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.”
Managing Construction’s True Risk Exposure
When it comes to the construction industry, the path to success is never easy.
After a long, deep recession of historic proportions, the sector is finally on the mend. But as opportunities to win new projects grow, experience shows that more contractors go out of business during a recovery than during a recession.
Skilled labor shortages, legal rulings in various states that push construction defects onto general liability policies, and New York state’s labor laws that assign full liability to project owners and contractors for falls from elevations that injure workers are just some of the established issues that are making it ever harder for firms to succeed.
And now, there are new emerging risks, such as the potential for more expensive capital, should the Federal Reserve increase its rates. This would tighten already stressed margins, perhaps making it harder for contractors and project owners to invest in safety and quality assurance, and raising the cost of treating injured workers.
Liberty Mutual’s Doug Cauti reviews the top three risks facing contractors and project owners.
“Our customers are very clear about the challenges they are facing in the market,” said Doug Cauti, the Boston-based chief underwriting officer for Liberty Mutual’s construction practice.
“Now more than ever, construction risk buyers – and the brokers who serve them – are leveraging our team’s deep expertise to find solutions for complicated risks. This goes way beyond what many consider the traditional role of an insurance carrier.”
Other leading risks facing contractors and project owners.
Given the current risk environment, firms that simply seek out the cheapest coverage could leave themselves exposed to these emerging risks. And that could result in them becoming just another failed statistic.
So what is the best way to approach your risk management program?
Understanding the Emerging Picture
Construction firms have been dealing with multiple challenges over the last several years. Now, several new emerging risks could further complicate the business.
After an extended period of historically low interest rates, the Federal Reserve is indicating that rates could rise in late 2015 or sometime in 2016. That would surely impact construction firms’ cost of capital.
“At the end of the day, an increased cost of capital is going to impact many construction firm’s margins, which are already thin,” Cauti said.
“The trickle-down effect is that less money may be available for other operational activities, including safety and quality programs. Firms may need to underbid and/or place low bids just to get jobs and keep the cash flow going,” Cauti said.
“Now more than ever, construction risk buyers – and the brokers who serve them – are leveraging our team’s deep expertise to find solutions for complicated risks.”
— Doug Cauti, Chief Underwriting Officer, Liberty Mutual National Insurance Specialty Construction
“Experience shows us that shortcuts in safety and quality often lead to more construction defect claims, general liability claims and workers’ compensation claims,” Cauti said.
Currently, the frequency of worker injuries is down on a national basis but the severity of injuries is on the rise. If those frequencies start creeping up due to less robust safety programs, the costs could grow fast.
And if this possible trend is not cause enough for concern, the growing costs associated with medical care should have the attention of all risk managers.
“Five years ago medical costs represented 56 percent of a claim,” said Jack Probolus, a Boston-based manager of construction risk financing programs for Liberty Mutual.
“By 2020, that medical cost will likely grow to 76 percent of an injured worker’s claim, according to industry experts,” Probolus said.
Rising interest rates and rising medical costs could form a perfect storm.
Focusing on the Total Cost of Risk
For risk managers, the approach they utilize to mitigate the myriad of existing and emerging risks is more important than ever. The ideal insurance partner will be one that can integrate claims management, quality assurance and loss control solutions to better manage the total cost of construction risk, and do it for the long term.
Liberty Mutual’s Doug Cauti reviews the partnership between buyers, brokers and insureds that helps better manage the total cost of insurance.
In the case of rising medical costs, that means using claims management tools and workflows that help eliminate the runaway expense of things such as duplicate billings, inappropriate prescriptions for powerful painkillers, and over-utilization of costly medical procedures.
“We’re committed to making sure that the client isn’t burdened in unnecessary costs, while working to ensure that injured employees return to productive lives in the best possible health,” Probolus said.
The right partner will also have the construction industry expertise and the willingness to work with a project owner or contractor from the very beginning of a project. That enables them to analyze risk on the front end and devise the best risk management program for the project or contractor, thereby protecting the policyholder’s vulnerable margins.
“We want to be there from the very beginning,” Liberty Mutual’s Cauti said.
“This isn’t merely a transaction with us,” he added. “It’s a partnership that extends for years, from binding coverage, through the life of the project and deeper as claims come in and are resolved over time,” he said.
In other words, it’s a relationship focused on value.
Today’s construction insurance market – with an abundance of capacity – can lead to new carriers entering the market and/or insurers seeking to gain market share by underpricing policies.
“We see it all the time,” Liberty Mutual’s Cauti said.
Where does this leave insureds? Frustrated at pricing instability, or by the need to find a new carrier. And wiser, having learned the wisdom of focusing on value, that is the ability to better control the total cost of risk.
“Premium is always important,” notes Liberty Mutual’s Cauti. “But smart buyers also understand the importance of value, the ability of an insurer to partner with a buyer and their broker to develop a custom blend of coverages and services that better protect a project’s or contractor’s bottom line and reputation. This is the approach our dedicated construction practice takes.
Why Liberty Mutual?
For more information on how Liberty Mutual Insurance can help assess your construction risk exposure, contact your broker or Doug Cauti at [email protected].
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.