Way, way down South, where the summer air hangs heavy and the storms lash the Gulf Coast with ferocious intensity, commercial insurance broker John Bullock floats through two very different worlds: gaming and shipping.
At first blush, they are incongruous worlds--ships and casinos--worlds that ordinarily would never meet, but not in the state of Mississippi and on the long, languid and storied river of the same name.
Brokers who insured marine property never crossed professional paths with brokers who insured casinos. In 1992, however, Mississippi lawmakers allowed gambling, and the casinos were built on floating barges when the opposition to land-based gambling parlors grew too strong.
Though he may not have known it then, John Bullock had already struck the jackpot. With his knowledge of marine insurance, already anchored by years of experience beginning in his mid-20s when he wrote his first shrimp-boat policies, it was just a matter of time before he segued into the casino operations.
Casinos had to be written on hull forms, not standard property forms, as card dealers and cocktail waitresses were now protected by federal maritime laws like the Jones Act and the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers Act.
"Those were all Jones Act employees, and so it created a dramatically different set of exposures for the gaming operators who were used to traditional hospitality-type things like a hotel and patron liability," says Bullock.
Like many brokers, Bullock started small. He first worked at an agency, in his case the Eselin Real Estate and Insurance Agency, in 1979, shortly after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he studied banking and finance.
He was named vice president, and the name was changed to Eselin-Bullock & Associates Inc. to reflect his newfound prominence. Management sold the firm to Willis Group, the large London-based brokerage firm, in 1990. Bullock was named president of Willis of Mississippi.
Since then, it's been a fairly steady ride, and rise, as Bullock won progressively bigger commercial accounts and numerous sales accolades were bestowed on him from the global Willis organization.
To top it all off, in 1995, he even hooked the largest Gulf red snapper on record during a fishing trip. The news of the 37-pound, 11.2-ounce monster made it all the way to Chicago and beyond, when syndicated radio show host Paul Harvey blurted the good news on the air.
Moving through the late 1990s and the first half of the new decade, life looked rosy for Bullock, his wife Cheryl and their three children. Bullock was clearly on the up and up, having "quite a ride." Friends and clients even went so far as to call him "Bull."
He'd come a ways from the shipyards of Camden, N.J., where his family had been in the ship building business for generations. For Bullock, there was a lot more money to be made insuring boats and their crews than there was in building them.
And then the storms hit.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped into his family, tore apart his property and destroyed multimillion-dollar holdings belonging to his largest clients. Though his house was damaged, it was not beyond repair.
His father, he says, was another story. The hurricane, which caused more than $60 billion in insured losses, snatched away everything except his father's life.
"The house in Mississippi that I grew up in was totally gone in Pascagoula," Bullock recalls. Katrina left Bullock's father with a slab. "It didn't leave anything. Not a pencil, not a fork. Nothing. Totaled."
And that was just for starters. The losses incurred by clients ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars, in some cases the billions of dollars. Not to worry, says Bullock. He'd been there before.
"I have been writing land-based casino for a while, along with the navigating, floating and the permanently moored," he says. The big challenge late in 2005 was finding the capacity for clients in the wake of the storms.
Bullock wasn't just looking for $5 million or $10 million in capacity to insure one or two casinos. He was hunting for hundreds of millions of dollars to insure a half-dozen or more casinos that had taken hits from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which stormed ashore further west, near the Texas-Louisiana border, in September 2005.
For the first time in memory, Bullock and his team found themselves beggars of sorts.
"We just kind of put our nose to the grindstone, and with people who appeared to have no interest. We would literally beg, borrow or steal $5 million, $10 million or $15 million worth of capacity until we could get to those $100 million, or $200 million, or $300 million limits," he says.
The hurricanes, it appeared, had slammed not just into Bullock's life, but into his favorite underwriters as well. Overnight Bullock found himself persona non grata, so to speak. In July 2005, he was, figuratively speaking, walking on water when it came to finding capacity. Weeks later, he was gasping for it.
By the end of September, carriers, now tightly wound and tight-fisted, acted as if they barely knew him. They, too, were watching the carnage on CNN and MSNBC, and that was more than enough to send their analysts and underwriters scrambling to reprice their risk models.
