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.
Nothing beats working with the best. That’s what Jerry Oliver, a senior vice president with Manhattan-based Lupex, told himself as he left the morning meeting.
In that meeting, executives with Lupex, an energy trading firm, voted to buy two million barrels of crude and store it offshore. A precipitous decline in oil prices was the motivation.
All the firm had to do was keep the oil safe and sound until the prices rose again, which they inevitably would. Major domestic drillers were already laying off staff and cutting production. These latest low oil prices were just another bend in the cycle.
Oliver’s marching orders from that morning’s meeting were clear. Working with other members of the Lupex team, it was Oliver’s responsibility to find the right vessel and a safe place to moor it.
The strategy was to keep the oil safe by avoiding CAT-exposed locations and hold it long enough for the firm to cover its storage costs and still make a handsome profit when the price rose.
“Let’s get this done,” Oliver said to himself before walking into his office to get on a phone call with a colleague in Texas.
After consulting with his colleague, Oliver decided to use the Miller Line, a company based in the energy hub of Houston. The Miller Line was an owner of Very Large Crude Carriers — or VLCCs.
One of the company’s ships, the Mariana, had the capacity that Lupex needed and was available. Adding to the attractiveness of the Mariana was that she was already in Southern California, not far from the tank farm in El Segundo where the oil was stored.
The Lupex team decided to moor the Mariana off of Long Beach, once she’d taken on the Lupex crude.
“We don’t want to store it in the Gulf, or anywhere near Florida,” Oliver told his team, pointing to the hurricane hazards in those locations.
“Long Beach has also got the security infrastructure we like,” Oliver said.
Lupex procured the oil at $50 per barrel the following morning, making its value at purchase $100 million. To wrap up the deal, Oliver and his associates took care of some final details, among them, getting insurance in place.
Loading at the tank farm went off without a hitch and the Mariana was moored off of Long Beach. Within days, it looked like oil prices had bottomed.
Weeks later, after a particularly sharp, sustained rise in the price of oil, Lupex executives gave the “sell” order.
With oil at $80 per barrel at the time of the sale, it looked like the company’s strategy was playing out as well as could be hoped. The Mariana made her way to Houston, to offload the oil for the buyer.
At 2 p.m. on the afternoon the oil was offloaded in Houston, Jerry Oliver got a call from Antony Ellis, his associate in Houston.
“We’ve got a problem, a very serious problem,” Ellis said.
“What is it?” Oliver asked.
“The oil’s contaminated,” Ellis replied.
“What?” Oliver said.
“It’s true,” Ellis said. “Apparently, the ship was carrying gasoline before it picked up the crude load and wasn’t cleaned properly.”
“The gasoline additives that remained in the tanker contaminated the crude, lowering its grade and market value,” Ellis further explained.
‘Somebody’s got to tell the executive committee. I’ll do it,” Oliver said.
Then he hung up the phone.
On their follow-up call, Ellis and Oliver began to put the pieces of a disturbing picture together.
“So we can re-blend it?’ Oliver said.
“In essence, yes,” Ellis said.
“It’s a lower product grade, and far less valuable, and then there’s our mixing costs and other related expenses,” he said.
“If we’re very, very lucky and we get this done in no more than two days’ time. We might be able to get $42 per barrel for this lower grade product. I don’t see how we can hold it any longer,” Ellis said.
“Nobody up here has any patience for anything more than that,” Oliver said.
Oliver wasn’t sharing with Ellis the exact tone and temperature of the conversation that he’d had with senior management when he brought them the bad news to begin with. He’d spare his colleague that extra pain.
Working as quickly as they had ever worked, with neither of them sleeping more than four hours over a 48-hour period, Oliver and Ellis arranged for the re-blending of the ill-fated oil from the Mariana.
