A Paramount Parable
Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.
Home for the Holidays
Neal Chambers surveyed the holiday turkeys on display at his local grocer on Nov. 23 and mused. Fresh or frozen? Tom or hen? Free range or kosher? Locally produced or from the foothills of the Smoky or the Sierra Mountains?
Chambers threw thrift to the wind and plunked down $52 for a 16-pound organic bird from Upstate New York.
What the heck? After four brutally slow years, the construction company he managed risk for was showing signs of reemergence.
True, the company’s estimators were not happy. Where once they needed to bid 10 jobs to land one, each job now took 30 or 40 bids to land.
Neal’s company, Paramount Construction Co., based in Des Moines, Iowa, worked with larger companies historically.
But in order to land projects, it was now moving down to the middle market and competing against smaller regional operators with local expertise. This was not an easy road to hoe.
But Paramount was doing what it felt it needed to do to compete successfully.
At the office holiday party on Dec. 19, held at the River Bluff Country Club, Neal could see signs that the C-suites were feeling a little better about things. Nice carving station, good wine in the glasses and some generous door prizes. He took in a deep breath and let it out.
Things had been tough for a while. He’d been working hard. He’d been worried.
“Go ahead, have a drink,” he told himself. “It’s free and now is as good a time as any.”
Neal had one glass of wine in him and was waiting his turn to fill his plate at the sushi appetizer table when he saw one of the vice presidents, Tom Murphy, lift his phone to his ear.
As he listened to the caller, Murphy turned and looked at Neal. With his other hand, he gestured to Neal to join him. Murphy’s hand was free because he did not drink at company functions … ever.
“It’s Constantine,” Murphy said in a whisper when Neal got closer. “Something’s up. He tried to reach you but…”
Murphy shrugged non-judgmentally.
Constantine, head of operations. Good guy. No nonsense.
“This is Neal Chambers,” Neal said into Murphy’s phone.
“Neal, it’s Jonny Constantine. We’ve got a bit of a situation.”
“Shoot,” Neal said.
Constantine exhaled audibly into the phone. Neal could tell that Constantine was a little upset.
Neal shot a look of worry at Murphy.
“Look, we just had an accident with an excavator operator on the site here in Mille Lacs. We’ve got one seriously injured employee and some structural damage to a neighboring building.”
“How bad is the injury?” Neal said.
“It’s not pretty. I think this poor kid is going to lose his left leg below the knee,” Constantine said.
“And the building?”
“Well. The wall on the demo wasn’t supported right and the operator knocked it into this neighboring wall. It was a pretty big bump.”
Neal hung up with Constantine and gave Murphy his phone back.
As he turned his own phone on to check messages, Neal Chambers felt any holiday warmth drain out of him. The wine that had been so enjoyable 20 minutes ago now struck him like a cheap depressant.
2014 was supposed to be Paramount’s breakout year. But now Chambers had a significant workers’ compensation and general liability claim to worry about.
Looking around the brightly lit room at his fellow employees, Neal Chambers had an uneasy feeling that 2014 wasn’t going to be that great after all.
No Bench Strength
What worried Neal Chambers were the personnel cuts Paramount undertook to survive during the brutal commercial construction downturn that seized the country during the Great Recession.
The most worrisome cuts came in the area of safety, where some highly paid talent had been laid off. But there were also cuts in estimating, where other senior personnel with beefier paychecks left the company.
You couldn’t put the cart before the horse. Although things were turning around, Paramount was not yet at a place where it could hire big ticket talent to fill the gaps. Not yet.
Yet the company was trying to grow again and take on more projects. The combination worried Neal Chambers.
The accident with the excavator in Mille Lacs wasn’t catastrophic. But it was the beginning of a series of workplace accidents that plagued the company through the first six months of 2014.
Neal’s conversations with finance added to his anxiety.
“We’re just not making the money on these projects I thought we were going to be,” said Tom Murphy’s elder brother Pat Murphy, the company CFO.
Bidding for projects in unfamiliar territories and on unfamiliar scales, Paramount’s overworked estimators were missing the mark time and again.
The combination of an increased injury frequency rate and thinner margins was not making a good impression on Paramount’s surety and insurance underwriters.
Both Pat and Neal feared that year-end premium increases could be in the works.
Paramount’s revenue shortfalls created friction with subcontractors.
Jonny Constantine got into several heated arguments with subcontractors, alleging that they were botching projects by not moving more efficiently.
There were now a handful of legal proceedings underway. In those cases, Paramount was alleging that subcontractors violated the terms of their contracts by not completing the work in time, or completing it in substandard fashion.
