Risk Scenario

A Paramount Parable

Talent shortages and bidding wars undermine a construction company’s ability to stay competitive.
By: | March 25, 2014 • 8 min read
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

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?

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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.”

Scenario Partner

Scenario Partner

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.

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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.

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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.

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A Horse With No Name

The answer to Neal’s question, as it turned out, was “nowhere.”

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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.”

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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.



Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

Lead Story

Improving the Claims Experience

Insureds and carriers agree that more communication can address common claims complaints.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

Carriers today often argue that buying their insurance product is about much more than financial indemnity and peace of mind.

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Many insurers include a variety of risk management services and resources in their packages to position themselves as true risk partners who help clients build resiliency and prevent losses in the first place.

That’s all well and good. No company wants to experience a loss, after all. But even with the added value of all those services, the core purpose of insurance is to reimburse loss, and policyholders pay premiums because they expect delivery on that promise.

At the end of the day, nothing else matters if your insurer can’t or won’t pay your claim, and the quality of the claims experience is ultimately the barometer by which insureds will judge their insurer.

Why, then, is the process not smoother? Insureds want more transparency and faster claims payment, but claims examiners are often overburdened and disconnected from the original policy. Where does the disconnect come from, and how can it be bridged?

Both sides of the insurer-insured equation may be responsible.

Susan Hiteshew, senior manager of global insurance and risk management, Under Armor Inc.

“One of the difficult things in our industry is that oftentimes insureds don’t call their insurer until they have a claim,” said Susan Hiteshew, senior manager of global insurance and risk management for Under Armour Inc.

“It’s important to leverage all of the other value that insurers offer through mid-term touchpoints and open communication. This can help build the insurer-insured partnership so that when a claim materializes, the relationships are already established and the claim can be resolved quickly and fairly.”

“My experience has been that claims executives are often in the background until there is an issue that needs addressing with the policyholder,” said Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance for Daimler Trucks North America.

“This is unfortunate because the claims department essentially writes the checks and they should certainly be involved in the day to day operations of the policyholders in designing polices that mitigate claims.

“By being in the shadows they often miss the opportunity to strengthen the relationship with policyholders.”

Communication Breakdown

Communication barriers may stem from internal separation between claims and underwriting teams. Prior to signing a contract and throughout a policy cycle, underwriters are often in contact with insureds to keep tabs on any changes in their risk profile and to help connect clients with risk engineering resources. Claims professionals are often left out of the loop, as if they have no proactive role to play in the insured-insurer relationship.

“Claims operates on their side of the house, ready to jump in, assist and manage when the loss occurs, and underwriting operates in their silo assessing the risk story,” Hiteshew said.
“Claims and underwriting need to be in lock-step to collectively provide maximum value to insureds, whether or not losses occur.”

Both insureds and claims professionals agree that most disputes could be solved faster or avoided completely if claims decision-makers interacted with policyholders early and often — not just when a loss occurs.

“Claims and underwriting need to be in lock-step to collectively provide maximum value to insureds, whether or not losses occur.” – Susan Hiteshew, senior manager of global insurance and risk management for Under Armour Inc.

“Communication is critically important and in my opinion, should take place prior to binding business and well before a claim comes in the door,” said David Crowe, senior vice president, claims, Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance.

“In my experience, the vast majority of disputes boil down to lack of communication and most disputes ultimately are resolved when the claim decision-maker gets involved directly.”

Talent and Resource Shortage

Another contributing factor to fractured communication could be claims adjuster workload and turnover. Claims adjusting is stressful work to begin with.

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Adjusters normally deal with a high volume of cases, and each case can be emotionally draining. The customer on the other side is, after all, dealing with a loss and struggling to return to business as usual. At some TPAs, adjuster turnover can exceed 25 percent.

“This is a difficult time for claims organizations to find talent who want to be in this business long-term, and claims organizations need to invest in their employees if they’re going to have any success in retaining them,” said Patrick Walsh, executive vice president of York Risk Services Group.

The claims field — like the insurance industry as a whole — is also strained by a talent crunch. There may not be enough qualified candidates to take the place of examiners looking to retire in the next ten years.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the claims industry is a growing shortage of talent,” said Scott Rogers, president, National Accounts, Sedgwick. “This shortage is due to a combination of the number of claims professionals expected to retire in the coming years and an underdeveloped pipeline of talent in our marketplace.

“The lack of investment in ensuring a positive work environment, training, and technology for claims professionals is finally catching up to the industry.”

The pool of adjusters gets stretched even thinner in the aftermath of catastrophes — especially when a string of catastrophes occurs, as they did in the U.S in the third quarter of 2017.

“From an industry perspective, Harvey, Irma and Maria reminded us of the limitations on resources available when multiple catastrophes occur in close succession,” said Crowe.

“From independent and/or CAT adjusters to building consultants, restoration companies and contractors, resources became thin once Irma made landfall.”

Is Tech the Solution?

This is where Insurtech may help things. Automation of some processes could free up time for claims professionals, resulting in faster deployment of adjusters where they’re needed most and, ultimately, speedier claims payment.

“There is some really exciting work being done with artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies that could yield a meaningful ROI to both insureds and insurers,” Hiteshew said.

“The claim set-up process and coverage validation on some claims could be automated, which could allow adjusters to focus their work on more complex losses, expedite claim resolution and payment as well.”

Dan Holden, manager, Corporate Risk & Insurance, Daimler Trucks North America

Predictive modeling and analytics can also help claims examiners prioritize tasks and maximize productivity by flagging high-risk claims.

“We use our data to identify claims with the possibility of exceeding a specified high dollar amount in total incurred costs,” Rogers said. “If the model predicts that a claim will become a large loss, the claim is redirected to our complex claims unit. This allows us to focus appropriate resources that impact key areas like return to work.”

“York has implemented a number of models that are focused on helping the claims professional take action when it’s really required and that will have a positive impact on the claim experience,” Walsh said.

“We’ve implemented centers of excellence where our experts provide additional support and direction so claim professionals aren’t getting deluged with a bunch of predictive model alerts that they don’t understand.”

“Technology can certainly expedite the claims process, but that could also lead to even more cases being heaped on examiners.” — Dan Holden, manager, Corporate Risk & Insurance, Daimler Trucks North America

Many technology platforms focused on claims management include client portals meant to improve the customer experience by facilitating claim submission and communication with examiners.

“With convenient, easy-to-use applications, claimants can send important documents and photos to their claims professionals, thereby accelerating the claims process. They can designate their communication preferences, whether it’s email, text message, etc.,” Sedgwick’s Rogers said. “Additionally, rules can be established that direct workflow and send real time notifications when triggered by specific claim events.”

However, many in the industry don’t expect technology to revolutionize claims management any time soon, and are quick to point out its downsides. Those include even less personal interaction and deteriorating customer service.

While they acknowledge that Insurtech has the potential to simplify and speed up the claims workflow, they emphasize that insurance is a “people business” and the key to improving the claims process lies in better, more proactive communication and strengthening of the insurer-insured relationship.

Additionally, automation is often a double-edged sword in terms of making work easier for the claims examiner.

“Technology can certainly expedite the claims process, but that could also lead to even more cases being heaped on examiners,” Holden said.

“So while the intent is to make things more streamlined for claims staff, the byproduct is that management assumes that examiners can now handle more files. If management carries that assumption too far, you risk diminishing returns and examiner burnout.”

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By further taking real people out of the equation and reducing personal interaction, Holden says technology also contributes to deteriorating customer service.

“When I started more than 30 years ago as a claims examiner, I asked a few of the seasoned examiners what they felt had changed since they began their own careers 30 year earlier. Their answer was unanimous: a decline in customer service,” Holden said.

“It fell to the wayside to be replaced by faster, more impersonal methodologies.”

Insurtech may improve customer satisfaction for simpler claims, allowing policyholders to upload images with the click of a button, automating claim valuation and fast-tracking payment. But for complex claims, where the value of an insurance policy really comes into play, tech may do more harm than good.

“Technology is an important tool and allows for more timely payment and processing of claims, but it is not THE answer,” BHSI’s Crowe said. “Behind all of the technology is people.” &

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]