When all was said and done, Lupex got $41 per barrel for the re-blended product. A down day in the markets worked against them, but as traders, they knew that timing was everything. They were already down millions. They could not afford to wait a day longer.Two days after the sale of the re-blended product, Oliver was speaking with a senior executive, conducting a post-mortem on what became an instant legend at Lupex, “The Long Beach Loss.”
“What do our insurance carriers have to say about this?” the executive asked.
“Ummm, I haven’t talked to them yet,” Oliver said. He was back in his office and on the phone with Lupex’s broker within a minute, his ears still hot from the tongue-lashing his superior had given him.
The broker, Danny Parker, a young gun with a multinational firm, listened to the details of the loss as relayed by Oliver.
“Well, I’ve got a question for starters,” Parker said.
“What?” Oliver said.
“Why didn’t you contact me earlier?” Parker asked.
A List of Ills
Falling oil prices in 2014 were something that got everybody’s attention. Everyone of driving age could see it as gasoline prices at the pump plummeted.
Lupex executives couldn’t be blamed if they were practically obsessed with the rate at which oil prices were going down. After all, this was what they did; it was their bread and butter.
They had the capital and the connections to do very well on what looked like a historic trading opportunity. A two-year average oil price of more than $110 per barrel was becoming a dream-like memory as oil prices fell to below $80 per barrel, then $70 per barrel and on and on down.
Lupex executives were bright and well-schooled. They knew the history of the energy sector. They’d worked extremely hard, done very well over the years and felt they had earned this moment.
As with anyone, it was what they didn’t know that dealt them such a painful blow.
It fell to Danny Parker, the energy insurance broker, and his colleague, Lee Ann Farmer, a cargo specialist, to give Lupex the most painful messages of all.
“Jerry and Antony … let me ask you something. When you arranged to lease the Mariana from the Miller Line, did you ask them about what the Mariana previously held, and whether the vessel posed a contamination risk?”
“That’s on me,” Antony Ellis said. “The short answer is no. You have to understand — we weren’t the only traders on the planet that had their eye on this opportunity. VLCC rates were showing a lot of volatility of their own in late 2014,” he said.
“A lot of people were after this opportunity,” Oliver said.
“We understand …” Danny Parker managed to get out before Antony Ellis interrupted him.
“We’re talking about storage rates of tens of thousands of dollars per day, and in one week alone in November, we saw a 20 percent increase in those leasing rates. There was a lot to consider here,” Ellis said.
“I’m sure there was,” Lee Ann Farmer said.
“I know you had a lot to consider,” she continued. “But you should have thought about a cargo policy. After all, once that product leaves land and goes into a ship, you’re in a completely different ballgame from a coverage perspective.”
“Okay, but how exactly?” Jerry Oliver began.
“Just hold on a second,” Danny Parker said.
“That contamination issue you had? I bet you I could have covered that for you,” Lee Ann said.
Oliver felt nausea roil his stomach.
“You’re kidding me,” he said. “All of it?”
“I’m pretty sure the carrier would have you retain some of it,” Lee Ann said. “But in our world, these days, there’s a lot of capacity out there.”
“I never knew,” Antony Ellis said.
“Sorry. But now you know,” Danny Parker said.
Lupex would live to seek other opportunities in coming months and years, but its insurance coverage lapse in the Long Beach loss cost the company an opportunity that might have been once in a lifetime.
Risk & Insurance® partnered with XL Group to produce this scenario. Below are XL Group’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. These “Lessons Learned” are not the editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.
1. Consider an Ocean Cargo Policy: For a relatively low cost compared to the value of goods, an ocean cargo policy can be structured to cover perils of the seas (i.e. sinking, fire, collision, explosion, heavy weather), General Average, Theft, Fire, Acts of War, Shortage, Leakage and contamination. In the “Tainted Goods” risk scenario, if Lupex had purchased an appropriately structured ocean cargo policy, the company would have been covered for the loss due to contamination.
