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.”
Beware of Medical Hyper-Inflation!
Historically, medical inflation rates nationwide have been fairly consistent. However, data is now showing that medical inflation is not a “one size fits all” phenomenon, with hyperinflation spikes occurring in some locations…but not others.
This geographical conundrum means hyperinflation can occur as narrowly as two hospitals having dramatically different charges on the same street in Anytown, USA. So, uncovering these anomalies is akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“In recent years, workers’ compensation saw claim frequency decline, while severity rates went up. This basically means that increased job safety has offset increased medical costs,” explained Jason Beans, CEO of Rising Medical Solutions, a national medical cost management firm. “So, whenever a client’s average cost-per-claim went up, it was almost always caused by catastrophic, outlier-type claims.”
But beginning in 2013 and extending into 2014, Beans said, things changed. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 20-plus years in this industry.”
“Our analytics made it very clear that small pockets around the country are experiencing what could only be described as medical cost hyperinflation. The big spikes in some clients’ claim costs were driven by a broader rise in medical costs, rather than catastrophic claims or severity issues.”
– Jason Beans, CEO, Rising Medical Solutions
Data dive uncovers surprising findings
On a national level, most experts describe medical costs increasing at a moderate annual rate. But, as often is the case, sometimes a macro perspective glosses over a very different situation at a more micro level.
“Our analytics made it very clear that small pockets around the country are experiencing what could only be described as medical cost hyperinflation,” explained Beans. “The big spikes in some clients’ claim costs were driven by a broader rise in medical costs, rather than catastrophic claims or severity issues.”
This conclusion is supported by several key data patterns:
- Geographic dependency: While many payers operate at the national level, only relatively small, geographically clustered claims showed steep cost increases.
- Median cost per claim: The median cost per claim, not just the average, increased greatly within these geographic clusters.
- Hospital associated care: Some clusters saw a large increase in the rates and/or the number of services provided by hospital systems, including their broad array of affiliate locations.
- Provider rates: Other clusters saw the same hospital/non-hospital based treatment ratios as prior years, but there was a material rate increase for all provider types across the board.
- Utilization increases: Some clusters also experienced a larger number of services being performed per claim.
One of the most severe examples of hyperinflation came from a large Florida metropolitan area which experienced a combined 47 percent workers’ compensation healthcare inflation rate. Not only was there a dramatic increase in the charge per hospital bill, but utilization was also way up and there was a shift to more services being performed in a costlier hospital system setting.
“The growth of costs in this Florida market stood in stark contrast to neighboring areas where most of our clients’ claim costs were coming down or at least had flat-lined,” Beans said.
An Arizona metropolitan area, on the other hand, experienced a different root cause for their hyperinflation. Regardless of provider type, rates have significantly increased over the past year. For example, one hospital system showed dramatic increases in both charge master rates and utilization. “Even with aggressive discounting, the projected customer impact in 2014 will be an increase of $773,850 from this provider alone,” said Beans.
ACA: Unintended consequences?
So what is going on? According to Beans, a potential driver of these cost spikes could be unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
First, the ACA may be a contributing factor in recent provider consolidation. While healthcare industry consolidation is not new, the ACA can prompt increased merger and acquisition efforts as hospitals seek to improve financials and healthcare delivery by forming Accountable Care Organizations (ACO). ACOs, the theory goes, can take better advantage of value-based fee arrangements in existing and new markets.
“As hospital systems grow by acquisition, more patients are being brought under hospital pricing structures – which are significantly more expensive than similar services at smaller facilities such as independent ambulatory surgery centers and doctors’ offices,” Beans said.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that post-consolidation healthcare systems have become more efficient, only more expensive. For example, a recent PwC study reported that hospital IT infrastructure consolidation alone is projected to add 2 percent to hospital costs in 2015.
Another potential ACA consequence is group health insurers may have less incentive to keep medical costs down. An ACA provision requires that 85% of premium in the large group market must be spent on medical care and provider incentive programs, leaving 15% of premium to be allocated towards administration, sales and subsequent profits. “Fifteen percent of $5000 in medical charges is a lot less than 15% of $10,000,” said Beans. “This really limits a group health carrier’s incentive to lower medical costs.”
How do increased group health rates relate to workers’ comp? In some markets, a group health carrier may use its group health rates for their work comp network so any rate increase impacts both business types.
In the end, medical inflation is inconsistent at best, with varying levels driven by differing factors in different locations – a true “needle in the haystack” challenge.
What to do?
Managing these emerging cost threats, whether you have the capabilities internally or utilize a partner, means having the tools to pinpoint hyperinflation and make adjustments. Beans said potential solutions for payers include:
- Using data analytics: Data availability is at an all-time high. Utilizing analytical tools to spot problem areas is critical for executing cost saving strategies quickly.
- Moving services out of hospital systems: Programs that direct care away from the hospital setting can substantially reduce costs. For example, Rising’s surgical care program utilizes ambulatory service centers to provide predictable, bundled case rates to payers.
- Negotiating with providers: Working directly with providers to negotiate bill reductions and prompt payment arrangements is effective in some markets.
- Underwriting with a micro-focus: For carriers, it is vital that underwriters identify where these pockets of hyperinflation are so they can adjust rates to keep pace with inflation.
“This trend needs to be closely watched,” Beans said. “In the meantime, we will continue to use data to help payers of medical services be smarter shoppers.”