DeWitt Stern Group's recent coup in beating out Aon Corp. and Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. to capture a nice piece of business from Time Warner Inc. is emblematic of the entertainment world success of this mid-sized broker.
"DeWitt is doing some very good things in the entertainment business and there's no reason for people not to know about it," says David Conca, director of risk management at New York-based Time Warner.
Conca says there were several reasons he and his team chose DeWitt. One was the experience of team leader LeConte Moore and his entertainment group. "Every person on the team had 15 years to 20 years of experience," observes Conca.
"There was no room for kids," he says about the team that will be handling Time Warner's Negative Pick Up program. That program annually assists between 125 and 150 independently produced films that approach Time Warner to get help with financing and insurance coverage.
"Having had so much experience with the institutional brokers, it was refreshing to see an owner, Jolyon Stern, who is personally committed to his business and wants to reach out and touch clients," Conca says.
Conca, who called the broker's RFP "a breath of fresh air" (complete with an original 10-minute film of testimonials and other features), also was struck by DeWitt's advanced use of technology. Among other things the brokerage firm has a program that allows Conca and members of his team to electronically access their insurance and other records.
"Their ability, and our ability, to have immediate access to our files, even from home, is very impressive," notes Conca, adding that he just doesn't see that kind of commitment among some of the larger brokerages.
Indeed, the DeWitt Stern Group has made state-of-the-art technology a hallmark of its marketing strategy. The firm has made much of what it has branded its "paperless workplace."
DeWitt Stern COO David Paige joined the privately owned firm five years ago and is credited along with President Jolyon Stern in propelling the firm into the forward ranks of innovative brokerage firms from a technology standpoint.
"One goal is security," Paige says. "We don't lose pieces of paper because they are always backed up through central servers in the United States."
Another issue is access.
"When we presented to Time Warner, for example, they knew that all of the members of the team had access to all information on the account," says Paige.
"What that meant was that three hours before Los Angeles people came to work, the New York people would be up and running with the exact information."
Further, the paperless workplace "allows us to free our best experts from having to sit in an office," Paige observes. He cites the example of top producer Christie Mattull, who is based in Los Angeles but travels around the globe.
Finally, this environment allows a client to create and download a certificate of insurance 24 hours a day. That's something that's huge for film crews on location.
For example, says Paige, a film company might want to show a town in Budapest a certificate of insurance to use the village square. Even if it's 1 a.m., the film company can go into a password-protected Web site, create that document, download it, print it and go on with their business. "They don't have to wait for us," he says.
One product that has received particular praise from DeWitt Stern clients is its Electronic Briefcase, the technology for which the broker developed the software. TEB is handled by an independently hosted server that keeps all transactions involved in, say, a film project.
TEB doesn't house just insurance information; it keeps all forms of contracts and medical and financial information. It is divided into sections that can only be accessed if you have a password to a particular section. And every time information is updated e-mails go to the work group affected.
But sophisticated technology and the ability to sell it is just part of the story behind DeWitt Stern's remarkable rise in the past five years. Another part is the team of professionals it has put together.
AN EAGLE EYE FOR TALENT
The leader of that effort is Chairman and President Jolyon Stern, who in recent years has built a fine and growing reputation for the firm. But five years ago when he hired David Paige as COO reporting directly to Stern, the firm began to climb in the marketplace.
Paige, who prior to joining DeWitt Stern had been a practicing insurance coverage lawyer and also worked as an attorney for many brokers as their outside counsel, had by all accounts an eagle eye for talent.
The DeWitt Stern talent pool received a further boost when New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer cracked down on Marsh and other large financial institutions, causing many brokers at larger firms to take a hard look at their futures.
One who did take action was LeConte Moore, leader of Marsh's entertainment group. In April 2005 Moore and his entire team transferred to DeWitt, taking with them such big-name accounts as Carnegie Hall and music company Broadcast Music Inc., otherwise known as BMI.
Says Moore of Paige: "I credit David with taking business risk in hiring and in business we go after."
Another Marsh star to join DeWitt in the past couple of years is fine arts specialist Steven Pincus.
"What appealed to me about DeWitt was the flattened management structure. Also, I have the ability to get closer to my clients. I can think more creatively and implement operational strategies more efficiently," says Pincus.
Moore and his team turned out to be just the beginning of a windfall of top hires. Since his defection, DeWitt Stern has added such all-stars as Lisa Johnston, a leader in insuring law firms, who was hired away from Aon Corp.; Eileen Eubanks, a specialist in private claims hired away from Gallagher for the new DeWitt Stern San Francisco office; and Richard Eisenberg, hired away from Aon/Albert G. Ruben.
Other prominent hires include benefits expert Kirk Caldwell, who now works out of the company's Fort Lauderdale office, and Peter Marshall, who once ran his own film production company in Los Angeles.
Marshall's much written-about move from movie producer to insurance broker always provokes raised eyebrows. "He's known Jolyon for some time and we got to talking and I proposed it to him and it went from there," says Paige by way of explanation.
For all DeWitt Stern's cutting-edge modern technology, in many ways it is still a good old-fashioned broker. It has a religiously adhered to credo on claims advocacy, for example.
Paige says that it is not uncommon for either himself or Jolyon Stern to pick up the phone on a claims call.
In the past year or so, major account victories for DeWitt Stern include the Alvin Ailey Dance Co, the New Museum in New York, the Gerald Peters Gallery in New Mexico and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, along with several professional groups and the accounts of high-net-worth individuals.
So, with a solid technology platform and an exceptional staff in place, what does the future suggest for DeWitt Stern, which has about 250 employees in seven offices?
Key growth areas targeted by Paige include legal, accounting, consultants, high-net-worth individuals and non-profit organizations--"that fit our community-based philosophy, the idea that a business works best when it is actively involved in the community."
STEVE YAHN lives in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
February 14, 2008
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