2. Choose Appropriate Limits: When evaluating an ocean cargo policy, risk managers need to ensure that the amount of insurance will be sufficient to cover the goods at the maximum foreseeable financial interest. This is especially important in dealing with commodities, like oil, where there’s a chance of financial fluctuations.
3. Valuation of Goods: For an effective ocean cargo policy, it should be structured to allow the buyer to be indemnified for the highest value of goods for several different situations, including:
- The invoice value + 10% (for ancillary/related costs)
- The selling price (if sold)
- The market value on date of loss
With these different evaluations structured into the policy, this will allow for recovery of the amount paid at a minimum, or the full mark up if sold or unsold at a maximum.
4. Ensure Professional Handling of Goods: Bulk liquids and solid goods pass through a number of loading mechanisms, holding tanks/locations, pipelines, conveyor belts, loading machinery and pumps when moving from shore to vessel and vice versa upon unloading. This opens up the potential for many types of losses, including: shortages, contamination and loss in weight. In order to reduce this risk, companies should take the steps to ensure professional handling of their goods by working with tenured logistics providers.
5. Reduce Your Contamination Risks: It’s common for companies to conduct and pay for testing and approval of tanks as well as a certificate by a qualified surveyor. However, it’s important that additional samples are taken at loading and unloading to determine if, where, or when the contamination occurred. This is also recommended for barges, lighters, tank cars and port side tanks. Most of all, a company operating in this space should make sure the handling guidelines are adhered to. By following the handling guidelines, the insurance coverage will remain valid.
6. Consult with your Marine Broker & Underwriter: Marine brokers and underwriters can offer specific knowledge and experience that can be leveraged in certain classes of businesses. They can discuss best practices and provide recommendations to reduce your risk. In addition, they can provide value added services in terms of Risk Engineering, Claims, and various technical white papers, which can serve as readily available resources.
2015 General Liability Renewal Outlook
There was a time, not too long ago, when prices for general liability (GL) insurance would fluctuate significantly.
Prices would decrease as new markets offered additional capacity and wanted to gain a foothold by winning business with attractive rates. Conversely, prices could be driven higher by decreases in capacity — caused by either significant losses or departing markets.
This “insurance cycle” was driven mostly by market forces of supply and demand instead of the underlying cost of the risk. The result was unstable markets — challenging buyers, brokers and carriers.
However, as risk managers and their brokers work on 2015 renewals, they’ll undoubtedly recognize that prices are relatively stable. In fact, prices have been stable for the last several years in spite of many events and developments that might have caused fluctuations in the past.
Mark Moitoso discusses general liability pricing and the flattening of the insurance cycle.
Flattening the GL insurance cycle
Any discussion of today’s stable GL market has to start with data and analytics.
These powerful new capabilities offer deeper insight into trends and uncover new information about risks. As a result, buyers, brokers and insurers are increasingly mining data, monitoring trends and building in-house analytical staff.
“The increased focus on analytics is what’s kept pricing fairly stable in the casualty world,” said Mark Moitoso, executive vice president and general manager, National Accounts Casualty at Liberty Mutual Insurance.
With the increased use of analytics, all parties have a better understanding of trends and cost drivers. It’s made buyers, brokers and carriers much more sophisticated and helped pricing reflect actual risk and costs, rather than market cycle.
The stability of the GL market also reflects many new sources of capital that have entered the market over the past few years. In fact, today, there are roughly three times as many insurers competing for a GL risk than three years ago.
Unlike past fluctuations in capacity, this appears to be a fundamental shift in the competitive landscape.
“The current risk environment underscores the value of the insurer, broker and buyer getting together to figure out the exposures they have, and the best ways to manage them, through risk control, claims management and a strategic risk management program.”
— David Perez, executive vice president and general manager, Commercial Insurance Specialty, Liberty Mutual
Dynamic risks lurking
The proliferation of new insurance companies has not been matched by an influx of new underwriting talent.
