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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 10 months ago

After the Storm

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An old life platitude — be prepared — came in handy for multiple insurance companies across the region in dealing with life post-Irma.

Like Mother's Day for a restaurant that specializes in brunch, or the Super Bowl for a sports bar, big storms can make — or break — an insurance company.

Hurricane Irma was that kind of moment for insurance companies all across Florida. Many companies are still dealing with the stormy. The following stories show how six companies handled Irma.

Lanier Upshaw

Principals: Scott Franklin, president and CEO
Location: Lakeland

Lessons learned during the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 played a big role in Lanier Upshaw's response to Hurricane Irma.

The independent insurance agency based in Lakeland had generators ready at the office that kicked in right away after the storm, says President and CEO Scott Franklin. Employees also had chainsaws on hand so they could cut their way into clients' properties if they were blocked with tree debris.

“At the start of hurricane season, we have a big powwow with the team,” Franklin says. That's when they dust off procedures and go over the agency's hurricane plan.

“We reached out to all of our clients in advance,” he says, reminding them how to access their policies and giving them information about how to contact claims adjustors. The agency also posts tips on social media and its website about storm preparation.

Before Irma moved through the region, Lanier Upshaw team members visited some clients' properties, at times helping people shore up property with sandbags and other items. After the storm, they arrived at some clients' properties before the clients themselves did and found that they did have to take things into their own hands and use tools to chop trees so they could get into certain businesses.

“So much of what we do is an intangible,” Franklin says. Hurricane Irma was a “chance for us to prove the value of what we do,” he says. “A chance for us to step up and deliver.”

— Grier Ferguson

Centauri Insurance

Principals: Ricardo Espino, president and CEO
Location: Lakewood Ranch

Ricardo Espino, president and CEO of Lakewood Ranch-based Centauri Insurance, says Hurricane Irma came right on the heels of receiving claims for Hurricane Harvey damage.

The property and casualty insurance company had about 3,000 claims from Harvey, Espino says. “The company is focused on coastal exposures in many states,” he says. “We prepare for this kind of event year-round. This is how the company stands out and differentiates itself.”

Centauri puts on drills for major weather events, he says, including a major drill in the spring when the company simulates a storm approaching and ultimately making landfall in one of the company's largest states — Texas, Louisiana and Florida. It's a fully operational, companywide exercise, he says. “Once a storm hits, everything we prepared for goes according to plan.”

The company also uses hurricane-modeling software to examine potential tracks and landfall areas. Centauri runs its entire portfolio of policies through the software to develop possible scenarios of how much damage customers might see and where it might need to deploy resources. The tools, he says, help the company prepare.

After Irma, Centauri had 1,600 claims with about $11 million of total incurred loss to date from the hurricane. “We're still busy,” Espino says, “but we've seen a significant slowdown in new claims that are reported.”

— Grier Ferguson

CBIZ (Mercier & Wright Risk Consultants)

Principals: Keith Mercier, Matthew Mercier and Patrick Wright
Location: Sarasota

The 10 days of build up before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida was agonizing for most people.

For Matthew Mercier, it was time to get out his drone.

Not for playtime, but to take detailed aerial footage of condo communities across the Sarasota-Bradenton region. A condo insurance expert at CBIZ, Mercier downloaded each video on to a thumb drive and sent it to multiple condo managers and HOAs. The package included a note that said this is what your property looks like now, this is what it will look like after the storm clean up if you retain CBIZ. “It was really pretty creative,” says Keith Mercier, president of the group, and Matthew Mercier's brother.

Keith Mercier says beyond creativity, the key to dealing with Irma was preparation. He learned that from handling claims and clients after Hurricane Charley ripped through the region in 2004. One of his clients back then included an owner of several Dunkin' Donuts stores the storm destroyed. There was work for claims that needed to be done quickly, recalls Mercier, which was made easier by doing meticulous work before the storm. Mercier, who has been in insurance in the region for nearly 20 years, also stood by the client emotionally during a difficult time. “At the end of the day,” he says, “it all comes down to service.”

Mercier says he and the CBIZ team regularly go over disaster relief plans with every client, covering everything from tropical storms to workplace violence. It's a philosophy of “the best defense is a good offense,” he says, where CBIZ agents especially look for holes in policies that leave the client vulnerable. “We try to get ahead of any pending disaster,” Mercier says.

