Successful Partnerships

Surety Bond Assistance Fuels Growth

Brokerages help small business take on public works projects that would otherwise be out of reach.
By: | March 3, 2014 • 7 min read

Federal and state laws mandate that a certain portion of most public works projects be given to small, minority-owned or female-owned contractors. There is little argument that such rules have a great benefit, both in supporting bootstrap businesses, and also in bringing increased talent and competition to contract bidding.

Federal and local laws also mandate that contractors post surety bonds, often to the full value of the contract. The intention is to protect taxpayer dollars and public infrastructure against shoddy work. Often, the two mandates conflict with each other, because even healthy small firms have cash flow constrictions that make posting a bond prohibitive.

While legislative solutions are sought, the interim solution is bond assistance, or subsidy. A few local brokerages around the country, notably one on each coast, have specialized in this field. Most recently, the San Francisco regional Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) retained Merriwether & Williams, a pioneer in this niche market, to assist in a new round of contracts and bonding.

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A completely separate firm, Surety Bond Associates of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., is active on the East Coast, and has been working with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. for more than a year on an emerging-business capital assistance program.

“We are making final adjustments to the program, and hope to launch it in the second quarter,” said Ellen Neylan, president of Surety Bond Associates.

The national brokerages are not active in the business because it involves a lot of time and effort for a relatively modest return. The big firms laud the efforts, and are content to leave the business to the dedicated regional brokers.

“The bonding requirement is a huge hurdle for small and minority businesses,” said James E. Bridgeman, department manager of insurance for BART. He said that while the heavy burden on bidders’ cash flow and capital is the biggest challenge for them, there are others. “There is a formal bonding statement, accounting standards, and other requirements,” he said. Government entities and large contractors have the personnel and expertise to handle those on their own, but small businesses do not.

Bridgeman added that in meeting the inclusion goals of the contractor distribution laws, BART and other authorities also gain community involvement in local and regional public works. “Merriwether & Williams have held roundtables where prime contractors and subcontractors can sit down, get to know each other and the projects.”

“In these programs, our default is 0.2 percent, which is one-hundredth of the surety industry average of 20 percent.”

— Ingrid Merriwether, president and CEO, Merriwether & Williams

Question of Default

One major concern, especially with a bond assistance or subsidy program, could be default. But he noted the default percentage for contractors in such programs is quite small. “There is a real engagement by the brokerage, a real passion for this underwriting and assistance. They try to make default very difficult. Beyond underwriting guidance, they provide third-party fund administration and other support as part of their process, even beyond our contractor supervision,” said Bridgeman.

Ingrid Merriwether President and CEO Merriwether & Williams

Ingrid Merriwether
President and CEO
Merriwether & Williams

The BART commission comes 17 years after the first effort in bond assistance by Merriwether & Williams, said President and CEO Ingrid Merriwether. “We were handling OCIP for the San Francisco Airport Authority [SFO] when they asked us to help them with a $3 billion capital expansion project. They were having trouble meeting their Miller Act obligations. That is the federal law requiring a portion of the work be done by small, female- and minority-owned contractors. California and most states have similar laws.”

She said that SFO realized it would have to approach the problem in a new way, because this was a systemic challenge. The authority was willing to provide bonding subsidies to help otherwise capable contractors to qualify, but the process was complex. “Bonding is often an artificial barrier,” said Merriwether. “What is commonly called a subsidy or assistance is actually an investment. There are direct and quantifiable cost savings from having more bidders on a job, especially smaller contactors with less overhead.”

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There is a symmetry to the concept. The idea of the bond is that the contractor puts capital at risk but once the job is done, that capital is returned and the contract paid. Similarly, in the surety assistance, the authority provides a subsidy, and gets it back when the bond is returned. The net gain is the lower cost of the project.

“We never arrange for more than 40 percent assistance,” said Merriwether, “that means the contractor is still responsible for 60 percent. The surety is enduring.” For the Miller Act, the federal threshold is $100,000, so that covers just about any public work. “After the SFO project,” she said, “the mayor of San Francisco realized bonding was a major issue throughout the city and county, and within two years there was a citywide bond assistance program.”

The BART commission represents the eighth such project for M&W in the past 17 years. According to Merriwether, “in that time, we have enabled $699.3 million in transactions, of which $207 million have been successful bidders.” The more important ratio is the default rate. “In these programs, our default is 0.2 percent which is one-hundredth of the surety industry average of 20 percent. That is testimonial proof that bonding is an artificial barrier,” she said.

Another client of M&W is the City of Los Angeles, specifically several of its “proprietary” or autonomous departments. Curtis Kelley is senior risk manager for the city administrator’s office. “The mayor’s office received numerous calls regarding the difficulties that small contractors were having securing surety. I did some research and learned about the program that the City and County of San Francisco had established,” he said. “I called Ingrid and spoke at length with her as well as officials in San Francisco. We decided to establish a similar program here.”

LA started its program under the auspices of the sewer construction and maintenance authority, simply as a good fit with municipal process. Eventually the program grew to include transit and transportation, airports and ports, and central city government.

“For just the City of LA, we have assisted on $156 million in surety or contract value, of which $62 million in contracts were awarded. And we have never had a default.”

— Curtis Kelley, senior risk manager, Los Angeles city administrator’s office

“Merriwether & Williams have great contacts among prime and subcontractors,” said Kelley. “They go through their own underwriting process with the potential bidders on a contract. They determine which surety would be the best fit, then they go to the market with our guarantee. That is the smaller of either 40 percent of the value of the contract, or $250,000.”

Kelley stressed that the bonding underwriters still go through their own underwriting as they would if the contractors had come to them separately. The double underwriting seems to work: “For just the City of LA, we have assisted on $156 million in surety or contract value, of which $62 million in contracts were awarded. And we have never had a default. The savings came to $3 million. This approach has a real payback.”

Growing Program

Kelley expects the program to expand. “We have used the program for a new terminal at LAX, for wastewater projects, but the ports are probably going to be our biggest expansion in the program,” he said. “This is not just piddly little contracts; they have a huge impact for the city and for the people of LA.”

Merriwether also speaks in terms of “the double bottom line,” doing well by doing good. “We are a small, woman-owned firm, so this is our cohort. We can relate,” she said. “This is important work, and as far as I know we are the only firm in the State of California engaged in it. In the past few requests-for-proposal, we were told that we were the only firm to respond.”

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Government officials agreed. “The biggest challenge in our latest program was not getting approvals, it was the lack of competition for the contract,” said BART’s Bridgeman. “We have worked with Merriwether & Williams before as operations broker and also as a team member on construction projects.”

Bridgeman added that the hope of the brokers and of the city is that some of the repeat contractors taking advantage of the bond assistance will be able to build a track record and grow to the point where they no longer need the program.

M&W has several offices around California, and there is plenty of business. Said Merriwether, “We have a big back yard.” She is hopeful about legislative solutions, and M&W has other lines of work, but she expects to be at this for many more years.

“There are constantly efforts around the country to change bonding requirements because this is a real problem for governments at all levels,” said Merriwether. “The availability, or lack, of surety credit has a very big impact on public works everywhere. Surety bonds don’t exist in an abstract public-policy realm. They affect city and county budgets, local and regional economic development and infrastructure.”

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]