The result is the potential dilution of existing talent, creating an opportunity for insurers and brokers with talent and expertise to add even greater value to buyers by helping them understand the new and continuing risks impacting GL.
And today’s business environment presents many of these risks:
- Mass torts and class-action lawsuits: Understanding complex cases, exhausting subrogation opportunities, and wrangling with multiple plaintiffs to settle a case requires significant expertise and skill.
- Medical cost inflation: A 2014 PricewaterhouseCoopers report predicts a medical cost inflation rate of 6.8 percent. That’s had an immediate impact in increasing loss costs per commercial auto claim and it will eventually extend to longer-tail casualty businesses like GL.
- Legal costs: Hourly rates as well as award and settlement costs are all increasing.
- Industry and geographic factors: A few examples include the energy sector struggling with growing auto losses and construction companies working in New York state contending with the antiquated New York Labor Law
David Perez outlines the risks general liability buyers and brokers currently face.
Managing GL costs in a flat market
While the flattening of the GL insurance cycle removes a key source of expense volatility for risk managers, emerging risks present many challenges.
With the stable market creating general price parity among insurers, it’s more important than ever to select underwriting partners based on their expertise, experience and claims handling record – in short, their ability to help better manage the total cost of GL.
And the key word is indeed “partners.”
“The current risk environment underscores the value of the insurer, broker and buyer getting together to figure out the exposures they have, and the best ways to manage them — through risk control, claims management and a strategic risk management program,” said David Perez, executive vice president and general manager, Commercial Insurance Specialty at Liberty Mutual.
While analytics and data are key drivers to the underwriting process, the complete picture of a company’s risk profile is never fully painted by numbers alone. This perspective is not universally understood and is a key differentiator between an experienced underwriter and a simple analyst.
“We have the ability to influence underwriting decisions based on experience with the customer, knowledge of that customer, and knowledge of how they handle their own risks — things that aren’t necessarily captured in the analytical environment,” said Moitoso.
Mark Moitoso suggests looking at GL spend like one would look at total cost of risk.
Several other factors are critical in choosing an insurance partner that can help manage the total cost of your GL program:
Clear, concise contracts: The policy contract language often determines the outcome of a GL case. Investing time up-front to strategically address risk transfer through contractual language can control GL claim costs.
“A lot of the efficacy we find in claims is driven by the clear intent that’s delivered by the policy,” said Perez.
Legal cost management: Two other key drivers of GL claim outcomes are settlement and trial. The best GL programs include sophisticated legal management approaches that aggressively contain legal costs while also maximizing success factors.
“Buyers and brokers must understand the value an insurer can provide in managing legal outcomes and spending,” noted Perez. “Explore if and how the insurer evaluates potential providers in light of the specific jurisdiction and injury; reviews legal bills; and offers data-driven tools that help negotiations by tracking the range of settlements for similar cases.”
David Perez on managing legal costs.
Specialized claims approach: Resolving claims quickly and fairly is best accomplished by knowledgeable professionals. Working with an insurer whose claims organization is comprised of professionals with deep expertise in specific industries or risk categories is vital.
“We have the ability to influence underwriting decisions based on experience with the customer, knowledge of that customer, and knowledge of how they handle their own risks, things that aren’t necessarily captured in the analytical environment.”
— Mark Moitoso, executive vice president and general manager, National Accounts Casualty, Liberty Mutual
“When a claim comes in the door, we assess the situation and determine whether it can be handled as a general claim, or whether it’s a complex case,” said Moitoso. “If it’s a complex case, we make sure it goes to the right professional who understands the industry segment and territory. Having that depth and ability to access so many points of expertise and institutional knowledge is a big differentiator for us.”
While the GL insurance market cycle appears to be flattening, basic risk management continues to be essential in managing total GL costs. Close partnership between buyer, broker and insurer is critical to identifying all the GL risks faced by a company and developing a strategic risk management program to effectively mitigate and manage them.
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.