Some two months after Irma, a large chunk of CBIZ's day-to-day work remains dealing with Irma-related issues. And Matthew Mercier's drone flyover has won him several meetings with prospective clients. “This is our time to shine as agents,” says Keith Mercier. “This is what separates the men from the boys.”

— Mark Gordon

FCCI

Executive: Lisa Weiland, COO
Location: Sarasota

Technology has fundamentally changed the way insurance companies respond to natural disasters like Hurricane Irma. FCCI Insurance Group COO Lisa Weiland would know.

As a 35-year veteran of the insurance industry, 28 of which have been spent in Florida, Weiland has experienced her fair share of hurricanes, tropical storms and everything in between — and the damage that follows in the wake of such extreme weather events. In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, she was the regional president of a major national carrier based in Dallas, with responsibility for Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Today, we just have so much more information,” she says. “It used to be you would just watch the radar, cross your fingers, wait for the claim calls and start staffing based on the number of calls coming in. You might have some idea of how many policies you have in an area. But today we are able to model exactly what the hurricane footprint looks like on our book of business.”

Weiland and her colleagues at FCCI, which had $791 million in revenue last year, started modeling Irma's potential impact as soon as watches and warnings for the storm were issued. “That allows us to position our response so we can put our teammates, or in some cases independent adjustors, in place,” she says. “We are relatively small compared to the national carriers, so we can fan out pretty quickly, over a span of two or three days in the most heavily hit areas.”


— Brian Hartz

Gallagher Lutgert Insurance

Executive: Steve Benza, senior vice president
Location: Naples

Steve Benza, senior vice president of Gallagher Lutgert Insurance in Naples, which specializes in commercial property and casualty insurance, says the most challenging part of doing business post-Irma is “the sheer volume, an incredible volume of claims” that have been filed.

“I had a doctor's appointment about a week after [Irma] and I put it to my doctor like this: What would you do if 60% of your patients went to the ER the same day, and they were all admitted? That's kind of like what we were dealing with here.”

Benza says dealing with Irma-related claims has been difficult, logistically, because so many of the national insurance carriers' adjustors were deployed to the Houston area because of Hurricane Harvey. “And rightfully so,” he adds. “They got hammered over there by Harvey. But it really depleted the resources for our teams here.”

Despite the storm's wide path, insurance fraud for rebuild and repair work doesn't appear to be a major problem, Benza says. Most of Gallagher Lutgert's clients, he says, are using reputable local contractors. “But we've seen some crazy bids from companies from out of town,” he adds.

Benza, citing a difficult learning curve for new hires, says the firm, with $16 million in revenue in 2016 and around 90 employees, didn't bring on additional staff to help with Irma-related claims.

“Basically, what we do in these situations, it's all hands on deck,” he says. “Everybody is working on claims in one form or another. Everybody puts the 'claims hat' on and everything else takes a back seat.”

— Brian Hartz

West Coast Insurance Group

Executive: Greg Leifer, President
Location: St. Petersburg

If there's a silver lining for the insurance industry after Hurricane Irma, it's the spike in sales of flood insurance policies, says Greg Leifer, president of West Coast Insurance Group in St. Petersburg.

With Irma following so closely after Hurricane Harvey — when massive floodwaters devastated areas of Houston that weren't in flood zones — Gulf Coast residents and business owners were keen to take a closer look at their coverage and make modifications. The storm got people thinking and talking about insurance, Leifer adds, not an easy thing to do.

“Insurance is boring,” he says. “It's an intangible. You buy it; you put it in a drawer ... it's kind of like making out a will. It's not necessarily exciting or fun stuff to talk about, because when you have to use it, you know you have a problem.”

People's attitudes, he says, are starting to change about flood insurance. “Irma and Harvey have driven up every agent's business in this state ... customers are buying voluntary flood insurance,” he says. “People are saying, 'I know I don't need it, and I don't have to get it — nobody's going to make me get it — but you know what, it's only $300 or $400, and maybe I should have it.' We're selling more of it, and I bet every broker out there is selling more of it, too.”

— Brian Hartz

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