Win or lose, those lawsuits meant one thing to Neal Chambers and Pat Murphy. They meant more costs, more margin erosion.
“We’re in a tight spot,” Neal Chambers said.
“I know we are,” Pat said, somewhat impatiently.
“The thing is, I don’t know what we can do between now and 2015 renewals to make a better impression,” Neal said.
“It’s almost like a roll of the dice,” he added. “I don’t know what else we can get out of the safety department in terms of management.”
“We need better talent and more of it,” Pat said.
The question was where.
A Horse With No Name
The answer to Neal’s question, as it turned out, was “nowhere.”
The talent crunch that Paramount was experiencing, and which was causing it so much pain, was not isolated to Paramount. But some of its competitors moved more quickly than Paramount in acquiring and retaining the talent to help them take full advantage of the upturn.
Others moved even less effectively than Paramount. But in a competitive economy, being in the middle was no place to be.
As 2014 moved from the second quarter to the third and fourth, adding to Paramount’s workers’ compensation woes and its sinking profit margins came yet another issue.
That issue was increasing commodities prices. Paramount’s overworked estimators, working in the unfamiliar middle market, failed to take into account a gradual increase in the cost of steel, copper wiring and other key construction materials.
There simply was no place to turn to hire the sort of experience in safety or in estimating that could put Paramount back on track.
As Paramount’s executives looked forward to their year-end renewals for their insurance programs, the company was looking at unpalatable premium increases.
“You’re looking at a 30 percent mark-up with your workers’ compensation premiums and at least a 25 percent increase in the amount of collateral you’re going to have to put up in workers’ compensation and in surety,” said the company’s broker, Ed Scarborough. “You’re also looking at an increase in your general liability.”
The construction market continued to recover. But Paramount now needed to play defense.
Faced with insurance and surety increases and declining margins, Paramount had no choice but to do what it didn’t want to do. Already bereft and hamstrung due to a lack of talent, Paramount undertook more layoffs.
One of the first to go was Neal Chambers.
In November of 2014, Neal Chambers and his daughter Annabelle went shopping for a turkey. Annabelle was fourteen and well versed in sustainable agriculture practices at school.
“We’re getting an organic turkey, right?” she asked her father.
“No, Annabelle, I’m afraid not,” Neal said.
Neal reached into the meat freezer and pulled out a frozen Honeybreast turkey and threw it into his shopping cart with a disheartening “clang.”
Risk & Insurance partnered with Liberty Mutual Insurance to produce this scenario. Below are Liberty Mutual Insurance’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. These lessons learned are not the editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.
1. Value is replacing price: It’s no longer enough to be the lowest bidder. Contractors must now prove to clients that they have the capacity to deliver a project that is the most cost-effective in the long term. That means not only delivering a quality product, but having the risk management program and coverage in place to mitigate potential finger pointing and costly litigation down the road.
2. Keep an eye on commodities: Nowhere are the realities of the global economy more evident than in the area of commodities. Demand cycles for copper, steel, coal and other materials in developing or maturing economies are going to have an impact on prices here at home. Models that take into account commodities fluctuations will be increasingly important. In addition, any new rating programs based on Construction Value should be carefully evaluated compared to a payroll based program.
3. Talent rules: Qualified estimators and safety officers left the construction industry in droves during the downturn. Making sure the talent is in place to take advantage of the upturn in the rebounding commercial construction business is an important consideration. Don’t overlook the added value of a well-documented quality assurance program.
4. Understand new geographies: Competing in this new market may mean having to enter new geographic areas to find business. Trying to compete in New York state without understanding its Byzantine labor laws would be a mistake. So would entering into any new geography without an understanding of local regulations and how they could impact costs. Conversely, demonstrating local experience to a client would be a key selling point here.
5. Delivery methods matter: New markets mean new delivery methods. Whether it is design-build, identifying a construction manager at risk, or the complexities of public-private or international partnerships, insurance and risk mitigation are going to have to be adequate to cover these trending delivery methods. Effective communication amongst all parties including contractual relationships continues to be a vital aspect of any project.
Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.
Bright Shiny Objects
As the plane touches down, Meredith Fiers feels the butterflies in her belly. The risk manager for semiconductor manufacturer Bluepoint is now on the ground for her first big overseas assignment.
Her task? Visit the site of a proposed Bluepoint plant outside of Chandigarh, India, the provincial capital of Haryana. Officials in Haryana are offering generous tax breaks, a prime location and help accessing an educated, modestly compensated local workforce.
But there are still some issues to work out. Fiers needs to help determine how exposed the plant is to flood and other hazards.
