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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 6 years ago

Lightning fast

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A national company with a counterintuitive view on the Florida insurance market has big plans for growth. It aims to move quickly.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A toxic mix of politics, regulation and the economic downturn turned the Florida insurance sector into something of a graveyard for new options: Not many national companies have ventured in to find more clients in the Sunshine State.

But Robert Rizzo, Florida director and head of national acquisitions for Farmington, Conn.-based Bolt Insurance, takes the contrarian view. A subsidiary of Actua Corp., a $59 million publicly traded software and cloud-computing firm based in suburban Philadelphia, Bolt has sizable growth goals for Florida. The firm targets both personal lines and business lines and will look to grow through new customers and acquisitions.

“We view this as a state rich in opportunities,” says Rizzo, who runs the Florida Bolt division out of an office in a Lakewood Ranch corporate park. “We believe there is no market in Florida that doesn't make sense.”

Bolt first entered Florida in summer 2012. It bought Sarasota-based PFG Insurance Agency, with around $1 million in premiums, and Port Charlotte-based Florida Direct Insurance Agency, with more than $1 million in premiums.

Bolt made a splashier move in late October: It acquired Ludwig-Walpole Co., one of the oldest insurance agencies in the Sarasota-Bradenton market. Terms of the deal for Ludwig-Walpole, founded in 1933 with a client list that goes back to circus magnate John Ringling, weren't disclosed. The firm has 15 employees, some who moved to positions with Bolt. Ludwig-Walpole executives declined to disclose how much the firm has in annual premiums.

“They had many suitors,” says Rizzo. “We are humbled by the opportunity to work with the Ludwig family. You can't do business in Sarasota and not know who the Ludwigs are.”

High school friends Charles Walpole and Gerald Ludwig Sr. founded the agency on Main Street in downtown Sarasota. Ludwig later served three terms on the Sarasota City Commission and was a vice mayor and mayor from the 1940s through the 1970s. Ludwig's son, Gerald Ludwig Jr., joined the firm in the 1960s and ran it for decades, until his son, Robert Ludwig, took over. Another Ludwig son, Gerald Ludwig III, has also worked there.

Gerald Ludwig Jr. and Robert Ludwig will stay on with Bolt in a consulting role for a short period of time. Gerald Ludwig Jr. will work with clients, while Robert Ludwig will handle operations during the transition. Robert Ludwig says he and his firm weren't necessarily looking to sell, but the offer came at the right time. Bolt and Rizzo, he says, were also a near-perfect fit in culture, attitude and attention to customer details.

“There was nothing there that prompted it,” says Robert Ludwig. “It was the next step forward for the agency.”

Robert Ludwig adds he will stay in the field after the transition from his old agency to Bolt. “I love the insurance industry,” says Ludwig. “I need to find my next footing.”

Rizzo will continue to seek more business and build the Bolt brand on the Gulf Coast and in Florida, despite the industry's challenges. “The industry is in complete disruption and it lacks concentration around the customer,” says Rizzo. “The customer wants information and options.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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