The CHANGING FACE of Surplus Lines Brokers

By | September 24, 2007

The surplus lines industry is never boring, never plain and certainly never black and white. Often dubbed as the innovator of new insurance products, the industry could even be considered colorful when it comes to the breadth and scope of business risks surplus lines professionals insure. However, when it comes to the industry’s surplus lines brokerage leadership, variety is not as commonplace. Few women have made it to the rank of owner, and even fewer minorities own a surplus lines brokerage firm.

Yet the lack of diversity among brokerage owners hasn’t held back the few who have made it to the top, including Mary Ellen Rozzell, the incoming president of the National Association of Surplus Lines Offices (NAPSLO). Rozzell, president and one of the principals at Continental Marmorstein & Malone in New Jersey, will become NAPLSO’s second woman president in the history of the association in October. NAPSLO was founded in 1974.

Leading with respect
Rozzell started in the insurance industry nearly 40 years ago when women in the workplace were not common, including the surplus lines industry.

“There really were not a lot of woman involved in our business at that time,” Rozzell recalled. “But I’ve been very lucky,” she said, noting the fact that she is a woman in the business was never an issue. “It was a challenge early in my career with retailers but I worked very hard to gain their confidence and respect in my abilities as an underwriter.”

According to Rozzell, she’s had the opportunity to work with men who did not look at whether a person was a male or female. “They just looked at what kind of job you wanted to do.”

Rozzell began her career out of high school working for Prudential Insurance Co. in Newark, N.J. Soon after, she moved into the surplus lines industry, first working in clerical positions and then taking on other responsibilities in her climb up the corporate ladder.

“I really started at the very bottom of the business, and I’ve since been in every possible line of business in this firm,” Rozzell noted. She has worked in every department in her firm. “I’ve spent my entire career here,” she said. “I issued policies; I handled claims; I filed; I did underwriting assistance, underwriting and then moved into management and eventually into ownership of this firm.”

Rozzell admits that when she began working, she thought it would be for a short period of time.

“Back then, the women’s movement wasn’t around and I actually thought I’d go to work for a couple of years, get married, have children and be a stay-at-home mom,” she said. Those things just didn’t happen, but what did, changed the course of her life.

When a manager in her office had to take an unexpected leave of absence, Rozzell stepped in to fulfill his duties.

To her surprise, Rozzell discovered she was capable of much more.

“To my surprise, I was able to do the job,” she said. “I really didn’t think I could do it; then realized I could handle it.”

After that, Rozzell went on to get her broker’s license and jumped into underwriting full time. “I built up a good book of business and still have a very close relationship with many people I started working with in the early ’70s.”

Another driver for Rozzell in her surplus lines career has been her willingness and enthusiasm to become involved at all levels of the business.

“I’ve just been active always,” she said. “You can’t just sit there and poke your head in the sand and not know what’s going on in the world,” she added. “You need to know about what’s happening in the legal environment in your state, and you need to be on top of it whether you are a retailer or wholesaler.”

Becoming cognizant and involved in numerous legislative and regulatory issues affecting the surplus lines industry is important, she said. “I saw (early in my career) how important it was to have a good working relationship with the department of insurance … to understand their concerns for consumers, but the (department) also needs to understand the marketplace and the need to provide coverage when the admitted market won’t do it,” Rozzell said.

Early in her career, Rozzell became involved with her state’s surplus lines association and worked for many years to get freedom of forms approved in New Jersey. She served on the association’s legislative committee for a number of years and eventually served as the association president in the 1990s.

“I really got so involved legislatively at that point that it just changed my whole life,” she said.

Rozzell said she always had the support and encouragement of her boss, Leon Fiver, who is now her partner in the firm.

“I absolutely love what I do,” she said. “I truly can tell you that I’ve never gone to work saying I don’t want to go to my job.”

But what Rozzell has always wanted the most for her career was respect.

“As long as I could gain people’s respect for what I could provide for them, I was happy. I recommend that for anyone in our business, whether male or female … know your product, have the respect of the people you are doing business with, and never compromise yourself,” Rozzell said.

Not following father’s orders
Lana Parks, owner of The Parks Group in Arlington, Texas, says being a woman leader in the insurance business wasn’t much of an issue for her, although it might have been for her father, an independent insurance agent in west Texas.

