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Business Observer Friday, May 12, 2017 1 year ago

Bold vision

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Less than three years remain for an already large insurance firm to hit a milestone growth goal. How will it do it?
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

For a company that prides itself on risk protection, FCCI Insurance Group sure put its top executive, Craig Johnson, in a precarious spot last October.

The company's president and CEO, recently named chairman, Johnson was killed off — in fun — in the company's annual skit, part of the festivities for the recognition of its United Way partnership. Johnson played the role of Mr. Body, in a Clue-like performance where employees had to track down the killer.

It's a side of Johnson FCCI's rank and file don't see all the time. He's a suit-and-tie executive, sometimes chided for forgetting to wear jeans on casual Friday. But Johnson's buttoned-up focus has led FCCI on one of the biggest five-year growth tracks in the company's 58-year history. FCCI handles property and casualty insurance for businesses, with a presence in 18 states and Washington, D.C. It's also one of the largest employers in the Sarasota-Bradenton region.

Premiums are up 57.6% since 2012. Revenue is up 49.6%, from $529 million in 2012 to $791.4 million last year. Cash and investments surpassed $1.6 billion in 2016 and total assets are more than $2.2 billion. “This puts us in the strongest financial position in our history,” says Johnson in the company's most recent annual report.

Adds Johnson in an interview: “Our customers have gotten healthier, and we have gone out and earned more business.”

One glitch to the growth: The company didn't make a profit in 2016.

Johnson, 48, says 2016 started out with a bang, “with five of the best months in the company's history.

But things turned quickly. A host of negative factors hit the company, including a rise in limits on attorneys' fees in workers compensation cases; industrywide increases in auto losses and claims, due, in part, to distracted driving; and storm-related losses that doubled what the firm had in past years, according to its annual report.

While those factors remain on the horizon, FCCI is now on a 30-month push to reach goals in its 2020 plan. That includes a big one — hit $1 billion in written premiums by the end of the decade. Johnson, with the risk of growing too fast always paramount, says 2020 is a marathon, not a sprint.

“Our philosophy isn't to grow like gangbusters for the top line,” says Johnson. “We will do it in a responsible way, where we also look at the bottom line.”

FCCI was founded to work with contractors and builders, under the name Florida Contractors and Construction Industries. Its model now is to sell products to businesses through a large group of partner agents and agencies. It has no inside sales agents.

FCCI treats its partner agents like gold, providing trips and other rewards to ones who provide the most and best accounts. “We focus all our energy and attention, from the board on down, on making better relationships with agents,” Johnson says. “When you become more important to them, they feel almost obligated to give you accounts.”

Externally, FCCI will chase $1 billion through a geographic push, to states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania. The company hopes to be competing for business in Pennsylvania full on in 2019. Internally, FCCI recently boosted its IT department, from 70 to 100 employees, to keep up with changes in technology in insurance.

One of Johnson's biggest worries mirrors one that hits other executives: will the company find and maintain top employees to handle the growth? FCCI recently expanded its intern program, from a handful of interns to 24, in an effort to proactively mine for new talent.

Johnson also has other worries — regulations, legislation, the economy — that add up to sometimes feeling like his head is on swivel. “You can't be a head-down leader,” he says. “You have to look around the corner to see what's coming next.”

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