How Wholesale Brokers Are Winning Over the Next Generation
“Cool. Sexy. Rewarding. Fascinating. Flexible. Better than ESPN.”
That’s not some googley-eyed entrepreneurial hotshots talking about the latest insurtech. That’s young brokers talking about the wholesale insurance business.
While college students rarely start out expecting to enter wholesale, proactive and attractive wholesale firms are catching their attention through recruitment efforts, internships and other outreach activities.
Young wholesale brokers say the surplus lines insurance segment, which is about 14 percent of the overall property/casualty business, is an exciting and prosperous career choice that they highly recommend to new recruits. They even find it sexy.
One reason young wholesalers find surplus lines sexy, cool and fascinating is because it offers opportunities to help solve complex coverage problems involving unique insurance risks for customers.
Another is the people they encounter and relationships they develop working with independent agents and carrier partners.
They also appreciate the entrepreneurial culture, workplace flexibility and advancement opportunities that can lead to a financially rewarding future.
And it’s better than working at ESPN because young recruits don’t have to wait long before they can anchor top positions of responsibility and reward.
‘Changed My Life’
He had no plans to work in the insurance industry. The only exposure he had to the industry was purchasing his auto and renter’s policies. That changed when his alma mater offered a scholarship to a new risk management class. Josh Ammons, 34, is today senior vice president, property broker at AmWINS Group based in Charlotte, N.C.
“I wanted to go to law school and then become a sports agent,” Ammons said. But when Appalachian State University began building its risk management program, the department offered some of its best-in-class students the chance to earn a $500 scholarship to participate in its principles of risk management course. Ammons was attending the school on a full academic scholarship, so he felt confident he’d do well, earning another $500 to help pay the bills.
“I took this one class, and at the time I didn’t know anything about insurance, not one personal connection to the industry,” he said. “But they were offering a $500 scholarship if you made a B or better. So, I attended a lecture that evening,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it to change my life.”
The guest speakers that night included AmWINS’ Steve DeCarlo, then CEO of firm and now executive chairman and chairman of the board. Another speaker was Kristin L. Downey, chief administrative officer of the firm.
“Steve being the dynamic speaker he is started talking about his background and what the wholesale sector was all about,” he said. “At that point, I thought I had figured out what I wanted to do but that hour-long conversation with those two speakers changed it for me. I literally walked to the library 10 minutes after that conversation and sent them an email.”
He told them he didn’t know anything about insurance except what he just learned that day but that he would love to learn more because he believed he could be successful in this industry and possibly even at their firm.
DeCarlo and Downey responded immediately and soon Ammons secured a summer internship in the firm’s Charlotte office. He returned as an intern, and later was offered a full-time job when he graduated.
“I always joke that I’ve been at AmWINS ever since the beginning and I’m proud to say that I don’t have a resume – I’m going to retire as an AmWINS employee.”
Today, Ammons is helping other young students find careers in insurance as vice chairman of the board of advisors for the Brantley Risk & Insurance Center at Appalachian State University, a risk management and insurance program.
After 12 years, Ammons’ enthusiasm hasn’t waned. “It’s different than what I thought insurance was at the time,” he said. “It’s a people business, a relationship business, and there’s no ceiling for how well you can do in it – financially or in responsibilities. And it’s fun – it’s the sexy side of the business with tough and unique risks.”
Desire to Specialize
Ryne St. Marie, 25, comes from a family with a long legacy in retail insurance. “My grandfather started his own retail agency in the mid-60s and my dad now owns the same agency,” he said. “I was born in the insurance industry.”
He knew he would one day enter insurance, but he also always knew the retail side of the business wasn’t for him.
“With two generations in the insurance industry, I wanted nothing to do with the retail side of business,” he said.
St. Marie had no idea he would wind up in the wholesale sector when he attended the University of Mississippi and graduated from its risk management and insurance program. That’s where he was recruited by All Risks. He is today a property broker for the wholesaler.
“All Risks has a really good training program out of college called the All Risks University,” he said. The eight-week program provides a crash course on the excess and surplus lines business. Shortly after completing the program, he began working fulltime in All Risks’ Dallas office in 2015.
For St. Marie, the wholesale business is a good fit for his personality and interests.
“I enjoy digging deeper into risk and as a specialist that’s what we do,” he said. “I feel like a lot of retailers have to be a jack-of-all-trades and work on many different kinds of businesses, but I really wanted the ability to just dive into one or two lines of coverage and become a specialist.” He believes that is what retailers are looking for from their wholesalers. “If your wholesaler is a jack-of-all-trades, then you’re probably working with the wrong wholesaler.”
St. Marie was also attracted by the opportunity to build a successful career.
“If I was the guy who sat in an office and had to work 40 hours a week and I made the same amount of money whether I was really good at my job or really bad at my job, I would probably find the least amount of work to do to keep my job,” he said. “But if I’m in a sales position where I can make more money by how hard I work, that’s the kind of job I want to be in.”
Retail agents have the same opportunities, but St. Marie believes in surplus lines, “the get up and go period” is quicker. “You can make as much money as you want in this industry. You can make $2 million, $3 million a year or you can also make $40,000 a year. It’s on you and how hard you’re going to work.”
It also helps that wholesale brings in the “sexier” accounts, too, he added. “We get to look at some really cool, complex accounts.” And he spends his day talking to people that understand the business. “I can go work with somebody who does exactly what I do,” he said. Retail agents and insurance carriers – those are his clients.
Finding the Right Place
For Mary Mullen, finding the right spot in the industry took some time.
Mullen, 36, joined Chubb right after college. After a few years in underwriting high net worth business, she joined the retail agency world.