“When I worked for my dad, he thought all women should be secretaries,” Parks said. But that belief drove Parks to accomplish much more. “He motivated me the most,” she said. “He was very proud that I started my own agency. That was my motivation to succeed.”

Parks spent summers working for her father’s independent agency during high school. She is a 30-year veteran in the business, having worked for Clark & Co., a managing general agency in Arlington, Texas, before moving onto Gainsco Insurance Co., a surplus lines insurance company where she eventually became vice president of marketing. She founded The Parks Group in 1994.

While she has worked in the company, the retail and the general agency segments of the insurance business, Parks said for her, the “general agency side is the best side to be on.” She enjoys working for her current customers, retail agents, better than the direct customers, although she admitted working for a carrier helped prepare her to own and manage her firm.

Parks currently serves on the board of directors for the Texas Surplus Lines Association, has served on the board of governors of the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriting Society and is past president of the Ft. Worth, Texas, Chapter of CPCU. She is also a member of the local association of Federation Insurance Women of Texas.

Getting her CPCU designation was a turning point for Parks’ career. “Getting the designation was an important,” she said. “It showed people (my) commitment to (my) own personal development and even helped get us an (insurance) company (appointment).”

Parks maintains that when it comes to the insurance industry, being a woman owner has neither helped nor hindered her career. “I think that it’s been positive,” she said. “The agents look at us and the companies look at us based on our performance, not on our gender,” she said. Even so, Parks hopes to see more agencies owned and operated by women in the future. “We are starting to see more diversity in general, both among gender and age, and different ethics groups,” she added.

Overall, Parks believes the surplus lines industry and diversity among brokerage owners are moving in a positive direction. “There’s a lot of room to grow,” she admitted. “It’s not just surplus lines, but the industry as a whole.”

She noted that while woman leaders may be lacking in today’s insurance world, there’s no shortage of woman in the industry in general.

“It’s just a matter of women taking the initiative to be in those roles,” she noted. “The attitude is starting to change, but there are not very many woman-owned agencies.”

Parks said that in today’s hot climate for mergers and acquisitions, she expects to see more women in leadership roles. “The last two presidents of the CPCU Society have been women,” she added.

Willing to move
Maureen Caviston, president of Partners Specialty Group Inc., Stamford, Conn., doesn’t deny she works in a position frequently dominated by men, but that doesn’t matter.

“I mean in the insurance industry, there’s definitely more men than women in leadership positions,” Caviston said. “There’s no question about that, but I don’t think it has hurt me. I’ve just been incredibly fortunate.”

Caviston began in the insurance industry nearly 30 years ago when she first worked in a summer job during college for Bryson Associates, a surplus line brokerage owned by Jim Bryson, a former founder of NAPSLO.

“Bryson (Associates) was probably two years old when I joined, so it was a great ground floor opportunity for me,” Caviston added.

She entered the firm doing mostly clerical work but soon became a producer and broker and began working her way up. She went on to earn her CPCU designation and, after a fairly short time in the business, she had accomplished a lot.

“I felt like I had learned a good deal and I was somewhat restless to take on something more,” she said. When Caviston told the company she was eager to take on more, they approached her with an opportunity to open a New York branch office.

“We were based outside Philadelphia at the time and (Jim Bryson) said: ‘How would you feel about moving to New York and setting up an operation there for us?’ I jumped at the chance,” Caviston recalled. “I was fairly young. I was 27 years old and opened a New York City branch for Bryson Associates and that was a huge statement and gave me a lot of visibility.”

When it comes to running her firm, Caviston says being a woman has never made much of a difference except when it comes to motherhood. Caviston, who served as NAPSLO’s first female president in 1996, jokes she was also the first NAPSLO president to give birth during her presidency.

On a more serious note, Caviston suggests that if “you’re in a business that is male dominated, I’ve always felt that you should just become part of it,” she said.

“There’s definitely more women in the business in a leadership role today than there were 20 years ago or 25 years ago,” Caviston pointed out. “I’ve just always had mentors and bosses that really didn’t focus on gender when they made their management decisions,” she said, noting the importance of this. “I don’t think everybody’s that way, but it’s certainly the case with me.”

