Being pigeonholed into one niche can cost business in another.
I miss generalization.
Remember when knowing a little about a lot got you somewhere in this business? A broader base of knowledge meant a broader selection of insureds, right? Sure, we had underwriters strung out from attempting to quantify every conceivable risk—just part of the job. That E&O exposure from working with risks we didn’t truly understand? Worth every penny. And all that “what’s best for the insured” mumbo jumbo was just that. What mattered was “more.” More markets, more products, more work.
Apparently, I also miss my sanity. The fact is that wholesalers and other intermediaries understand that generalization is a thing of the past. Or is it? The truth is that everyone wants to be known as a specialist. The word has become so saturated that it leaves retailers wondering who is actually worthy of the moniker.
I recently spoke with Bob Scaglione, senior vice president of business development for ThomCo, a program manager based in Kennesaw, Georgia, about what it means to be a specialist in terms of distribution.
“Specialization is permeating through the entire industry,” he says. “We have found our most successful agents are those who specialize in one or two of the programs we offer.”
ThomCo was founded in the late 1970s as a regional, non-standard MGA and wholesale brokerage writing a wide range of industries. In the mid 1980s, CEO Greg Thompson (who remains CEO today) began to see the benefit of the national program administrator model, and over time he converted the company to a specialist operation. Today, ThomCo manages 25 specialty programs on a national basis, writes $170 million in premium and employs 100 people in three offices in Kennesaw, Kansas City and Denver. Programs access a mixture of admitted and non-admitted markets.
“We deal with national brokerage houses and Main Street agents,” Scaglione says.
He says that ThomCo’s role as a specialist is characterized by product exclusivity and focus of personnel.
“We are the exclusive outlet/provider for all of our specialty programs,” he says, adding that the company takes careful measures on behalf of its underwriters. “We protect their expertise. Our medical transportation underwriters only write ambulance and para-transit business. We do not have underwriters underwrite in unrelated programs.” He credits this focus as a primary reason why carriers choose them to manage a program.
The common theme in most of ThomCo’s programs is casualty exposure.
“For many of our programs, it’s the professional liability exposure that differentiates us,” Scaglione says. Many competitor programs do not include professional liability coverage, he says, a notable omission considering the types of risks.
For example, ThomCo has programs that focus on healthcare, social services and schools. It writes complete packages of coverage, including workers comp for many programs. Scaglione says medical transportation, senior living and other healthcare-related organizations are fueling growth in their respective programs, even in soft market conditions.
It’s easy to see why a retailer would be skeptical. The market is saturated with generalist intermediaries operating under the guise of specialization. This doesn’t sit well with Scaglione and other organizations like ThomCo that have been doing specialty for a long time. He says there is no question that insureds appreciate when an agent fully understands the insured’s operations and brings a specialized market to the insured. Calling yourself a specialist is pointless if it doesn’t result in a benefit to the insured, and Scaglione says his firm “loves” when agents bring them in to meet personally with prospects and insureds.
Being branded a specialist can have a down side, though. Scaglione says an ongoing issue is that many of the company’s agents identify ThomCo for a single program only. “Some agents might think of us only as a childcare market,” he says. “We work hard to change that.”
Meanwhile, the soft market continues. Wholesalers and other organizations occupying the space between retailer and carrier are choosing different paths of resistance. Unprecedented consolidation has the trade press buzzing daily. Others continue to ride it out, relying on human capital earned through years of forging relationships. For ThomCo, it’s staying true to a business model that has proven its resilience.
“If you look at our family of programs, you will see some effect of the soft market and economic conditions. Some of our markets are not performing as well as others,” he says. One example is childcare, ThomCo’s first and most widely known program. He points to the decline in the need for childcare services in correlation with the economy. “If ThomCo did nothing but childcare,” he says, “we would be feeling the effects of the soft market and the economy.”
Specialization, Scaglione says, has been the key to survival. He credits Thompson, who changed the company’s focus more than 20 years ago.
“Over time, he has intentionally spread our programs across several niche specialties to avoid a dependence on any class of business,” Scaglione says. “This vision and strategy is working.”