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.
An Act of Violence
Alex Block settled down on a sunny afternoon in May of 2015 at the counter of Presto, a regionally famous sandwich shop in Pittsburgh, and hungrily eyed the pastrami sandwich on his plate.
Thick slices of white Italian bread stuffed with French fries, coleslaw and sweet-spicy, aromatic meat shaved super-thin. This was not the time to second-guess on the calories. This moment called for just diving right in.
Block’s self-indulgence felt justified. Three years ago, he’d returned to this former mill town, his bank accounts bulging with cash from a 14-year career as a Wall Street investment banker.
What he did with about $4 million of that cash got tongues wagging. It even got him a headline on the front page of the local business paper.
Block invested in his grandfather’s former aluminum fabrication company in nearby Lawrenceville with the idea of bringing it back as an aluminum decking company, dubbed Sarachelle Decking, Inc. The first word of the company name was a combination of the names of Alex’s two daughters, Sara and Rochelle.
Some online commentators greeted the news with ridicule. Block’s business looked to some like a bone-headed move spurred by nostalgia.
“This ain’t the Steel City no more, buddy,” grumbled an out-of-work ironworker, commenting on the online news story about the launch of this small to mid-sized company. Many in the Pittsburgh manufacturing community thought that Block would never make it in manufacturing.
But Block was no bonehead. He put his Wharton MBA and his curiosity to good use, researching South American bauxite production to identify lesser known suppliers who would give him a price advantage over larger companies.
It was in Guyana that he found the bauxite producer that made the whole thing click for his company. He added to that advantage by lining up a local smelter that he found through his business school contacts.
Now, three years later, the glimmer of real gold was appearing. Just this spring, Force-Tek, one of the publicly traded railroad and highway infrastructure companies, picked up his product in a seven-figure contract. Who was laughing now?
What better way to toast his success than with a stuffed sandwich at Presto’s? That form of celebration was a personal tradition that dated back to his high school days when Alex’s father would proudly treat him when he won wrestling matches.
Block made short work of the French fry-stuffed pastrami sandwich. As he finished off his diet cream soda, his eyes settled on the television set above the lunch counter. A news report showed footage of Venezuelan troops pouring over the Guyanese border. A long-simmering border dispute was erupting into armed conflict.
The operation providing Block’s bauxite was located a mere 200 miles to the east of the Venezuelan border incursion. The image of the Venezuelan troops stopped Block cold.
In an instant Block’s mind ran through the possibilities.
The degree to which the bauxite plant itself was threatened was one area of concern. But Block’s Guyanese producer was also heavily dependent on labor from the neighboring country of Suriname.
Even if the bauxite plant wasn’t captured or otherwise affected, it could suffer business interruption if its labor supply was blocked.
“How long the dispute will last and to what degree it will embroil neighboring Suriname are unknowns,” said the British-accented broadcaster.
“But one thing is certain,” he continued. “Business and personal travel in this area of the world will be inadvisable for weeks, possibly months to come.”
“No kidding,” Block said out loud to himself, eliciting a sharp, critical glance from a co-ed sitting on the next stool, apparently peeved that Block had interrupted her concentration as she thumbed through her iPhone.
In one afternoon, Alex Block’s bright business prospects darkened considerably. The pastrami sandwich that he’d rationalized as an earned indulgence now sat heavy in his stomach.
The Venezuelan incursion accomplished just what Block feared it would do.
Officials in Suriname tightened down their borders, blocking the movement of workers into Guyana for three months.
A months-long military border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana claimed dozens of lives per week. The fighting never escalated to a country-wide engagement, but the damage to the sustainability of Sarachelle Decking was done. Block’s Guyanese bauxite producer was forced to cease production until the situation stabilized.
Block moved quickly to identify another bauxite producer but he was outflanked.
He was forced to compete with larger aluminum makers and fabricators for bauxite from their existing suppliers. The higher price from those bauxite producers erased a key business advantage.
In a meeting with his CFO, Block faced the music.
“We’ve got margin erosion here that worries me greatly,” said the CFO, Kristian Moorehead.
The company was meeting its production obligations to Force-Tek and other key customers, but it was looking at an operating loss within one more quarter if it couldn’t cut costs.
Even with a full order book, Block did what he felt he had to do and laid off a shift. Maybe the layoff was too much too soon, an over-reaction, but Block was Wall Street trained. You didn’t wait, you acted.
The news sent ripples through the Pittsburgh manufacturing community and was gleefully picked up on by Block’s competitors.