A different perspective
Diversity in surplus lines doesn’t just apply to gender. For Jorge Cacho Sousa, chairman and CEO of MexiPass Global Assurance, South Pasadena, Calif., being a Latino-owned firm has helped his business. MexiPass is a managing general agency strictly for Mexican insurance and other international insurance products.

Cacho Sousa migrated to the United States from Lima, Peru, in 1980 to attend the U.S. College of Insurance in New York. After that, he worked as a commercial lines producer for large retail insurance brokerage firms in Los Angeles. Then 17 years ago, he said he saw a gap in the insurance market that hadn’t been filled, which prompted him to open his own surplus lines wholesale firm.

Prior to opening MexiPass’ doors, when brokers in the United States had clients with insurance needs in Mexico they had to refer them out to a broker in Mexico. “So what we decided to do is contact Mexican insurance companies and make available their products through us as the surplus lines wholesaler to any insurance agent,” he said.

Today, MexiPass works with about 6,000 independent insurance agents nationwide.

Cacho Sousa attributes part of his company’s success to his being bilingual. “When I first came to this country, the language was a great asset; I was able to very successfully solicit Hispanic clients,” he said. “Then when we started MexiPass, the fact that I am Latino and I know the culture and had an insurance background in Spanish made it a lot easier to get things done.”

Cacho Sousa said Hispanics now own many large corporations and being able to relate to their culture has helped him as a producer. In addition, he is able to communicate in Spanish to workers on safety programs for his clients’ firms. His cultural background also helped him negotiate with Mexican insurers and regulatory authorities when founding MexiPass. “I’ve had advantages being a Latino,” he affirmed.

Cacho Sousa said there are many opportunities for Latinos and other minority groups in the surplus lines industry. “There is a lot of opportunity for Latinos but we unfortunately find a lot of Latinos that will just stay at some basic insurance function not really advancing from there,” he said.

Turning points in Cacho Sousa’s path to success were moving to the United States and earning his CPCU designation. The other turning point, he said, was making the decision to switch from a retail producer to a business owner. When he opened MexiPass there was no other wholesale firm like it, he said. “We were the first ones really to do this and make this insurance available to the United States, so it was a difficult decision and turning point,” he added.

Cacho Sousa said that while there are a few Latino owned firms in the industry, there probably should be more. “It probably has to do with education,” he said.

“I’m a strong supporter of education… To be truly successful in insurance, you need to understand and master the sound principles that you get in education. Once you have that education, you can move up in other types of insurance.” He hopes more Latinos educate themselves in insurance to advance to higher level positions.

Leveraging strengths
Felipe Gutierrez Ilizaliturri, vice president and partner at Macafee and Edwards Inc., Los Angeles, Calif., said he believes the insurance industry has become a more diverse workforce since he first moved to the United States eight years ago.

“I think that people in our industry are more open to diversity than they used to be,” he said. “You can feel the importance and relevance of this sector now days. A lot of companies are focusing in the Latino market now and have more purchasing power now.”

Gutierrez Ilizaliturri worked for an insurance company in Mexico City before he was asked to join Macafee and Edwards to help with the firm’s renovation. At that time, Macafee and Edwards was a small surplus lines brokerage firm writing only personal lines. “I created new areas and looked for new markets,” Gutierrez Ilizaliturri said. Then he started the property/casualty division to write only insurance for Mexico and in Latin America.

“We specialize in the Mexico market. We assist U.S. and Canadian brokers in placing any type of risk in Mexico, from a big manufacturing company or a tourist development, to a one-day trip policy into Mexico either by car or airplane,” he said. “In one word, we specialize in Mexico.”

Gutierrez Ilizaliturri said that being a Latino has never been much of an issue, positive or negative, throughout his career.

“Being a Latino is part of my essence and I am proud of it,” he said. “I have always believed that it is what you do and how you do it that eventually turns (things) positive or negative in our careers.”

What’s most important “is to feel proud of who you are,” Gutierrez Ilizaliturri said. “Have a very clear idea of what you want in life, both professionally and personally, and have the courage to pursue your goals.”

Topics USA Agencies Texas Excess Surplus New York Market Training Development Mexico

About Andrea Wells

Andrea Wells is a veteran insurance editor and Editor-in-Chief of Insurance Journal Magazine. More from Andrea Wells

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