Working as a retail agent seemed a good fit: first at a smaller agency – Chartwell Insurance – and then moving into a management role at Willis.
Mullen said she has always had a passion for learning about all aspects of the industry, “but I knew if I ever made another move it would be into wholesale.”
So, when Burns & Wilcox in Chicago asked her to join their team, she took the plunge into wholesale.
“What I love about the wholesale sector is that there’s something brand new every single day,” Mullen said, who now serves as underwriting manager, assistant vice president, personal lines for Burns & Wilcox. “On the carrier side we had a specific appetite for a certain risk, so it wasn’t terribly interesting day-in and day-out. On the retail side, I loved my clients, but it was the same type of client with a similar profile [high net worth clientele].”
At Burns & Wilcox, it’s something new every day. “At the start of a coverage problem in wholesale, it’s sometimes stressful,” she explained. “You often don’t know where to go with it, or how to solve it. But once you actually resolve the issue, there’s a feeling of satisfaction that comes with solving the problem – and it’s wonderful.”
She believes that her past experiences as a retail agent and underwriter have helped make her a better wholesaler. “I can relate to retailers’ frustrations because I’ve been in their seat before,” she noted.
As much as she loves the E&S business, she’s not blind to its flaws. Mullen thinks that the time it takes to place a policy in E&S can be burdensome for agents. There is a “lack of urgency” in the E&S industry that is frustrating, even for Mullen. “Sometimes it takes a lot longer than other industries I’ve worked in and that pace sometimes drives me nuts.” But that’s where good wholesalers can stand out from the rest, she says.
Mullen still recommends a career in wholesale for anyone looking for a challenging and exciting career. “It’s a place where you learn a lot in a short amount of time, so you have to be ready,” she said. “You will see things you hadn’t before – it’s fascinating,” she said.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of wholesale but I think that it will only exist if we add value to the chain for our retail agents,” she added.
‘It Was Cool’
From sports broadcasting to insurance. Not a typical career path but that’s the road that 30-year-old Kevin Ware, senior vice president, RT Specialty, Property/Stock Throughput/Construction, took. Although insurance was always in his blood.
“The real reason I got into insurance is my dad,” he said, who was a founding member of Mesirow Insurance Services in Chicago (sold to Alliant in 2016). Ware’s mom also worked for the agency, so dinner table conversations about insurance were a daily occurrence.
“I just always thought it was cool,” Ware admitted. “It was really intriguing to be around, such a people business. I love talking to people.” Working for his dad seemed like a good fit, but Ware says his dad always encouraged him to venture out. That’s how he landed at RT Specialty.
Ware’s father introduced him to Tim Turner, chairman and CEO for RT Specialty. “I didn’t even know it was a job interview.” But after their conversation, Turner offered Ware a job.
In just a few short years, Ware has accomplished more than he could have ever dreamed of at ESPN, he says.
“In insurance, people don’t care if you’re 24 years old, 30 years old or 60 years old,” he said. “If you are able to provide them with the solutions they need, and provide them with top-notch service, they’re going to come to you no matter what.” That just doesn’t happen in other industries. “At ESPN, I wouldn’t have gotten to announce Monday Night Football until I was 60 years old, if I even ever got to then. You’re just not allowed to do it.”
Insurance is an entrepreneur’s dream, he added. “I’ve always been an entrepreneurial person and the wholesale world, especially at RT, they allow you to be creative. They allow you to go out and build your book. No one’s going to say you can’t do this, or you can’t do that,” he said.
But Ware says it’s not just wholesale, the entire insurance industry is full of opportunity for young people. “Wholesale broker, agent, underwriter, loss adjuster – anything – it is a wonderful industry,” he said. “It’s a stable industry, and if you work hard, you can build a very successful career, make good money, provide a good life. There are very few industries that are as good as insurance.”
A Place to Live
Andrea Ward admits that she knew very little about the insurance industry until her senior year of college. Her parents advised her that on the day she graduated college there would be no more dental insurance to cover the cost to remove her wisdom teeth. “I could go on spring break vacation or get my wisdom teeth pulled while still being insured,” she said.
She had contemplated going into pharmaceutical sales after college but that thinking changed after she landed an on-campus interview with General Reinsurance. Wisdom teeth sealed her path. That experience helped her realize the value of insurance coverage and made her curious. She took a job with General Re where she worked as an underwriter before landing in the wholesale business. After a few years, she took a position as an E&S underwriter.
“That was my first experience with wholesalers, and I thought ‘I would be good at that,'” she said. “I was 30 at the time and I knew I needed to pick a place to live.”
Ward, 38, is now assistant vice president at CRC, in San Francisco where she handles primary casualty and excess casualty accounts, focusing on shared economy businesses.
One reason she likes workign in the wholesale industry is the relationships she has with colleagues and retailers. “Relationships with both underwriters and retailers are something I like to manage,” she said.
She also likes finding the right fix. “I literally like pounding on everyone’s door to try to find the right response that’s needed. It might not be at the price you want or at the terms you want, but I will find it and using my sales abilities, convince them to sign on,” she said.
Lastly, she enjoys the flexibility that comes with being a wholesale broker. “I have an 18-month-old at home, so with this job, because I’m paid on commission, I can be in at 5 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. if I want. I just always have my iPhone on,” she said.
Ward hopes more women will consider careers as a wholesale broker.
“There’s an absolute need to foster opportunities for women in wholesale,” she says. CRC started a women’s network to do just that. “I love what we’re doing here. We’re literally trying to find women that want to take on a leadership career path and learn how can we support them and encourage them.”