By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/web editor of Risk &Insurance®
Nancy Green will give you a sense for what we're talking about. The Aon broker first started her evolution into a hospitality guru about 20 years ago. "Which is sort of a scary thought in and of itself," the executive vice president said.
She was working with a Beverly Hills hotel that had closed its doors for two years for massive renovations. During which, Green worked the account as a consultant. Some of her client's questions required her to seek assistance from constructions experts within Aon. Wherever, she got the answers needed.
So many solid answers, in fact, that the entrepreneurial Green wrapped them all up into a presentation that she gave at a meeting of the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. In attendance at that presentation was a risk manager for one of the world's largest hotel chains, who, as anyone can imagine who's ever attended a conference seminar, waited patiently after the presentation with other attendees to exchange business cards and compliments with the speakers.
The risk manager wondered if Green would ever consider giving that presentation to another group, the risk management committee of the American Hospitality and Lodging Association, or the "big time" in the hospitality and lodging industry.
She took the opportunity and hit it out of the park. Practical and insightful, her presentation left the hospitality risk managers wanting more. "Do you have other things that you want to talk about?" the risk manager said.
In fact, she had a list of other things to talk about. Since then, she's provided new content and presentations for the AHLA meetings, twice a year, for the past 17 years, and she's been the only broker to do so. Green's story illustrates how a thought leader emerges: An opportunity presented itself, she hustled with it, another door opened, and she was prepared to step through.
Same went for Donna Ferrara. Now the managing director of the management liability practice at Arthur J. Gallagher, she was just starting out in the legal profession 30 years ago. Her first employer was a law firm that specialized in insurance and encouraged its young attorneys to try their hands at a number of different angles. Unlike most of her colleagues, Ferrara took them up on the offer.
"It really gave me an unusual background," she told us.
Onto the next employer, Home Insurance Co., where she really got an education, the foundation of her expertise in directors' and officers' (D&O) insurance liability matters. Home Insurance was in trouble. She was in the offices of the president and the chairman on a regular basis.
"When companies are in trouble, lawyers get to do things that they normally don't get to do," she said. She got to do things at Home that weren't "always having fun," things that didn't just inform her but also "humbled" her.
Her next gigs furthered her education. She was hired for the claims department at Crum & Forster because she didn't have claims experience, brought in to work for a manager by the name of Brad Ridge who would say that just because people bought insurance doesn't mean it gives them the right to ruin their businesses. Ridge then encouraged her to join the international law firm Shearman & Sterling, which had plans to launch an insurance department. Three months in, however, the partner whose idea it was lost interest.
Ferrara was again thrown into the swimming pool "deeper than one might have expected," as she put it.
Here once more, you see the pattern: opportunities emerged, and Ferrara submerged herself in them, worked at it until an even deeper challenge came. That's how, 10 years ago, she came to her current position, when Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. broker Phil Norton called with his plans to launch a D&O group.
As Green is to hotels and Ferrara is to management liability, Greg Benefield is to restaurants. He grew up working on horse farms and restaurants in Kentucky. He took to the latter while he worked on the opening crew of a quick-service chain in the 1970s.
"Really my first taste if you will, pardon the pun," Benefield said, who now is senior vice president and national leader of Willis' food and beverage practice.
He met his future wife on that shift. But what kept him in the food business was service, the helping of and respect for customers. He really "caught the bug" when he moved up the restaurant ladder and worked as director of risk management for a billion-dollar, thousand-location North American food chain. The company owner's thing was excellence in customer service.
To give you a sense for how strongly Benefield feels about it, he and his wife insisted their kids work in the food and hospitality business to catch the bug themselves, or at least get a sense for what it is to serve.
Himself, Benefield brought the ethic to Willis 18 years ago. Initially, he was brought in as a risk management consultant for the U.K.-based brokerage's North American restaurant clients. In three years, he was leading the U.S. food and beverage practice. It was there that he noticed that clients were experiencing increased expense in their programs because of the risk costs of their vendors. The clients began referring these vendors to Benefield.
"The best referral you can get is a recommendation from a client," Benefield said.
He ran with it. Now his clients range the gamut of the food chain--distributors, growers, packagers, brewers, wine makers. He gained in knowledge and leadership in the late 1980s working with the National Restaurant Association and hosting executive study groups. He served as president of his local RIMS chapter.
It's gotten to the point--or maybe he was always there--that Benefield sees himself more in the food service industry than the insurance business.
"We live it, we breathe it," he said, hardly taking a breath. "I think that clearly comes through. ... we get so passionate about it and start rambling because we love what we do."
That's why, Benefield believes, his clients come to him: because he knows what it means to manage risk in their business.
It's why Green has grown friendships with the risk managers at top hotel chains. She developed a sense for what their concerns were, they realized it, and began calling her regularly to bounce ideas and questions off her.
"I help them stay ahead of the game, and that's the part that they really appreciate," Green said.
Talk to risk managers who have dealt with Green, or Benefield, or Ferrara, and you'd hear that appreciation. Words like "invaluable" and "leadership" and "important."
At Beecher Carlson, a brokerage firm that's largely organized along the industries it serves, brokers feel encouraged to grow and maintain such expertise and relationships, said President Steve Denton.
"Our solutions show a deep understanding of their business, that it resonates with them," Denton said of clients. He recalled conversations his firm had with an alternative energy client whose biggest problem was financing and performance guarantees for its cutting-edge technology, and the Beecher brokers listened and replied with a nonstandard solution.
"If you were outside of the conversation, it wouldn't sound like an insurance conversation," Denton said. It would instead be two groups of energy industry insiders talking, with one group just happening to specialize in insurance and risk.
Marsh, another firm with specialization across industry groups and product lines, through internal training and recruitment, tries to foster this expertise, said Brian Elowe, a managing director in the global risk management division.
"Part of it is cultural," he said. Marsh is client centered, and brokers who are innovative, intellectually curious and entrepreneurial tend to do well.
When these brokers become "thought leaders," they become like the "tip of the spear" in a given sector, helping clients identify what's coming at them, not necessarily what's already here, according to Elowe.
"Our clients, the risk managers and others, the demand being put on them is quite heavy," he said.
These knowledge brokers benefit not just clients, however, but their brokerages too. Elowe and Denton echoed each other when they said that their experts help Marsh and Beecher differentiate themselves from the competition.
After all, Marsh doesn't have a Green, Beecher doesn't have a Benefield, Willis doesn't have a Ferrara. If you want these people, you deal with their employers.
We can of course add many, many more names to that list, too. The likes of Ferrara's colleague at AJG, Phil Norton, the Ph.D. in statistics; Peter Persuitti for nonprofits and religious organizations; John McLaughlin or John Watson for higher education; and Dorothy Gjerdrum for public entities.
There's Sri Sivastrin, a technology guru at Marsh, or Jeffrey Alpaugh in real estate, Holly Medl in healthcare, Jean Demchak for higher education, or Duncan Ellis for property. At Beecher, you can point to Kevin Gabhart for healthcare, Joel Troisi for property, Steve Anderson for executive liability, or Kevin Grady for claims analytics.
At Willis, you can turn to Paul R. Becker for construction, Peter Foster technology and intellectual property, David Shuey for life sciences, or Brian Ruane for real estate and hospitality.
Not an exhaustive list by any stretch at those firms, let alone at all of the other brokerages, large and small.
February 17, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications