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Brokerage

Specialization Aids Broker Success

Successful brokers say finding niches enhances growth and creates new revenue streams.
By: | October 21, 2016 • 5 min read

Focusing on niches and leveraging the latest technologies are two ways successful insurance agencies are boosting their bottom lines – even as organic growth across the sector has slowed a bit, according to the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA or the Big I).

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A survey of 260 so-called “best-practices” agencies determined by the trade group and Reagan Consulting found that best-practices firms grew organically by an average of 6.9 percent in 2015, down from the recent high of 9 percent in 2012, according to the “2016 Best Practices Study.”

While growth has slowed, the best practices agencies found that specialization enhances growth and creates new revenue streams.

“We write this type of coverage all over the state because we get a lot of referral business through word-of-mouth.” Dennis Hilton, president and CEO, Cheney Insurance

One of the best-practices agencies in the study, Cheney Insurance in Damariscotta, Maine, developed a niche for insuring “Maine guides,” professionals who guide clients through outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and kayaking, said Dennis Hilton, the agency’s president and chief executive officer.

“Maine guides can have basic or more unique exposures depending on their operations, in terms of their cabins, camps or lodges, as well as their boats, canoes and kayaks,” Hilton said. “Our agents are very familiar with the unique exposures associates with guiding, and the many requirements they need to be concerned with.”

For example, his staff has the expertise to help guides complete the paperwork and provide certificates of insurance required by large corporate landowners that allow guides to access their property during the various hunting seasons.

The agency handles these types of issues frequently, whereas many other agencies in the state do not have that level of expertise, Hilton said.

“We write this type of coverage all over the state because we get a lot of referral business through word-of-mouth,” he said. “As a result, we write more coverage for Maine guides than any other agency.”

Blake Johnson, president, Minard-Ames Insurance Services LLC/Insurica

Blake Johnson, president, Minard-Ames Insurance Services LLC/Insurica

Another best-practices agency, Minard-Ames Insurance Services LLC/Insurica in Phoenix, specializes in brokering insurance for the construction industry, said Blake Johnson, president.

“Fortunately for us, the construction industry relative to insurance has become very complex, requiring a high degree of technical expertise,” Johnson said. “This has provided us a tremendous advantage and increased our value proposition significantly.

“For contractors today, it’s all about staying out of trouble, and how we can help them accomplish that.”

For example, contracts are an important part of every construction project, as the construction industry tends to be fairly litigious, he said. As such, ensuring proper risk transfer within these contracts is critical, and insurance plays a major role.

“Whether that advice is to a general contractor regarding what to require of those working for them or advising a subcontractor when the requirements imposed upon them exceed that for which they are insured — or are simply unreasonable. It is all part of how we partner with our customers,” Johnson said.

Focusing on this niche also enables his firm to be able to attract new producers: “They come to us because our reputation within the construction industry provides them a leg up,” he said.

Best-practices agencies are also leveraging new technologies, according to the IIABA study, which cited data from CB Insights that showed more than $1 billion in technology investments by insurance startups during the first half of 2016.

Cheney Insurance has a mobile app that assists its customers in various scenarios, Hilton said.

Another trend noted in the IIABA study is the significant increase in the average age of employees at most agencies.

If they are involved in an auto accident, the app helps them take photos of the vehicles and the scene, which can then be sent directly to the agency. Customers with homeowner policies can use the app to create a household inventory, taking photos of big items in case they are ever stolen or damaged.

The agency provides the app through a subscription with a mobile app vendor, Insurance Agent.

“We also excel at collecting and leveraging client email addresses,” he said. “Most agencies don’t do a very good job of soliciting emails from clients, but we have acquired 85 percent of our client emails by incentivizing our staff to always ask, and then we use automated digital marketing technology to stay in close contact.”

The agency sends clients birthday or seasonal e-cards, and many people respond very favorably, “which keeps our agency in the top of their mind for the next time they may have an insurance need,” Hilton said.

Minard-Ames Insurance Services provides technology that offers a template for its construction firm customers to issue their own pre-approved certificates of insurance or endorsements, such as for additional insureds or waivers of subrogation.

“This saves our customers time, as they can do it 24/7 and from their mobile phones,” Johnson said.

Another trend noted in the IIABA study is the significant increase in the average age of employees at most agencies.

“Savvy firms are placing an emphasis on early succession planning for all key leadership positions,” according to the IIABA. “Best-practices agencies recognize that their future independence hinges on creating an environment that attracts and retains talented employees to successfully perpetuate their business.”

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The study also noted that the pace of consolidation has steadily increased since 2009, coming off low merger and acquisition activity during the Great Recession. According to SNL Financial, 469 transactions were announced in 2015.

Every three years, the trade group collaborates with Reagan Consulting to select “best practices” firms throughout the nation for outstanding management and financial achievement in six revenue categories ranging from less than $1.25 million to more than $25 million.

Agencies are nominated by either a Big I-affiliated state association or an insurance company, and qualified based on operational excellence. Financial and benchmarking information for the participating agencies are also reviewed and updated for the following two years.

This is the 24th edition of the annual benchmarking analysis and the first year of the current three-year study cycle.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

High Net Worth

High Net Worth Clients Live in CAT Zones. Here’s What Their Resiliency Plan Should Include

Having a resiliency plan and practicing it can make all the difference in a disaster.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 7 min read

Packed with state-of-the-art electronics, priceless collections and high-end furnishings, and situated in scenic, often remote locations, the dwellings of high net worth individuals and families pose particular challenges when it comes to disaster resiliency. But help is on the way.

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Armed with loss data, innovative new programs, technological advances, and a growing army of niche service-providers aimed at addressing an astonishingly diverse set of risks, insurers are increasingly determined to not just insure against their high net worth clients’ losses, but to prevent them.

Insurers have long been proactive in risk mitigation, but increasingly, after the recent surge in wildfire and storm losses, insureds are now, too.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy,” said Laura Sherman, founding partner at Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners.

And especially in the high net worth space, preventing that loss is vastly preferable to a payout, for insurers and insureds alike.

“If insurers can preserve even one house that’s 10 or 20 or 40 million dollars … whatever they have spent in a year is money well spent. Plus they’ve saved this important asset for the client,” said Bruce Gendelman, chairman and founder Bruce Gendelman Insurance Services.

High Net Worth Vulnerabilities

Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

As the number and size of luxury homes built in vulnerable areas has increased, so has the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, harsh cold and winter storms, and wildfires.

“There is a growing desire to inhabit this riskier terrain,” said Jason Metzger, SVP Risk Management, PURE group of insurance companies. “In the western states alone, a little over a million homes are highly vulnerable to wildfires because of their proximity to forests that are fuller of fuel than they have been in years past.”

Such homes are often filled with expensive artwork and collections, from fine wine to rare books to couture to automobiles, each presenting unique challenges. The homes themselves present other vulnerabilities.

“Larger, more sophisticated homes are bristling with more technology than ever,” said Stephen Poux, SVP and head of Risk Management Services and Loss Prevention for AIG’s Private Client Group.

“A lightning strike can trash every electronic in the home.”

Niche Service Providers

A variety of niche service providers are stepping forward to help.

Secure facilities provide hurricane-proof, wildfire-proof off-site storage for artwork, antiques, and all manner of collectibles for seasonal or rotating storage, as well as ahead of impending disasters.

Other companies help manage such collections — a substantial challenge anytime, but especially during a crisis.

“Knowing where it is, is a huge part of mitigating the risk,” said Eric Kahan, founder of Collector Systems, a cloud-based collection management company that allows collectors to monitor their collections during loans to museums, transit between homes, or evacuation to secure storage.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy.” — Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

Insurers also employ specialists in-house. AIG employs four art curators who advise clients on how to protect and preserve their art collections.

Perhaps the best known and most striking example of this kind of direct insurer involvement are the fire teams insurers retain or employ to monitor fires and even spray retardant or water on threatened properties.

High-Level Service for High Net Worth

All high net worth carriers have programs that leverage expertise, loss data, and relationships with vendors to help clients avoid and recover from losses, employing the highest levels of customer service to accomplish this as unobtrusively as possible.

“What allows you to do your job best is when you develop that relationship with a client, where it’s the same people that are interacting with them on every front for their risk management,” said Steve Bitterman, chief risk services officer for Vault Insurance.

Site visits are an essential first step, allowing insurers to assess risks, make recommendations to reduce them, and establish plans in the event of a disaster.

“When you’re in a catastrophic situation, it’s high stress, time is of the essence, and people forget things,” said Sherman. “Having a written plan in place is paramount to success.”

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Another important component is knowing who will execute that plan in homes that are often unoccupied.

Domestic staff may lack the knowledge or authority to protect the homeowner’s assets, and during a disaster may be distracted dealing with threats to their own homes and families. Adequate planning includes ensuring that whoever is responsible has the training and authority to execute the plan.

Evaluating New Technology

Insurers use technologies like GPS and satellite imagery to determine which homes are directly threatened by storms or wildfires. They also assess and vet technologies that can be implemented by homeowners, from impact glass to alarm and monitoring systems, to more obscure but potentially more important options.

AIG’s Poux recommends two types of vents that mitigate important, and unexpected risks.

“There’s a fantastic technology called Smart Vent, which allows water to flow in and out of the foundation,” Poux said. “… The weight of water outside a foundation can push a foundation wall in. If you equalize that water inside and out at the same level, you negate that.”

Another wildfire risk — embers getting sucked into the attic — is, according to Poux, “typically the greatest cause of the destruction of homes.” But, he said, “Special ember-resisting venting, like Brandguard Vents, can remove that exposure altogether.”

Building Smart

Many disaster resiliency technologies can be applied at any time, but often the cost is fractional if implemented during initial construction. AIG’s Smart Build is a free program for new or remodeled homes that evolved out of AIG’s construction insurance programs.

Previously available only to homes valued at $5 million and up, Smart Build recently expanded to include homes of $1 million and up. Roughly 100 homes are enrolled, with an average value of $13 million.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work.” — Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“We know what goes wrong in high net worth homes,” said Poux, citing AIG’s decades of loss data.

“We’re incenting our client and by proxy their builder, their architects and their broker, to give us a seat at the design table. … That enables us to help tweak the architectural plans in ways that are very easy to do with a pencil, as opposed to after a home is built.”

Poux cites a remote ranch property in Texas.

Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“The client was rebuilding a home but also installing new roads and grading and driveways. … The property was very far from the fire department and there wasn’t any available water on the property.”

Poux’s team was able to recommend underground water storage tanks, something that would have been prohibitively expensive after construction.

“But if the ground is open and you’ve got heavy equipment, it’s a relatively minor additional expense.”

Homes that graduate from the Smart Build program may be eligible for preferred pricing due to their added resilience, Poux said.

Recovery from Loss

A major component of disaster resiliency is still recovery from loss, and preparation is key to the prompt service expected by homeowners paying six- or seven-figure premiums.

Before Irma, PURE sent contact information for pre-assigned claim adjusters to insureds in the storm’s direct path.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work,” said Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting for Ironshore’s Private Client Group.

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“If you’ve got custom construction or imported materials in your house, you’re not going to go down the street and just find somebody that can do that kind of work, or has those materials in stock.”

In the wake of disaster, even basic services can be scarce.

“Our claims and risk management departments have to work together in advance of the storm,” said Bitterman, “to have contractors and restoration companies and tarp and board services that are going to respond to our company’s clients, that will commit resources to us.”

And while local agents’ connections can be invaluable, Goetsch sees insurers taking more of that responsibility from the agent, to at least get the claim started.

“When there is a disaster, the agency’s staff may have to deal with personal losses,” Goetsch said. &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]