“They’re not going to be around long,” was what a salesmen for one of the company’s competitors told a customer in the Midwest, where Sarachelle Decking did most of its business.
“Why do you say that?” said the customer.
“For one, they source from Guyana, which is under attack from Venezuela if you haven’t noticed,” the salesman said.
“Secondly, they’ve only been in business four years and they just laid off an entire shift last month,” the salesman said.
“I think you better ask yourself what it’s going to do to your business if you buy from them and they go under,” he added.
“I guess I’ll have to take that under advisement,” the customer said.
Alex Block was not an insurance naïf. His due diligence work as an investment banker gave him more than a passing acquaintance with products such as property insurance, D&O insurance, workers’ compensation, environmental insurance and other coverages.
As he scrambled to save his company and the prolonged Guyana-Venezuela strife played out, Block and his CFO examined their coverages to see if they could find relief.
They did not find relief. What they found were gaps, not only in their coverage but in their risk management strategy.
Back to the Drawing Board
As an event beyond his control, Alex Block couldn’t help but think that the conflict in South America that deprived him of a key supplier should have been compensable from an insurance standpoint.
After all, wasn’t it comparable to a storm or flood knocking out his factory for a few weeks or even longer? The answer was that it was, and it wasn’t.
Supply-chain insurance that would have provided a payout on the clear supply-chain disruption that Sarachelle Decking suffered wasn’t in place.
On the risk mitigation end, Block was so enamored of the business advantage his Guyanese bauxite supplier gave him that he didn’t look at the flip side. He failed to imagine what losing it would do to him and failed to arrange for back-up low-cost suppliers.
Over drinks with a pal from his Wharton days, Block got the lowdown on what he should have known and done going in.
“I mean the supply chain cover is something you arguably might not have been able to get to begin with,” his friend said between sips of his vodka martini.
“It’s not like there’s that much coverage out there and with your limits the carriers that handle that might have passed on you,” he said.
“But the supply chain analysis, you should have done and could have done,” he said. “It would have pointed out that your strength and your weakness were both coming from the same supplier,” he said.
“And a contingency plan?” his friend said.
“If I’d known …” Alex began.
“If you’d known. But good to have in any event,” his friend said.
With no end to the South American conflict in sight, Sarachelle Decking was locked into a bauxite price that gradually undermined its ability to compete.
The company was able to function for a full two years beyond the day that Block first axed one of the production shifts.
But in 2017, the day came when Alex Block’s dream of resurrecting his grandfather’s company came to an end. The same reporter that wrote a front page business journal story on him in 2012 visited him to write the epitaph on Sarachelle Decking.
In the five years he’d been in Pittsburgh, Alex Block had gotten used to the feel of a smaller town. His New York days seemed like a distant memory. This was his hometown after all.
But something told him he’d be back in that rat race before long.
Risk & Insurance partnered with the Society of Actuaries (SOA) to produce this scenario. Below are perspectives from an actuary on ways to prevent losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.
1. Analyze and prioritize risks: All business prospects need to be analyzed for potential pitfalls, as the business owner in the scenario did not prepare for unexpected events, such as labor shortages from regional instability or the unavailability of a critical supply point that impacted his entire supply chain.
The 2014 Emerging Risks Survey from the Joint Risk Management Section, of which the SOA is a sponsor, identifies emerging risks ranging from environmental to geopolitical. Key geopolitical risks can include:
- Interstate and civil wars
- Failed and failing states
- Regional instability
- International terrorism
- Retrenchment from globalization
The businessperson in the scenario should have considered various geopolitical risks, among other risks that impact the company. Another set of emerging risks to consider include societal:
- Pandemics and infectious disease
- Regime liability and regulatory framework issues
- Demographic shifts
2. Create relevant and actionable contingency plans: While it is important to research and identify potential shortfalls or risks presented from working with suppliers, vendors or other partners, it is also necessary to take action with this information. The loss of a key supplier, such as in this scenario, must be met with immediate action or dire consequences can occur. Planning ahead is necessary, so backup suppliers and sources of materials should be in place for the company. It is also vital to understand what risks may affect the suppliers’ business, which can ultimately impact the company too. For example, there are currency risks when dealing with suppliers based in another country, such as fluctuations in the economy, changes with the interest rates or issues with foreign exchanges.
3. Understand coverages: The risk exposures, a company’s appetite for risk and several other factors should weigh in to the decision of insurance coverage. Even if a company doesn’t have a chief risk officer, who that responsibility lies with needs to be identified and their knowledge of coverages and coverage limitations needs to be comprehensive.