In the spring of 2005, Bullock recalls, he could call an underwriter and ask for $250 million of capacity, and they wouldn't even flinch. "I need $100 million in excess of $250 million. I need $500 million in excess of $500 million," Bullock recalls. "No problem."
Post-Katrina, underwriters who had been gladly giving Bullock and his team $100 million or $200 million in capacity were only giving him $10 million or $20 million in capacity. By the time Bullock was finished finding enough capacity to cover his clients, he'd ended up with a "mosaic of participants."
But it wasn't the first time Bullock was faced with this kind of challenge, although he admits that the numbers involved were much bigger. "It's something we've been doing for years," he says.
"To put it in perspective, what in the past might have taken 10 pieces now took 45 pieces. So, if you needed $1 billion, I could maybe get you 10 markets and get you there," he says. Now the same result could be had with the participation of 45 or 50 different carriers and underwriters.
Throw in the Lloyd's syndicates, and the number of companies went up further still. Needless to say, Bullock in the fall of 2005 and spring of 2006 spent more time on airplanes than he did on the ground in a desperate search for more capacity for his casino clients.
The claims, in the tens of millions of dollars, were starting to come in, and Bullock's team was under pressure to get the 2006 renewals under way.
"Can you imagine in that timetable from August and September when those two storms hit, not only do we have to coordinate all the losses and the claims, but we also had to put together a complete submission for all the domestic markets and all the European markets, including Lloyd's, to garner enough support to have it done by December," he says.
The effort was Herculean, according to risk managers. "He's the last of the great American Boy Scouts," says Lance Ewing, vice president of risk management for Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
Case in point: As communities throughout the Gulf were cleaning up after Katrina, recalls Willis of Mississippi Inc. Senior Vice President Brian Brouckaert, who works with Bullock on the benefits side, homeowners with intact homes still had to spend several back-breaking days in subtropical heat ripping out carpeting and tearing down drywall.
Not an easy task, particularly with little or no communication with much of the rest of the country, as utility lines and cell-phone connections had been severed by downed trees or exploding transformers.
Brouckaert himself was clearing the rubble out of his backyard, "and I see this great big truck pull up our driveway, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, boy, what next?' Because people are burning logs and downed trees, and I'm thinking, 'OK, now we've got the government here, and I'm going to have to deal with somebody.' "
As it turned out, that somebody was none other than Bullock, carrying five pizzas, bags of food from McDonald's and an ice chest. "I'd no idea John had lost the usability of his home," says Brouckaert. "I had no idea that hehad flooded. But he shows up at my house with all of these goods."
"My kids are practically chanting his name, and as we're in the house, eating the food, drinking the Cokes and the beverages," Brouckaert continues, "our power comes on, and John looks at his watch and he says, 'You know what, they were 10 minutes late.' "
Suffice it to say that Bullock rarely misses a beat, if ever.
But if Bullock loathes missing a beat, at least the 53-year-old broker, named a Risk & Insurance®Power Broker in 2006 and 2007, has mellowed. Like many hard-chargers in middle age, he's realized that he can't do everything himself. Not that he needs much in the way of a reminder.
He employs 28 people in Mobile, Ala. Four executives form the core of the operation: himself; Mobile, Ala.-based Joyce Johnson, who deals with client management; Vernon Ewing, who deals with how to restructure the marine programs; and John Baker, who deals with claims. The core of Bullock's brokerage operation has stuck together for nearly 20 years.
These days, Bullock finds more satisfaction in winning--and greater consolation in losing--as a team. "It's certainly more satisfying on a team win than it is to be kind of a lone wolf, which is how I kind of started out 25 years ago," he says.
And this is one team that sticks together. "The turnover in his office is the lowest of any of the Willis offices in the United States," says Lance Ewing. "He's got people there with 15 and 20 years. People just don't want to seem to jump ship with him."
"John has always been somebody who's always been in control of the situations that he's in," adds Brouckaert. "He probably used to do it with a slightly louder voice and a slightly edgier disposition, but I think that what he's probably recognized through the years is that you can get every bit as much attention with a soft voice as you can with a loud one."
