By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
Meet Richard Smith, the new president of the Vermont Captive Insurance Association (VCIA).
For attendees who don't already know him, one way to catch him will be as he's making the rounds at a double trot during VCIA's annual conference in Burlington, Aug. 10-12, at the Sheraton Hotel.
This year's conference will be Smith's day in the sun, assuming the fickle Vermont weather holds up. It's a coming-out party, if you will, as this is his first VCIA conference, an organization which he's been president of now for almost a year now.
If Smith isn't yet a household name in the captive insurance industry, perhaps that's understandable. After all, Smith was appointed to succeed long-time former president Molly Lambert last September, after the August VCIA conference had been put in the history books.
The past 11 months for the former Vermont state administrator and U.S. Senate staffer have been a whirlwind of meetings, travel schedules, hand-shaking and lobbying
When Smith was finally able to catch his breath and extend a handshake and a pleasantry or two at the Vermont booth on the show floor at the annual conference of the Captive Insurance Companies Association in March, it was in a quiet and subdued style--"which is the way we do things in Vermont," he said.
That's the way the VCIA, and Smith, operate. The approach is low-key, the demeanor easy-going and the service fast and friendly. That low-key approach is also highlighted in the fact that the VCIA board of directors named Smith to an open-ended term as the organization's new leader.
Former VCIA Chairman Michael Bemi, in a statement released at the time of Smith's appointment to the VCIA presidency on Sept. 9, said Smith would bring "a perfect blend of political savvy, ease in relating to CEOs regarding their complex enterprise management choices and years of significant administrative accomplishments to this very important role."
You'll get no argument on that from Smith, who knows that in Vermont "personal contact makes all the difference."
That's because word gets around quickly in a small state like Vermont, and even quicker in the tight-knit captive insurance world. If attendees haven't yet heard of Smith, or know of him, they certainly will have by Aug. 12, when the conference ends.
Smith, in an interview with Risk & Insurance® in May, said that his job at the conference this year will be to reassure captive insurance industry prospects and clients that doing business in the Green Mountain state is good for the green.
Not that the industry needs convincing about the wisdom of setting up shop in Vermont.
With a host of top captive management firms, accountants and lawyers skilled in tax code minutia packing downtown Burlington and the state capital Montpelier, Vermont made a name for itself as a haven for captive industry companies long before Smith arrived on the scene.
In 2009, despite the soft market, Vermont hauled in 39 new licensed captives, up from only 16 in 2008. With 560 licensed captives operating in the state at the end of last year, Vermont is the No. 1 domestic domicile by far.
All of which makes Smith's job that much more pleasant. No hard sell required, only a little hand-holding to let captive insurance managers know that personnel changes among the VCIA makes not one iota of difference in Vermont's approach to welcoming the captive insurance industry.
"I'll try and reassure people that transitions in Vermont, from former Deputy Commissioner Len Crouse to (Deputy Commissioner for Captive Insurance) Dave Provost, from former VCIA President Molly Lambert to myself, or from one governor to another governor, don't affect the captives," Smith said.
Smith said he likes the community feel of Vermont. The politics there are a far cry from the grinding machine politics of New York or Massachusetts. In Vermont, everyone knows everyone else, or of everyone else.
So far, said Smith, the captive industry is "the friendliest group of people I've worked with." He would know, having worked under tough conditions on statewide campaigns for U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Following the Kerry campaign, Smith worked in the U.S. Senate in 1991. After working on Capitol Hill for more than three years, he came to Vermont in 1994 where he worked in the office of former Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat.
Smith was appointed deputy commissioner of economic development in the Vermont Department of Economic Development in 1998, where he was responsible for keeping businesses from leaving, while at the same time luring new companies to a state with stringent environmental regulations and an economy prone to the business cycles dictated by tourism.
The inauguration of Gov. James Douglas, a Republican, in 2003, and the attendant changes in the highest levels of the state's executive branch might have signaled the end of Smith's tenure in Vermont government.
Not so. Smith's new bosses, Secretary of Commerce Kevin Dorn and former Commissioner of Economic Development Michael Quinn asked him to stay.
Smith did, and in 2005 moved to the Vermont Department of Public Service, the regulatory agency for the energy and telecommunications sectors.
Tony Klein, chairman of the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said Smith was always appreciated for seeking out the middle ground--managing from the center.
"He always sought to find common ground and what we could agree on rather then try to be combative," Klein said. "He was very skillful at it and very successful at it."
"We got further with the state of Vermont with him there than we would have if somebody else had been in that role," Klein added.
Having worked for Republican and Democratic bosses, Smith has also learned to tread gingerly between the demands of industry and the responsibility to ratepayers. It's not an easy balance, and compromise takes work from all sides.
"Business owners are Vermonters too, and most want what's best for the state, yet they struggle with regulations and other issues like businesses everywhere," Smith said. "So, for me, being a good regulator was about protecting what needs to be protected while letting business thrive."
VCIA officials, citing Smith's record of working with Democrats and Republicans in the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as his record of working with the business community, know they have the right man for the job.
"He's the guy that's all about getting good things done and it's likely he's a Democrat, but I don't care and we don't know," Bemi said, in an interview with Risk & Insurance®
"He's very sensitive to a balanced approach to dealing with the issues and I've found him to be someone who is very incisive and decisive," said Jim McIntyre, a partner with McIntyre & Lemon PLLC. "A lot of the issues I deal with for the VCIA are very complex and he's a quick study. He just gets right to the issues."
McIntyre, who represents the VCIA before the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) in Washington, D.C., and in federal legislative and regulatory issues, called Smith a "consensus builder."
So far, Smith, from Topsfield, Mass., appears to have proved the board right about his ability to reach across the public, private and political divides. That was the easy part.
Now comes the hard part. Smith is going to have to prove himself the bipartisan before a far tougher audience: the VCIA membership.
August 1, 2010
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