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A Contrarian Looks ‘Back to the Future’

A recent week started with reading a page by Paul Carroll from his Innovator’s Edge platform. The title question was: “Will Apple enter insurance? Google? Microsoft? Amazon?” His opening statement was, “Apple’s market value crested $1 trillion last week, and its big tech brethren Google, Microsoft and Amazon aren’t far behind, all are valued north of $800 billion…”

I wasn’t shocked until he said, “All have extensive data about customers. And all have the size to tackle mind-bending problems that insurance faces – by contrast you’d have to combine AIG, Prudential and Allstate just to surpass $100 billion in market value…”

A day later, someone sent me Reagan Consulting’s “The Golden Age of Insurance Brokerage.” As I read through this short update, I could almost hear, “Happy days are here again” playing in the background for the brokers. The following captures the essence of this document: “We are living in the Golden Age of insurance brokerage. There are so many good things happening, it is hard to keep track of them all.” This was followed by six bullet points providing evidence of why the brokers are so happy. (No mention was made of insurance buyers, who may not be as HAPPY!)

A friend then sent me a link to “The Death of the Old School Agency,” by Michael Jans. This is a more in-depth view (30-plus pages) of the world as it may or will be.

From the executive summary, we learn that today’s agent faces a new world of:

  • Rapid changes in consumer behavior and expectations
  • Emerging, existing and well-funded competitive channels
  • A rising millennial generation with different expectations, both as consumers and workers
  • A pace of change unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

Depending upon who, what and where you are, this report will bring good news or bad news, but nonetheless – it is news that (I believe) every agent needs to hear, consider, ponder and then decide on.

Agencies tomorrow are not “your daddy’s Oldsmobile.” Ask someone older than 40 to explain the phrase. This was the beginning of the end of a legendary line of General Motors automobiles and probably a foreshadowing of the collapse of General Motors.

I encourage you to study all three of these documents – they are well-written by very successful folks. Their ideas should be carefully considered, and, if properly adapted to your circumstances, all can improve your results. That is – as long as the world goes as “we the people” in this industry think it should. What follows is my contrarian view – less “raining on your parade” and more clearing the air as you look to the horizon in tomorrow’s consumer-driven economy. We are not in charge. We today are wagering on our individual and industry’s future. Place your bets. The market will pick the winners.

See also: 3 Myths That Inhibit Innovation (Part 3)  

This contrarian will offer his ideas by looking “back to the future.”

There will remain great opportunities in our future, but these will require transformational change. From today’s selling in an industry that is product-defined and product-driven, to a new client-defined and client-driven marketplace where we will facilitate our client’s buying – solving their problems and meeting their needs. In the competitive nature of tomorrow’s world – we’ll have to use artificial intelligence (AI) to anticipate these needs and deliver solutions before our clients “go shopping.”

Some of the people, gifts, expertise, disciplines, skills, etc. we’ll need will be much different than the mechanical process we use today. We will need communicators (verbal and nonverbal), empathizers, artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers, storytellers, caregivers and “techies.” This is not an all-inclusive list. (Consider reading “A Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink.)

Warren Bennis offered the following wisdom decades ago: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Consider the following – brief observations from one man’s experience:

  • In 1978, Fireman’s Fund/Famex Agents offered a GM-endorsed insurance program for dealers. I was the SW Louisiana agent. In those days, the No. 1 concern of GM and its dealers was that GM would reach 65% market share and the federal government would break GM up into separate companies, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, etc. GM’s arrogance, the dealers’ complacency, foreign competition, a poor product and a marketplace wanting change reshaped their world. GM never made it to 65% market share. I believe the insurance industry is ripe for a similar transformational experience.
  • In 1994, I was speaking to a bank in St. James Parish (Louisiana) about change. I said, “Today, GM, Sears and IBM are the kings of their respective jungles. I believe, in my lifetime, one of these companies will fail.” I was laughed off the stage. Fourteen years later, I was vindicated with the bankruptcy filing by GM. I personally believe that I’ll also prove right on Sears.
  • In June 2008, I was an instructor for attendees in a risk and insurance class at the KPMG Advisory University in Chicago. This was a continuing education week for KPMG consultants. A rookie consultant asked, “How does an insurance company fail?” I explained with the Champion Insurance story.

Then he asked for an example of a “rock solid” insurance company. I said, “AIG.” The KPMG senior partners in the room nodded in agreement. Less than 100 days later, AIG was functionally bankrupt, requiring a $182 billion bailout by the government. None of us saw that coming. (I’ll bet you were surprised, as well.)

As I wrap up this article, hoping I’ve stimulated a much more important discussion about the future, consider the following:

  1. Companies valued at $100 billion are “big” until measured against trillion-dollar operations in a world in transformation – especially if the giants have better technology and data!
  2. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon (AGMA) are kings of their respective jungles. Yet these companies are not even as old as the majority of readers of this column (with the possible exception of Microsoft and Apple, founded in the mid-1970s). Why would we think that our “old and stoic” industry is “safe” and “promising” for tomorrow? Are we celebrating our past when we should be planning our future?
  3. Do you think that any of your clients who have recently received a rate increase will be as enthusiastic about the profitability of our industry and the future of the world of brokers as stated in the article offered by Reagan? I’ve rarely (if ever) heard a client celebrate the profitability of our industry when it is an expense to theirs…
  4. Generational changes, social media and our societal rethinking of issues of race, gender, ethnicity, family, values, economic models (socialism / capitalism), etc. may result in our going in directions that we, 10 years ago, would have never considered possible.
  5. Has our industry let the government get its nose into our tent/economic system. NFIP has been in this industry as long as I have. The private sector didn’t want to address the flood risk. Now, these nearly 50 years later, the flood program is a government program and not sustainable. Unfortunately, the government may be ready to have the camel stand up in the tent? Medicare for everyone is no longer a crazy idea. It may not work, but….
  6. If the insurance industry was being designed today to do what it does, do you really believe it would be what we have? If you answered yes, please reread the question!

