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.”
Healthcare: The Hardest Job in Risk Management
Radically changing cost and reimbursement models.
Rapidly evolving service delivery approaches.
It is difficult to imagine an industry more complex and uncertain than healthcare. Providers are being forced to lower costs and improve efficiencies on a scale that is almost beyond imagination. At the same time, quality of care must remain high.
After all, this is more than just a business.
The pressure on risk managers, brokers and CFOs is intense. If navigating these challenges wasn’t stress inducing enough, these professionals also need to ensure continued profitability.
“Healthcare companies don’t hide the fact that they’re looking to reduce costs and improve efficiencies in practically every facet of their business. Insurance purchasing and financing are high on that list,” said Leo Carroll, who heads the healthcare professional liability underwriting unit for Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance.
But it’s about a lot more than just price. The complexity of the healthcare system and unique footprint of each provider requires customized solutions that can reduce risk, minimize losses and improve efficiencies.
“Each provider is faced with a different set of challenges. Therefore, our approach is to carefully listen to the needs of each client and respond with a creative proposal that often requires great flexibility on the part of our team,” explained Carroll.
Creativity? Flexibility? Those are not terms often used to describe an insurance carrier. But BHSI Healthcare is a new type of insurer.
The Foundation: Financial Strength
Berkshire Hathaway is synonymous with financial strength. Leveraging the company’s well-capitalized balance sheet provides BHSI with unmatched capabilities to take on substantial risks in a sustainable way.
For one, BHSI is the highest rated paper available to healthcare providers. Given the severity of risks faced by the industry, this is a very important attribute.
But BHSI operationalizes its balance sheet in many ways beyond just strong financial ratings.
For example, BHSI has never relied on reinsurance. Without the need to manage those relationships, BHSI is able to eliminate a significant amount of overhead. The result is an industry leading expense ratio and the ability to pass on savings to clients.
“The impact of operationalizing our balance sheet is remarkable. We don’t impose our business needs on our clients. Our financial strength provides us the freedom to genuinely listen to our clients and propose unique, creative solutions,” Carroll said.
Keeping Things Simple
Healthcare professional liability policy language is often bloated and difficult to decipher. Insurers are attempting to tackle complex, evolving issues and account for a broad range of scenarios and contingencies. The result often confuses and contradicts.
Carroll said BHSI strives to be as simple and straightforward as possible with policy language across all lines of business. It comes down to making it easy and transparent to do business with BHSI.
“Our goal is to be as straightforward as we can and at the same time provide coverage that’s meaningful and addresses the exposures our customers need addressed,” Carroll said.
Claims: More Than an After Thought
Complex litigation is an unfortunate fact of life for large healthcare customers. Carroll, who began his insurance career in medical claims management, understands how important complex claims management is to the BHSI value proposition.
In fact, “claims management is so critical to customers, that BHSI Claims contributes to all aspects of its operations – from product development through risk analysis, servicing and claims resolution,” said Robert Romeo, head of Healthcare and Casualty Claims.
And as part of the focus on building long-term relationships, BHSI has made it a priority to introduce customers to the claims team as early as possible and before a claim is made on a policy.
“Being so closely aligned automatically delivers efficiency and simplicity in the way we work,” explained Carroll. “We have a common understanding of our forms, endorsements and coverage, so there is less opportunity for disagreement or misunderstanding between what our underwriters wrote and how our claims professionals interpret it.”
Responding To Ebola: Creativity + Flexibility
The recent Ebola outbreak provided a prime example of BHSI Healthcare’s customer-centric approach in action.
Almost immediately, many healthcare systems recognized the need to improve their infectious disease management protocols. The urgency intensified after several nurses who treated Ebola patients were themselves infected.
BHSI Healthcare was uniquely positioned to rapidly respond. Carroll and his team approached several of their clients who were widely recognized as the leading infectious disease management institutions. With the help of these institutions, BHSI was able to compile tools, checklists, libraries and other materials.
These best practices were immediately made available to all BHSI Healthcare clients who leveraged the information to improve their operations.
At the same time, healthcare providers were at risk of multiple exposures associated with the evolving Ebola situation. Carroll and his Healthcare team worked with clients from a professional liability and general liability perspective. Concurrently, other BHSI groups worked with the same clients on offerings for business interruption, disinfection and cleaning costs.
Ever vigilant, the BHSI chief underwriting officer, David Fields, created a point of central command to monitor the situation, field client requests and execute the company’s response. The results were highly customized packages designed specifically for several clients. On some programs, net limits exceeded $100 million and covered many exposures underwritten by multiple BHSI groups.
“At the height of the outbreak, there was a lot of fear and panic in the healthcare industry. Our team responded not by pulling back but by leaning in. We demonstrated that we are risk seekers and as an organization we can deploy our substantial resources in times of crisis. The results were creative solutions and very substantial coverage options for our clients,” said Carroll.
It turns out that creativity and flexibly requires both significant financial resources and passionate professionals. That is why no other insurer can match Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance.
To learn more about BHSI Healthcare, please visit www.bhspecialty.com.
Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance (www.bhspecialty.com) provides commercial property, casualty, healthcare professional liability, executive and professional lines, surety, travel, programs, and homeowners insurance. It underwrites on the paper of Berkshire Hathaway’s National Indemnity group of insurance companies, which hold financial strength ratings of A++ from AM Best and AA+ from Standard & Poor’s. Based in Boston, Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance has regional underwriting offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The information contained herein is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any product or service. Any description set forth herein does not include all policy terms, conditions and exclusions. Please refer to the actual policy for complete details of coverage and exclusions.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.