Upon his retirement as the executive director of the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas later this summer, Ernie Stromberger has no intention of resting long enough to gather any moss. Instead, travel, time with family and hobbies, and even work are on Stromberger’s agenda.
Stromberger started his career as a journalist and getting back to his roots as a communicator, as well as the chance to lobby in the coming legislative session, are a couple of work-related activities he is looking forward to. “The one reason I was interested in moving on is that as I’ve gotten older the administrative parts of the job have gotten to be more of a burden and the fun parts of the job—the communicating and the lobbying have had to take a back seat,” Stromberger said. “I wanted to get into a situation where I could focus on the communicating and the legislative part of the job. So I’m hoping to get some consulting clients that will hire me to help them communicate a message to legislators or to the public or whoever. And to maybe help them lobby.
“If I can’t find some lobbying work in this next session, I won’t ever be able to find lobbying work because this next session is going to be … probably one of the biggest insurance sessions we’ve had since the Ann Richards session in 1991. There should be plenty of work to go around and I just want to keep my hand in without being on the firing line.”
Looking back on his time with the IIAT, Stromberger noted, “This has been a dream job for me. It allowed me to utilize my communication and organization skills. A trade organization like IIAT is … in the communication business. What we do is take information from the legislature, the insurance department, insurance companies—and we package it and we send it back out to our members and to the companies and to the legislators in formats that are valuable to them. The Internet of course has allowed us to become even more valuable.”
He acknowledged that one of the things accomplished during his tenure about which he is most proud is the association’s development of a strong education program. The IIAT’s Web site, with which he has been closely involved, is a major component of its education efforts. Stromberger said many of the successes with the Web site and the education program stem from his ability to attract and retain quality employees, like David Surles and David VanDelinder, who will take over the post Stromberger vacates when he retires.
“Surles … has an unusual, very rare talent of being able to take a complicated insurance subject and synthesize it into a very cogent, precise format,” Stromberger said. “He has done (that) with our coverage guides, which we have put on the Internet in InfoCentral … he also writes a lot of our newsletter articles. While I’m a communicator, I don’t know the subject matter to get much below the surface, so I had to have some people like David Surles and David VanDeLinder to digest this information and help us format it and gather it and process it.”
Stromberger added, “I think by virtue of hiring David VanDeLinder to run the (education) program, we guaranteed its success, because he’s a very unique talent. He’s been able to … present the courses, conceive the ideas for the courses and even write the promotion for the courses. He’s one of those rare people that can take process from start to finish and come out with a beautiful product that is well presented and well promoted.”
Among the people who have been most influential in his career with the IIAT, Stomberger counts Wade Spillman, who is now deceased but served as the lobbyist for the organization for 37 years. “Wade … had an instinctive talent for getting the most out of people and helping people achieve to their fullest ability without being intrusive. He was always there, but he could help you in a way that you ended up thinking it was your idea when it was actually his. So he had that rare gift for being helpful without being overbearing. I guess of all the people I worked with he was probably the most influential.”
The IIAT officers Stromberger has worked with throughout the years have also been a tremendous help to him. “The person who has my job works very closely with the president and the president-elect and the vice president of the association,” Stromberger said. “They’ve helped us take our perception of what the members needed and made sure that it met a member need and maximized the potential … They were a tremendous asset to me in helping me take some raw ideas and convert them in very workable, productive, valuable services to our members.”
Stromberger said one thing that has surprised him recently, given the type of year the insurance industry experienced in 2001, is that membership in IIAT has been going up. “Our membership is up 5 percent over last year. That’s the first time that’s happened in ten or fifteen years. Some of it is because of direct writer agents, like Allstate agents or Farmers agents … are being cut back so much by their own companies, but a lot is just people, especially in smaller towns, that see an opportunity and want to try and make it work. So it’s really amazing, as tight as the homeowners market is right now, that people are still trying to get into the business.”
As for the homeowners market, Stromberger said that the insurance industry, regulators and legislators need to remember that insurance “is a pass-through mechanism.” The companies operate by collecting sufficient premiums to pay claims, and if the legislators and regulators want companies to pay claims for things like broken slabs and mold, they need to let the insurance companies “collect enough premiums to pay the claims.” He added that one reason premiums are going up is because the companies are paying claims, and despite the fact that companies now have more flexibility in homeowners forms, many companies haven’t converted all their full-coverage HO-B policies to alternative forms. “They’ve still got nine or ten months worth of HO-Bs out there and they’re going to continue to get mold claims on them,” he said, adding that premiums will likely continue rising until a balance is struck.
One group of insurance professionals that have been hard hit by the tightening of the insurance market, particularly the homeowners market, are the customer service representatives (CSRs). They are the people who are dealing directly with the insureds when their policies go up. “Instead of automatically renewing most of the policies without any significant contact with the insured…,” Stromberger said, “probably half or two-thirds of their insureds are going to call up and say—good grief my rates went up, help me increase my deductible to decrease my rates, or shop this thing or do something …. That work is done by customer service representatives.
“They’re just swamped. And the agencies are having a hard time finding new ones and replacing the ones that leave because there’s … not any natural progression or career path for those people to follow.”
Stromberger acknowledged that the IIAT has been frustrated by its lack of success in helping its members find qualified support personnel. He said a lack of trained CSRs is a serious problem for agencies, and although the association has had great success in creating programs to find and develop producers, it has been hampered in its efforts to create a similar program to recruit and train CSRs.
“We’ve tried to come up with a plan to help grab kids out of high school or college and feed them into a system that would provide a source for these CSRs, the customer service representatives. But we just don’t have enough critical mass to do it. There’s not enough agencies lumped together in any one part of the state to go to a junior college or a high school and try to accomplish this.”
He explained that the Independent Agents of Houston (IIAH) has such a program that is “in its infancy,” but added that at this point the IIAT has not had the resources or “conditions that are favorable to support the concept.”
The challenges and rewards of any job go hand in hand, and Stromberger noted that his time with the IIAT has been well spent.”I’ve enjoyed thoroughly every minute of this job,” he said, adding that he’s ready to “see what life brings. I’m young enough to where I can still move around and do some things, so I’m just trying to play it by ear and see what happens.”
One thing he was sure about—there is no memoir planned. However, we can always hope.