Executives at BOLT, a Connecticut-based insurance firm with a focus on coverage for small businesses nationwide, avoided writing policies in Florida for more than two years.
The only other states the company nixed were Alaska and Hawaii, both of which presented obvious logistic problems. Florida, of course, presented obvious underwriting hurdles, given the state's well-documented insurance regulatory morass.
But the Florida delay for Farmington, Conn.-based BOLT is now over — in a bold way. The company, which stands for Business Owners Liability Team, recently acquired two small insurance agencies on the Gulf Coast, one in Sarasota and another one Port Charlotte. The acquisitions are the first two of what will likely be several more through next year, says insurance industry veteran Robert Rizzo, who BOLT hired to lead the Florida expansion.
Rizzo concedes Florida is “a unique state to write insurance in,” given the happenings in Tallahassee the past decade. Indeed, several insurance firms have ceased writing some policies in the state. But Rizzo says BOLT and its parent company, New York City-based SeaPass Solutions, an insurance processing firm, consider that a market opportunity.
“It's tough to get insurance in the state,” says Rizzo. “There are less carriers who want to do business here.”
Moreover, BOLT, won't only dip into the Sunshine State with business lines. It will also write personal lines for clients, and with its acquisitions it inherited a book of business in property insurance — the riskiest side of the industry.
“If you want to be a player in Florida,” says Rizzo, “you have to be all in.”
BOLT's all-in strategy is wrapped around technology. On a national scale the company already utilizes a high-tech Web-based platform to reach out to business clients. The system is similar to online rate comparison websites prevalent in personal and auto insurance, from companies like GEICO and Esurance, an Allstate subsidiary.
“We like to say we empower small businesses with choices,” Rizzo says. “BOLT is the next evolution of commercial insurance, (which) has been slow to embrace technology.”
The BOLT online system works in three steps: Plug in the information on the business on the website; see rates from business insurers; choose the plan. Says Rizzo: “The concept is tried and true.”
While online is BOLT's niche, Rizzo says he realizes the company needs to have a brick-and-mortar brand presence to succeed long term in Florida. Plus, Rizzo says acquiring other firms gives BOLT locally based carrier relationships, an instant customer base and a set of employees.
The first mergers were with Sarasota-based PFG Insurance Agency, which held more than $1 million in premiums, and Port Charlotte-based Florida Direct Insurance Agency, which had less than $1 million in premiums. Florida Direct has an additional book of business in workers' compensation insurance, another segment of the industry Rizzo says is ripe for BOLT's online system.
Rizzo, who previously worked in small business banking, commercial real estate and the mortgage industry, in Florida and Ohio, says the expansion will continue well into 2013. That goes for acquiring new firms, recruiting agents and targeting business clients. The two firms BOLT acquired had three employees, and Rizzo expects to add five to 10 more employees by 2013. He also expects to grow premiums in Florida from $5 million to $10 million over the next year.
“The challenge but opportunity is the ever-changing underwriting climate in Florida,” says Rizzo. “We will make a strong effort to be aggressive.”