Her first meeting with government engineers in Chandigarh leaves her feeling that she has her work cut out for her.
“These flood maps leave a lot to be desired,” she says to herself as she reviews a set of plans and elevations with local officials.
Something pings in her gut.
“I need to get out in the country and meet with some locals,” she thinks.
The next morning Fiers and an interpreter hop into a taxi and headed to the local village that is closest to where the Bluepoint plant will be built.
Fiers keeps her eyes peeled as the taxi driver navigates a bumpy provincial town road into the village. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices a group of older men gathered under the canopy of a Jujube tree.
“Stop! Here!” she says and the interpreter, in rapidly delivered Hindi, delivers the message to the driver.
“Ask them! Ask them,” she says excitedly.
“Ask them what?” says the interpreter, beginning to show signs of trepidation in the face of the forward manner of his American client.
“Ask them about flood,” Fiers says. “What’s the worst flood they remember?”
At the center of the group of villagers is an old man. Part of his white beard is stained by nicotine to a goldfinch yellow.
He nurses a glass of tea and the smoldering hand-rolled cigarette in his fingers seems like a natural extension of his anatomy. His dark eyes sparkled brilliantly though and he smiles as the interpreter approaches him.
The interpreter pops the question.
“Old man,” he says with a bit of cheek. “What is the worst flood you remember?”
The old man strokes his white-yellow beard and his smile fades as the memory hits him. Suddenly excited, he turns, jumps up and points with a trembling hand at a nearby temple wall.
Fiers turns and looks with him. She sees it immediately, a faint division in the shading of the stones. The stones to a certain point darker from the ground up, then lighter above. A highwater mark.
The man speaks excitedly to the interpreter in Hindi. But once he begins speaking, other members of the group started to engage and argue with one another. One pointing further up the hill; another pointing downhill. The argument soon becomes quite heated.
The interpreter turns to Fiers, surprised at the detail he just picked up. He just ignores the growing chaos behind him.
“1945,” he says. “That was the high point right there. In 1945.”
The village elder argument dies down and the old man sits down and takers a sip of tea; subdued again.
That night Fiers leaves an excited voicemail with Bluepoint’s CFO.
“Our proposed site is 1.5 meters higher in elevation than the worst flooding Haryana has ever seen,” she says.
“Let’s do this.”
Monsoon Season in Haryana
By August of 2018, the Bluepoint semiconductor plant near Chandigarh is everything company executives thought it would be. The local workforce and management team are delivering like a dream.
Part of Bluepoint’s confidence in the Chandigarh operation is that it is armed with a contract from Todah. Todah, one of the largest auto manufacturers in the world, is grabbing large chunks of market share with its hybrid vehicles.
This very month, Bluepoint wins yet another enormous contract, this time with a U.S.-based car maker.
Bluepoint’s leaders though, are keeping a close eye on a German competitor, Tek-Kraft. Tek-Kraft also used government incentives to build a semiconductor plant nearby. Bluepoint seems to be in a budding talent war with Tek-Kraft.
But as monsoon season builds to a peak, Bluepoint finds it has something else to worry about. The rain is coming down like no one in Haryana has ever seen.
“It’s Superstorm Sandy all over again,” says an engineering consultant that works with Bluepoint, on a call with Fiers and other executives as flood waters begin to overwhelm the lower elevations.
“What do you mean?” says Fiers, with some irritation in her voice. She doesn’t initially get the connection.
“I mean that a couple of underlying factors are producing flooding like this area has never seen before,” he says patiently.
“One, climate change is increasing the intensity of storms and other climactic actors like monsoons. This area has probably never seen such moisture.”
“And the second?” Fiers says. Panic is causing her to lose her composure.
“The second is that there is no way local flood maps could take into account the rapid increase in development which has sealed off the soil with concrete, asphalt and business parks,” the consultant says.
“There’s nowhere for all this water to go.”
The image of the old man pointing to the temple wall flashes in front of Fiers’ eyes. How high up that wall will this flood go? The answer is … high enough.
Bluepoint’s Chandigarh location is devastated by three days of flooding. The old man Meredith Fiers interviewed never thought he’d see the day when that 1945 flood is eclipsed. Well that day is here.
Nothing to do for it but get on the phone with her broker and her carriers. Fiers takes a deep breath and starts dialing.
Goodbye Local Workforce
“You’re in good shape from a coverage standpoint,” her broker tells Fiers when they connect and go over the policies two days after the plant is so severely damaged.
“You’ve got robust property coverage. You’ve got business interruption coverage as part of your property policy. No issues there given how long we think it will take the plant to get back up to speed, which I think is about nine months,” he says.