Team player or lone wolf, diplomat or outspoken pragmatist, it's paid off handsomely for Bullock. He's consistently named one of the top brokers by the Willis organization, the world's No. 3 brokerage, and he belongs to the elite Willis Exceptional Producers Council.
Staying at the top of the Willis organization takes more work than simply handing out McDonald's Happy Meals in times of need. No, behind the manicured exterior, Bullock's quite capable as being as tough a negotiator as they come, according to his wife of 23 years, Cheryl.
"He loves the challenge of putting together a deal," she says. And more than one risk manager will admit that he or she would have preferred a lower price in a deal brokered by the veteran.
Still, the numbers don't fib. Bullock delivers results--for himself, his organization and his clients.
What's the secret of his success? Knowledge of the industry, of course, and what he calls the "five P's."
"Prior preparation prevents poor performance," he says.
When it comes to the intersection of the world of marine and gaming, there's no one who knows as much, according to risk managers interviewed for this article.
With his family's roots in the shipping industry, it's true that Bullock's had a big head start helping clients navigate the shoals of Admiralty law and marine coverage. Yet he also deserves credit for exploiting a niche, deepening his knowledge of a specialty and not letting the winds of alternative careers and riches blow him off course.
"John has become more single-minded the more that he has found his niche in his area of expertise," says Bouckaert, who's watched Bullock hone his book of business and shares clients with Bullock.
"Nobody understands marine policies backwards and forwards and everything to do with marine policies like he does," says Ewing, who has known Bullock about five years. He adds that Bullock can find coverage "tripping down the steps of a ship."
That's why executives with responsibility for risk, like Cathy Beeding, vice president and general counsel of Island View Casino in Gulfport, Miss., are grateful Bullock's their broker. For Beeding, he helped craft a hybrid builder's risk policy giving her employer higher limits than a traditional builder's risk policy. The policy changes have allowed Island View to undertake an expensive renovation of an existing hotel, the former Grand Casino and Golf Course, while at the same time, work on a 100,000-square-foot expansion to the property. The hybrid builder's risk policy helped convince banks that it was worth the risk to lend Island View enough capital to renovate. Island View has a functioning casino with a construction site attached to it.
"Our insurance policy permits all of those activities to happen at the same time. I wouldn't have known about that but for John," she says.
For all the accolades, Bullock is a salesman at heart. At the end of the day, it's his job to close a deal.
Back in the summer of 2005, before hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated the Gulf Coast, a Category-3 hurricane called Dennis stormed ashore on July 10. Bullock called Beeding to offer her $15 million more in capacity, Beeding recalls.
The price was too high, and Beeding and her team didn't feel Dennis would pack much of a punch. Bullock's Island View clients backed off. Bullock, however, refused to take no for an answer.
He went ahead and placed $7.5 million in capacity, and told Beeding that, if after the weekend his casino client didn't care for an extra $7.5 million, then they didn't have to go through with the transaction.
At the very least, the casino would have $7.5 million in capacity if Dennis turned nasty.
"Well then, of course, Dennis was a nonevent, and then we went back and forth because I wanted the whole $15 million, I just didn't want to pay as much," Beeding recalls.
"So we went back and forth on price for a while, and then the primary underwriter, they wanted some more premium, too, because they figured they had more at risk," she says.
Negotiations dragged on for the following weeks and both sides had settled on $15 million when the hurricane warnings went out for Katrina. Beeding and her board wanted the $15 million immediately.
"I was at my mother's law office, and (Bullock) immediately scanned in and sent down the binders and took the load off my mind because my principals were asking, 'Cathy, did we get the extra $15 million?' "
In the end, Beeding and her board didn't go out looking for the extra capacity. It was Bullock who went out and found it for them.
"It was at a pretty good price," Beeding says. "At the end of the day, it was a really good price, and that's the kind of broker you want on your side."
CYRIL TUOHY is managing editor of
Risk & Insurance®.
April 15, 2007
Copyright 2007© LRP Publications