Still Hanging Together
Twenty-five thousand Americans died in industrial accidents in 1913. Floods killed more than 400 Ohioans that year, and spring storms raged across the Great Lakes, killing more than 300. After 15 years of Republican control of the White House, the Democrats took office under Woodrow Wilson.
The same year, The Council of Agents & Brokers was established as the National Association of Casualty & Surety Agents. Its purpose was simple: promote the growing interests of insurance agents and brokers across the country—a busy and decentralized lot of high-energy, low-attention-span professionals who had dedicated their careers in small towns and across urban America to helping owners of businesses of all sizes navigate a world swirling with physical, political, financial and operational risks.
The Council is officially 100. In a world in which one of every two industries becomes extinct every 50 years, the passage of a century’s time has validated the importance of the risk and benefits advisor. Risk and risk transfer dates to 1750 B.C., when Babylonian sailing merchants would borrow money to finance trading journeys and pay an additional sum to a lender to guarantee that, if the shipment were to fail to arrive, the lender would not seek to recover the original cargo loan that financed the shipment.
Yet not until the early years of the 20th century did agents come together to form an advocacy group to promote their best practices and represent their common welfare. It seems we are a stubborn, competitive and independent lot.
Many of us did not seek our industry. Instead, it found us. Some of us blindly followed friends and relatives into the brokerage and agency business. Others, having ruined our knees on the athletic field or our prospects for public office by our dubious conduct as undergraduates, saw an opportunity to combine keen intellect, a strong work ethic, creative problem solving and a black-belt command of an expense account into a vocation that would also serve many of us as a beloved avocation.
Yes, some among us intentionally joined our industry. Perhaps after attending The College of Insurance, they evaluated the pros and cons of growing up to be a fireman or astronaut and decided it was better to manage risk than become a casualty to it.
Yet we are still together. We move in the background like supporting actors in a John Ford western. Everyone knows our face, but sometimes people forget our name. We are like Zelig, the ubiquitous chameleon who appears in the third row, fifth from left, standing on his tippy toes in the famous photo. People get to know us only when they need us. If we have done our job, business and benefits exposures have a hard time interfering with our clients’ business plans.
We are competitive. We don’t like to lose. We suffer at times from a schizophrenic case of self-loathing mixed with a healthy dose of acute egotism. In a world fraught with risk, we are the glue, sinew, lubricant and headlamp. Wherever there is hazard, we figure out the least expensive way to manage it. Most eschew the necessity of what we do until they need it. We don’t always get paid commensurately with the value we create. We solve problems, and we go about our business, trying to spread the word and polish our brand. If we are lucky and we are good, we get the order or we renew for another year, all the while knowing that someday change will once again cast its shadow on our doorsteps.
Over the years the naysayers and demagogues declared our industry as analog or overvalued, conflicted or under-qualified. Yet in the end, our clients tuned out the rhetoric and kept turning to us for advice. We are an impressive armada of businesses ranging from petite and sleek agencies to the massive metallic gray alphabet battleships. Our business is about people and, like the best parts of America, we endure because we are authentic. We are tested at times, but more often than not, our experience, goodwill, ingenuity and InstaGram photos of our largest client swimming in a fountain near Trafalgar Square with three Lloyd’s underwriters insures our longevity.
So here’s a toast to all of you who have seen the value of coming together and supporting 100 years of the Council, sharing your good fortune and your goodwill to ensure that we will continue to preserve our role as trusted advisors and confidants. We understand that we are adrift in a sea of risk and regulation that is not always predictable or enforced in an effective manner. That is why we have our own trusted ombudsmen whose raison d’être is to represent our interests. We finally understand that we either hang together or we hang separately. We are a mirror reflection of one another, and each year, we gather to validate our vital role. We know we stand to lose anything we put ahead of our clients, including our reputations. Over the years, we have managed to keep the client first and in doing so preserve our role as a vital conduit for managing risk.
We understand that professional competition does not mean begrudging our respected competitors their right to success. We are a complex universe of driven, expressive, analytical and amiable personalities. We go by many names—consultant, advisor, broker, agent, confidant, facilitator, agitator, aggregator, market maker, genius, savage, savant. It’s thankless at times. As Jerry McGuire confessed to his client, “…you don’t know what it’s like to be me out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, OK?”
Best of all, we’re still together.