See also: What Is Really Disrupting Insurance?  

Bookstores, travel agencies, video stores, etc. were important in our communities of yesterday – UNTIL THEY WEREN’T. Should we begin redesigning our own operations and industry and future before a competitive innovator does it for us?

The Need for ‘Price-Driven Costing’

In 1973, I began my insurance career as a claims’ adjuster. We handled some of the first claims in the new NFIP Flood Program. There was chaos.

A year later, I was hired by Cumis Insurance to staff a new sales office in Baton Rouge,LA. The market hardened dramatically, capacity was limited and our office closed before we sold a policy. I learned about market cycles.

My next job was as an insurance producer. My job and the agency business were good. We were paid 25% commission on homeowners policies, there was no transparency (comparative rating didn’t exist in our part of the world) and the most exciting change was when Safeco allowed field men (yes, they were all men) to wear blue or buff-colored shirts in lieu of the traditional white.

During my first week at work, a colleague dropped an article titled “Marketing Myopia” on my desk and said, “read it.” The author was Theodore Levitt. The piece was then and still is a classic — and framed my thinking about an issue that has only grown in importance and must become  the future of insurance.

Levitt opened with an observation on the railroad industry, which declined because it defined itself incorrectly – “railroad-oriented instead of transportation oriented… product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.”

Levitt also mentioned a fundamental misunderstanding about the success of Henry Ford. “We habitually celebrate him for the wrong reasons: for his production genius. His real genius was marketing. We think he was able to cut his selling price and therefore sell millions of $500 cars because his invention of the assembly line had reduced the costs. Actually, he invented the assembly line because he had concluded that at $500 he could sell millions of cars. Mass production was the result, not the cause, of his low prices.”

From 1978 to 1981, I represented Fireman’s Fund/FAMEX in its GM dealers program. At that time, the No. 1 concern of General Motors and its dealers was that GM would gain 65% market share and that the government would then break GM into Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet and GMC corporations. We all know how this played out.

In 1993, I opened my consulting practice focusing on CHANGE – its management and architecture. (“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” as Peter Drucker said.) I spoke to the leadership of a community bank and said that, although GM, IBM and Sears were the giants in their respective industries, “one of these three will ultimately go bankrupt.” The bankers rolled their eyes and laughed. We all know how this played out. (In my children’s lifetime, I may prove right on the other two.)

Later that same year, Drucker offered an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Five Deadly Business Sins.” It said, “The third deadly sin is cost-driven pricing. The only thing that works is price-driven costing. Most American and practically all European companies arrive at their prices by adding up costs and then putting a profit margin on top… their argument, ‘we have to recover our costs and make a profit.’

“This is true but irrelevant; customers do not see it as their job to ensure manufacturers profit. The only sound way to price is to start out with what the market is willing to pay.”

Levitt’s voice echoes his agreement from the “Marketing Myopia” article, when he says, “Our policy is to reduce the price, extend the operation and improve the article. You will notice the reduction of price comes first.” Drucker’s wisdom closed the circle that began with my reading of “Marketing Myopia.”

In 1994, I became the executive director of the Louisiana Managed Healthcare Association (LMHA) – the health maintenance organization (HMO) association. I quoted Drucker dozens of times as I attempted to explain the difference between the then-existing fee-for-service system and the new world of “capitation” and “managed care.” I was shouted down more than I was applauded.

That same year, a couple named Harry and Louise (in a TV ad campaign) defeated Bill and Hillary’s attempt to reform healthcare. Fast forward another 20 years and Obamacare is the law of the land. At its essence is managed care – a price-driven costing model. The market won’t go back to cost-driven pricing.

Two more observations from Drucker as your prepare for tomorrow — or choose to ignore it:

— “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two and only two basic functions: marketing and innovation.”

Innovation is so necessary because customers are constantly changing. We must be defined and driven by clients.

–“There are now only three possible roads the financial services industry can take. The easiest, and usually most heavily traveled, is to keep doing what worked in the past. Going down this road means, however, steady decline….The second road – to be replaced, and probably fairly rapidly, by outside innovators – remains a possibility for today’s firms. But there is also a third and final road – to become innovators themselves and their own ‘creative destroyers.’”

Your future depends on more production but only at a price the market will pay. Your sustainability depends on innovating your processes to ensure profitable delivery whether your commission is hidden in the premium or disclosed or whether premiums are quoted net of commission.

Today, when I drive by a dealer, the genius of Drucker is reinforced. Look at a pickup truck on the lot. The window sticker shows the “cost-driven price.” The sign on the windshield celebrating a $12,000 discount is the price-driven cost.

If you want to sell a truck in today’s world, discounts are not optional!

The same is true for insurance.