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Business Observer Friday, May 3, 2019 5 months ago

Like minded: Insurer's alignment with parent company pays off

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Four years into a merger, St. Pete's ASI keeps its identity alive while enjoying the national marketing power of Progressive.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

With a namesake acronym that it says also stands for “Attitude, Speed and Innovation,” St. Petersburg-based American Strategic Insurance developed a reputation as the Progressive of residential property insurance. In fact, that was the company’s stated goal since 1997, when insurance executive John Auer founded it.

Two decades years later, Auer has retired and ASI is part of the company it strived to emulate: Progressive, to meet rising consumer demand for bundled home and auto insurance, acquired ASI in 2015.

“You want to make sure that everybody understands what our goals are, what we're trying to accomplish and how each person's role fits into the big picture.” David Pratt, general manager of ASI

But in a twist on the standard M&A playbook, the ASI name, brand and way of doing business remain alive and thriving, says David Pratt, general manager of ASI Insurance Group.

Says Pratt: “Internally, we've said, ‘Look, if you want to wear an ASI shirt to work or a Progressive shirt to work, either one's fine.’”

So which is it — ASI or Progressive? The acquisition and subsequent transition is a road map for how to integrate a highly established and successful, yet much smaller, company into a corporate giant without its identity and culture being subsumed. The trick: do it in a way that melds the best of both companies together.

For Pratt, 56, Progressive is the company he’d been part of for most of his professional life when he agreed to transfer from Cleveland to St. Pete and lead ASI in 2017. Starting in 1991 as a product manager, he’s been along for a wildly successful ride. “The year I joined Progressive, we had $1 billion in net written premium,” he says. “Last year, we had $32 billion.”

In ASI, though, Pratt sees more similarities than differences, even though the unit offers an entirely different product line than its parent. “The cultures are so aligned,” he says. “I think what has changed is that there’s more complexity.”

For one, ASI now sells insurance in more states — 44, plus Washington, D.C. — than ever before. Also, thanks to the Progressive platform, ASI can sell direct to consumers for the first time in its history and just surpassed two million policies sold.

That kind of massive expansion of reach and service isn't cheap and easy. The company has had to add hundreds of workers over the past few years to keep up, and today, with nearly 1,100 staff members, it’s one of the largest employers in St. Pete.

“We started last year with 794 people,” Pratt says, “and we ended the year with 1,043.” The vast majority — almost 900 — work at ASI’s spacious campus in northern St. Pete.

“There have been some growing pains to make sure we can manage a bigger scale,” Pratt says. “To the extent that there were little friction points, it was usually a communication breakdown, but in general the transition has and is going really well.”

That's mostly why Pratt says the merger experience highlights an invaluable lesson: Open, consistent communication is key to managing a massive transition like the one that made ASI part of Progressive.

“You want to make sure that everybody understands what our goals are, what we're trying to accomplish and how each person's role fits into the big picture,” he says. “And you have to say things over and over and over again because every week there and more new people.”

Consumers and agents now see the Progressive name more often, Pratt says, especially in Florida and Texas — states where ASI was already a recognized brand and the company had strong, long-established relationships. Initially, there was some hand-wringing about the decision to add the Progressive name after ASI in marketing and signage, so now it's ASI Progressive. But the move has been well received.

“We held some meetings with key agents and basically said, ‘We’re thinking about switching over [to Progressive],’” Pratt recalls. “And pretty much the answer we got from the agents was, ‘Well, we've already been telling our customers for years that you're the progressive homeowners company. So all you're doing is just helping make our job easier, because that's how we're explaining ASI.”

Pratt says he’s most proud of how ASI responded to the challenge of Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida immediately after his first day on the job — “What have I gotten myself into?” he says he asked himself — and Hurricane Michael a year later.

“We mobilized the whole company to jump in and help,” he says. “There’s no way the claims department could handle it [alone]. We had every single person in the company calling customers to make contact and explain what was going to happen.”

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