“True,” Fiers says.
“Of course we have some work to do to make sure we don’t get hurt at renewals,” he added. “But with your loss run, you should be okay,” he added.
But Fiers isn’t convinced that all is well. She’s right.
Six months later, with the re-opening of the Bluepoint Chandigarh plant a mere three months away, the company is buffeted by a different kind of flood; a wave of bad news.
The first blow is that Bluepoint loses Todah as a customer. The superstar hybrid maker picked up a new supplier while Bluepoint was down. Guess who? Yes, it’s Tek-Kraft.
Then Bluepoint loses the contract with the U.S. hybrid maker. Semiconductor makers with locations in China and Thailand were only too happy to pick up that business.
Still, Bluepoint executives push on to open the Chandigarh plant. Their sales people are begging other customers to stay with them until they can open again.
Their pleas may be in vain. Bluepoint puts out the word that it is hiring again at the Chandigarh plant. Unfortunately very few answer the call.
Local officials indicate that much of Bluepoint’s work force is now working for the Tek-Kraft plant.
“We’re none too happy with how your company has managed things here,” a Haryana economic development official tells a Bluepoint manager.
“So now it’s our fault?” the manager says.
Politics being politics, somebody’s got to take the blame for squandered tax breaks that in the end, failed to create long-lasting jobs. In these parts, Bluepoint is now the bad guy.
Bluepoint is rocked by the events in Haryana.
One day, just to escape the tension of what has become a daily work nightmare, Meredith Fiers takes a walk on the outskirts of the local village.
Coming up to the Jujube tree, she sees the village elder, the one that pointed to portentiously to the temple wall’s high water mark.
With his ever-present cigarette he looks sadly to the damaged temple, where there is a new high water mark. Fiers’ gaze follows his.
“If I only knew,” she says to herself.
Risk & Insurance® partnered with FM Global to produce this scenario. Below are FM Global’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.
Do not underestimate the impact you can have on reducing the potential damage and disruption to your business if flooding occurs. It all starts with a clear understanding of the risk, flood maps, onsite engineering expertise, local knowledge and a flood emergency response plan.
At important facilities, an onsite engineer is crucial to evaluating factors such as changes in terrain and infrastructure, impediments to water flow and other factors. Ideally, the facility should lie outside of a flood zone. Flood maps and onsite engineers are your best defense to mitigating flood exposure.
Regional and global mapping capabilities represent a unique blend of scientific knowledge, local expertise and technology to ensure you have the most comprehensive, up-to-date information to help you make informed risk improvement decisions.
But, if your facility is flood exposed, an engineer can look at opportunities to provide fixed or temporary flood protection, such as flood barriers or elevating critical assets.
A flood emergency response plan (FERP) can help you:
- Gain a thorough understanding of how a potential flood event could affect your facility;
- Make your emergency response team aware of their roles during such an event; and
- Ensure you have adequate resources on hand.
Consider taking the following steps:
- Make sure you understand the potential flood events to which your site is exposed. It is critical to know how much time you will have to put your plan in place. Important aspects include warning time, how fast the water will rise and how long it will last. This is where an onsite engineer can help you.
- Ensure you have a reliable method of flood warning.
- Establish the potential impact to your business (what operations will be affected, what level of damage will be involved – an engineer can provide assistance in assessing)
Taking action against flood can lead to disruption. After all, there always is the chance that predictions are wrong and the flood may not occur. By truly understanding the potential flood event, as well as the nature of the warning and timing, you will be able to determine a “point of no return,” after which your plan will not have time to work. This may be the most critical part of the plan, so it’s essential that your entire team is aware of the implications, supports the plan and agrees to who has the authority to put the plan into place—regardless of the immediate business implications.
Your Workers’ Safety May Be at Risk, But Can You See the Threat?
Deadly violence at work is covered extensively by the media. We all know the stories.
Last year, ex-reporter Bryce Williams shot and killed two former colleagues while they conducted a live interview at a mall in Virginia. In February of this year, Cedric Larry Ford opened fire, killing three and injuring 12 at a Kansas lawn mower manufacturing company where he worked. Also in 2015, 14 people died and 22 were wounded by Syed Farook, a San Bernardino, California county health worker, and his wife, who had terroristic motives.
Active shooter scenarios, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence at work.
“Workplace violence is much broader and more pervasive than that. There are smaller acts of violence happening every day that directly impact organizations and their employees,” said Bertrand Spunberg, Executive Risks Practice Leader, Hiscox USA. “We just don’t hear about them.”
