need.”
“With our approach and tools, we do something no one else in the industry does, which is perform the root cause analysis to help prevent accidents, better protecting a commercial auto policyholder’s employees and bottom line.”
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.