4. Harness your consultants’ knowledge: The businessperson in this scenario depended too much on his own knowledge and did not seek counsel from insurance consultants or an insurance carrier, which was a vast oversight on his part. It is important to have a clear understanding of coverages and risk mitigation processes through tapping into the valuable insights of available resources and experts.
For more information about SOA, please visit www.soa.org/impact
5 & 5: Rewards and Risks of Cloud Computing
Cloud computing lowers costs, increases capacity and provides security that companies would be hard-pressed to deliver on their own. Utilizing the cloud allows companies to “rent” hardware and software as a service and store data on a series of servers with unlimited availability and space. But the risks loom large, such as unforgiving contracts, hidden fees and sophisticated criminal attacks.
ACE’s recently published whitepaper, “Cloud Computing: Is Your Company Weighing Both Benefits and Risks?”, focuses on educating risk managers about the risks and rewards of this ever-evolving technology. Key issues raised in the paper include:
5 benefits of cloud computing
1. Lower infrastructure costs
The days of investing in standalone servers are over. For far less investment, a company can store data in the cloud with much greater capacity. Cloud technology reduces or eliminates management costs associated with IT personnel, data storage and real estate. Cloud providers can also absorb the expenses of software upgrades, hardware upgrades and the replacement of obsolete network and security devices.
2. Capacity when you need it … not when you don’t
Cloud computing enables businesses to ramp up their capacity during peak times, then ramp back down during the year, rather than wastefully buying capacity they don’t need. Take the retail sector, for example. During the holiday season, online traffic increases substantially as consumers shop for gifts. Now, companies in the retail sector can pay for the capacity they need only when they need it.
3. Security and speed increase
Cloud providers invest big dollars in securing data with the latest technology — striving for cutting-edge speed and security. In fact, they provide redundancy data that’s replicated and encrypted so it can be delivered quickly and securely. Companies that utilize the cloud would find it difficult to get such results on their own.
4. Anything, anytime, anywhere
With cloud technology, companies can access data from anywhere, at any time. Take Dropbox for example. Its popularity has grown because people want to share large files that exceed the capacity of their email inboxes. Now it’s expanded the way we share data. As time goes on, other cloud companies will surely be looking to improve upon that technology.
5. Regulatory compliance comes more easily
The data security and technology that regulators require typically come standard from cloud providers. They routinely test their networks and systems. They provide data backups and power redundancy. Some even overtly assist customers with regulatory compliance such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
1. Cloud contracts are unforgiving
Typically, risk managers and legal departments create contracts that mitigate losses caused by service providers. But cloud providers decline such stringent contracts, saying they hinder their ability to keep prices down. Instead, cloud contracts don’t include traditional indemnification or limitations of liability, particularly pertaining to privacy and data security. If a cloud provider suffers a data breach of customer information or sustains a network outage, risk managers are less likely to have the same contractual protection they are accustomed to seeing from traditional service providers.
2. Control is lost
In the cloud, companies are often forced to give up control of data and network availability. This can make staying compliant with regulations a challenge. For example cloud providers use data warehouses located in multiple jurisdictions, often transferring data across servers globally. While a company would be compliant in one location, it could be non-compliant when that data is transferred to a different location — and worst of all, the company may have no idea that it even happened.
3. High-level security threats loom
Higher levels of security attract sophisticated hackers. While a data thief may not be interested in your company’s information by itself, a large collection of data is a prime target. Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) attacks by highly skilled criminals continue to increase — putting your data at increased risk.
4. Hidden costs can hurt
Nobody can dispute the up-front cost savings provided by the cloud. But moving from one cloud to another can be expensive. Plus, one cloud is often not enough because of congestion and outages. More cloud providers equals more cost. Also, regulatory compliance again becomes a challenge since you can never outsource the risk to a third party. That leaves the burden of conducting vendor due diligence in a company’s hands.
5. Data security is actually your responsibility
Yes, security in the cloud is often more sophisticated than what a company can provide on its own. However, many organizations fail to realize that it’s their responsibility to secure their data before sending it to the cloud. In fact, cloud providers often won’t ensure the security of the data in their clouds and, legally, most jurisdictions hold the data owner accountable for security.
Risk managers can’t just take cloud computing at face value. Yes, it’s a great alternative for cost, speed and security, but hidden fees and unexpected threats can make utilization much riskier than anticipated.
Managing the risks requires a deeper understanding of the technology, careful due diligence and constant vigilance — and ACE can help guide an organization through the process.
To learn more about how to manage cloud risks, read the ACE whitepaper: Cloud Computing: Is Your Company Weighing Both Benefits and Risks?