According to statistics compiled by the FBI, the chance that any business will experience an active shooter scenario is about 1 in 457,000, and the chance of death or injury by an active shooter at work is about 1 in 1.6 million.
The fact that deadly attacks — which are relatively rare — get the most media attention may lead employers to underestimate the risk and dismiss the issue of workplace violence as media hype. But any act that threatens the physical or psychological safety of an employee or that causes damage to business property or operations is serious and should not be taken lightly.
“One of the core responsibilities that any organization must fulfill is keeping employees safe, and honoring that duty is becoming more challenging than ever,” Spunberg said.
“Workplace violence is much broader and more pervasive than that. There are smaller acts of violence happening every day that directly impact organizations and their employees. We just don’t hear about them.”
— Bertrand Spunberg, Executive Risks Practice Leader, Hiscox USA
Desk Rage and Bullying: The Many Forms of Workplace Violence
Bullying, intimidation, and verbal abuse all have the potential to escalate into confrontations and a physical assault or damage to personal property. These violent acts don’t necessarily have to be perpetrated by a fellow employee; they could come from a friend, family member or even a complete stranger who wants to target a business or any of its workers.
Take for example the man who killed three workers at a Colorado Spring Planned Parenthood in April. He had no affiliation with the organization or any of its employees, but targeted the clinic out of his own sense of religious duty.
Companies are not required to report incidents of violence and many employees shy away from reporting warning signs or suspicious behavior because they don’t want to worsen a situation by inviting retaliation. It’s easy, after all, to attribute the occasional surly attitude to typical work-related stress, or an office argument to simple personality differences that are bound to emerge occasionally.
Sometimes, however, these are symptoms of “desk rage.”
According to a study by the Yale School of Management, nearly one quarter of the population feels at least somewhat angry at work most of the time; a condition they termed “chronic anger syndrome.” That anger can result from clashes with fellow coworkers, from the stress of heavy workloads, or it can overflow from family or financial problems at home.
Failure to recognize this anger as a harbinger of violence is one key reason organizations fail to prevent its escalation into full-blown attacks. Bryce Williams, for example, had a well-documented track record of volatile and aggressive behavior and had already been terminated for making coworkers uncomfortable. As he was escorted from the news station from which he was terminated, he reportedly threatened the station with retaliation.
Solving Inertia, Spurring Action
Many organizations lack the comprehensive training to teach employees and supervisors to recognize these warning signs and act on them.
“The most critical gap in any kind of workplace violence preparedness program is supervisory inertia, when people in positions of authority fail to act because they are scared of being wrong, don’t want to invade someone’s privacy, or fear for their own safety,” Spunberg said.
Failing to act can have serious consequences. Loss of life, injury, psychological harm, property damage, loss of productivity and business interruption can all result from acts of violence. The financial consequences can be significant. In the case of the San Bernardino shootings, for example, at least two claims were made against the county that employed the shooter seeking $58 million and $200 million.
Although all business owners have a workplace violence exposure, 70 percent of organizations have no plans in place to avoid or mitigate workplace violence incidents and no insurance coverage, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.
“Most companies are vastly underprepared,” Spunberg said. “They don’t know what to do about it.”
Small- to medium-sized organizations in particular lack the resources to develop risk mitigation plans.
“They typically lack a risk management department or a security department,” Spunberg said. “They don’t have the internal structure that dictates who supervisors should report a problem to.”
With its workplace violence insurance solution, Hiscox aims to educate companies about the risk and provide a solution to help bridge the gap.
“The goal of this insurance product is not so much to make the organization whole again after an incident — which is the usual function of insurance — but to prevent the incident in the first place,” Spunberg said.
Hiscox’s partnership with Control Risks – a global leader in security risk management – provides clients with a 24/7 resource. The consultants can provide advice, come on-site to do their own assessment, and assist in defusing a situation before it escalates. Spunberg said that any carrier providing a workplace violence policy should be able to help mitigate the risk, not just provide coverage in response to the resultant damage.
“We urge our clients to call them at any time to report anything that seems out of ordinary, no matter how small. If they don’t know how to handle a situation, expertise is only a phone call away,” Spunberg said.
The Hiscox Workplace Violence coverage pays for the services of Control Risks and includes some indemnity for bodily injury as well as some supplemental coverage for business interruption, medical assistance and counseling. Subvention funds are also available to assist organizations in the proactive management of their workplace violence prevention program.
“Coverage matters, but more importantly we need employees and supervisors to act,” Spunberg said. “The consequences of doing nothing are too severe.”
To learn more about Hiscox’s coverage for small-to-medium sized businesses, visit http://www.hiscoxbroker.com/.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Hiscox USA. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.