Things happen fast in the start-up world.
Early yesterday, I wrote a post on how Zenefits’ compliance challenges in Washington state could cost the company millions of dollars in lost commissions. While noting that it was only a matter of time before someone at Zenefits lost his job over the situation, I had no idea that Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad would resign later in the day, citing the compliance problems.
In a press release cited by VentureBeat.com announcing Conrad’s departure, Zenefits’ new CEO, David Sacks, who had been COO, declared, ”I believe that Zenefits has a great future ahead, but only if we do the right things. We sell insurance in a highly regulated industry. In order to do that, we must be properly licensed. For us, compliance is like oxygen. Without it, we die. The fact is that many of our internal processes, controls and actions around compliance have been inadequate, and some decisions have just been plain wrong. As a result, Parker has resigned.” (The entire press release is worth reading).
The loss of a founder and CEO is another cost Zenefits will pay for the alleged failure to comply with states’ insurance laws. I don’t believe they’re done paying for their mistake, however.
What follows is a slightly edited version of my earlier article:
Washington regulators are investigating Zenefits’ alleged use of unlicensed agents selling insurance policies in the state. This is not only embarrassing for a company as brash and boastful as Zenefits, but the company’s finances could be substantially affected, too. Not just because, if found guilty of this felony, Zenefits could face a multimillion-dollar fine. The far greater risk to Zenefits is the prospect of losing commission income — a lot of it.
William Alden at BuzzFeed News has done a great job pursuing the story of Zenefits’ unlicensed sales. Now Alden is reporting that, based on public records, it seems “83% of the insurance policies sold or serviced by the company through August 2015 were peddled by employees without necessary state licenses….”
The potential fallout is quite substantial even though only a small number of sales are involved — just 110 policies out of 132 sold or serviced by Zenefits in Washington between November 2013 and August 2015. “Soft dollar” costs include a damaged brand because of the bad press, distractions at all levels of the company and the need to address whether the company is ignoring other consumer protections.
Then there are the hard costs. 110 policies times the maximum $25,000 per violation that Washington can impose means fines of as much as $2.8 million. Financial penalties imposed by other states could add to this figure. While paying a $2.8 million fine is no laughing matter for a company losing money every month, this represents less than 0.5% of what Zenefits has raised from investors. However, the legal fines are, potentially, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As Alden points out, the fallout from this investigation could result in carriers dumping Zenefits, and that could cost the company far more than any criminal fines.
Carriers require agents to meet several requirements before contracting with them, and agents must continue to meet these requirements to keep the agreement in-force. Common provisions include being appropriately licensed, maintaining adequate errors and omissions coverage and not committing felonies or breaching fiduciary responsibilities. Fail to meet any of these requirements, and agents can find their contract terminated for cause.
Terminations for cause usually allow insurance companies to withhold future commissions from the agent and, depending on the specific terms of the contract, from the agent’s agency, as well. If an agency or agent knows or should have known he was in violation of contract terms when executing the agreement, carriers may be able to rescind the contract and demand repayment of commissions.
Being found guilty of a felony in Washington state could allow a carrier — any carrier, anywhere in the country — to terminate Zenefits’ agent contract for cause. Late last year, Zenefits CEO Conrad claimed the company was on track to earn $80 million in 2015. So, let’s see, millions times 50% … carry the one … yeah, this hurts. A lot.
A nuclear outcome is highly unlikely. The Washington state investigation into Zenefits is continuing, and Zenefits, to date, has been found guilty of nothing.
Even if Washington regulators find Zenefits committed a felony, for reasons described in a previous post, the outcome is highly unlikely to be a fatal blow to the company. Insurance regulators have considerable leeway in determining fines and penalties. Absent proof that Zenefits intentionally violated state law or that consumers experienced actual harm, the Washington State Department of Insurance is likely to conclude that this situation resulted from incompetence. The department might then impose a modest fine on Zenefits and subject the company to enhanced review of its licensing practices for a few years.
Let’s put this in perspective. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency as a result of what started off as a two-bit break-in. That kind of cascading escalation is extremely rare. What we’re seeing unfold in Washington state is probably not Zenefits’ Watergate moment.
Zenefits has already paid a small price for what it allegedly did. I’m guessing the whole mess has been a bit distracting to management. And the fact remains: Mishandling more than 80% of sales in a state is a sign of immense ineptitude, arrogance or both. Having this reality aired publicly is not good for Zenefits’ brand, and resources will need to be expended to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’m not aware the company has fired anyone as a direct result of the lax licensing controls, but that could happen.
As a result of this fiasco, Zenefits has already taken down its controversial broker comparison pages in which the company used carefully selected criteria to compare itself to community-based agents. (I guess the company was reluctant to add “being investigated for multiple felonies” as one of the comparison points). This is a small sacrifice as the comparison page was likely an attempt to enhance search engine optimization rather than an effort to take business from the competition.
Zenefits has paid a small price. The open question is: How large a price will the company ultimately pay?