The History of the Professional Liability Underwriting Society: The Origin Story of Bringing the Best Together

By Angelo J. Gioia | May 20, 2024

The Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS), as it exists today, does not have a written narrative or any acknowledgment on its website about how the organization was created, the timeline, the individuals primarily involved, or all the events that had to occur to make the organization a reality.

If you look at the PLUS Wikipedia page, it says it was founded in 1990 with 300 members. However, neither statement is true since PLUS – an organization I helped create – had its first conference in 1987 with about 125 attendees and a membership of 200.

Today, PLUS stands as a testament to the vision and perseverance of its founders. While many of its current 40,000-plus members may not be familiar with its rich history, they are part of a thriving community that is shaping the future of professional liability underwriting. The current executives, though not present at its inception, are steering the organization towards new horizons, their focus on the future a testament to the enduring legacy of PLUS.

For me, this is an opportunity to pay tribute to the individuals whose unwavering dedication and hard work brought this dream to life. Unfortunately, some of our esteemed colleagues have passed away, but their legacies will forever be etched in the history of PLUS, and we must always remember their invaluable contributions.

Recently, I spoke with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Robert Hansen. Robert and I forged our friendship while studying at The College of Insurance (TCI) in the early seventies in New York City, now known as St. John’s University, Maurice R. Greenberg School of Risk Management Insurance and Actuarial Science. We reminisced about our shared experiences, including the honor of being each other’s best man at our weddings, a testament to the deep bonds formed during those formative years.

After college graduation, we both landed our first full-time underwriting position in professional liability with the National Union Insurance Co., working for Leo Gilmartin. National Union is one of the many companies of the American International Group, aka AIG. It was a fantastic insurance company that was exceptionally innovative, creative and different from its competitors, and it provided us with a tremendous learning opportunity. At the time, I did not realize that I would be working with and for several individuals who would significantly impact my professional career and my success in the industry, and would also play a role in the future success of PLUS.

As I was reflecting with Robert, it hit me that my storyline parallels the history of PLUS. It seems that the origin of the Professional Liability Underwriting Society is shrouded in mystery, as only a few people know how it started. When, why, who was involved, and who played critical roles in its development and success?

Beginnings

Professional liability insurance was a relatively new line of insurance in the 1970s, and only a handful of insurance companies were writing the class. The professional liability industry was fascinating; it was stimulating, challenging, and rewarding, with tremendous upside and opportunities, including travel. More importantly, since this was pre-internet, it served as a conduit for me to meet thousands of other like-minded professionals throughout the country who had chosen the same career path.

As a reward for my dedication and work ethic, I was promoted and offered an opportunity to transfer to San Francisco to set up the first regional branch office; Robert was given a similar chance to establish a branch operation in Atlanta.

My primary area of responsibility was the California Association of Realtors (CAR) and the California State Bar Association. Through this lawyer’s program, I got involved with the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Lawyers Professional Liability, which meets twice a year.

While attending these meetings, I realized we had a void in the marketplace and that there was a need for a professional organization that would embrace all areas of professional liability, not just lawyers, and become the meeting place for carriers, brokers, agents and attorneys to get together to discuss topical issues and where education would be the critical element to its foundation.

At these meetings, I met attorney Ron Berman, who played an integral role in developing and structuring the Professional Liability Underwriting Society and later served as general counsel and my good friend. Also, it was here that I met Bill Gates Sr., an attorney who was chair of the standing committee. (Editor’s Note: Bill Gates Sr. is the father of Bill Gates Jr., founder of Microsoft.)

Bill would become a mentor and sounding board, so when I mentioned the idea of creating a national professional insurance organization encompassing all professional liability lines, he liked the idea and offered to incorporate the PLUS organization in the state of Washington when we were ready. If memory serves me right, he incorporated the organization in 1986. In 1997, the organization was redomiciled as a domestic non-profit in Minnesota.

I made it a point to call Bill multiple times during the following years to determine his availability to meet at the upcoming ABA conference for Lawyers Professional Liability and to provide updates on how we were progressing. More importantly, he wanted to know if we were getting any pushback from the carriers and was extremely interested in our progress in developing our designation/education programs. Bill would always advise me that this was a substantial undertaking and that the people involved and I should be patient and recognize that this was an opportunity to create something different.

Building PLUS

During this time, the organization continued to create interest and develop a presence in the professional liability insurance community across the United States. We held multiple after-work functions in both Chicago and New York.

At one of these meetings, I met Dave Smith, an insurance agent in Vermont. Dave heard about what we were doing and flew into Chicago with few details other than that we were attempting to create a professional liability association. Dave met the people who attended the meeting and instantly wanted to be involved. It was then that I realized that the word was spreading, and it was only a matter of time before we could launch. Dave would later become the PLUS President in 1994.

Our last hurdle to becoming operational would prove to be the most time-consuming. For the organization to continue to move forward, we needed to find an association management company willing to take over and oversee the day-to-day functions and management. We had no revenue or infrastructure, and our only tangible asset was a prospect list of a few hundred interested parties. All that changed the day I flew into Minneapolis and met with Robert Hansen, who took me to meet Ed Harrington, president of the Harrington Companies. Ed saw my passion and commitment and recognized the tremendous upside to my offering. While I may have carried the ball, Ed provided the fundamental block to get PLUS into the endzone and score. We would not be here today without him.

After the meeting with Ed, I called Bill to say that we had added the final piece and were ready to launch, so I needed him to incorporate PLUS. (The last time I spoke with Bill was after our first conference; I called him to thank him for his help and counseling.)

Key Individuals

Reflecting on our history and remarkable accomplishments, I must acknowledge three key individuals who would significantly influence our success.

First, Bill Mullin. Bill was instrumental in being the voice and person behind the PLUS Foundation. He also served in a critical role in developing the Founders Award.

Second, Leo Gilmartin, who became a close friend and mentor. Leo oversaw professional liability at AIG. He drafted many professional liability policies and was a pioneer in updating professional liability coverage.

To describe Leo, I would use the famous line from the movie Rudy, “He was 5-foot nothin’, 100 pounds and nothin’ with not one speck of athletic ability.” Still, he would make his presence known as highly knowledgeable and personable when he was in the room. He and Bill Mullin were instrumental in developing the PLUS presence in the New York insurance community.

Third, my good friend Doug Boyce, PLUS’s first president, played a crucial role in helping us build our Chicago and Midwest presence, which allowed us to establish a stronghold for the operation.

I am confident that we would have failed if Bill, Leo, Doug and Robert had not committed to the cause. I owe them particular thanks.

I also need to acknowledge Stephen Sills and Bill Holland for their contributions and tremendous efforts in developing and establishing the Registered Professional Liability Underwriting designation (RPLU). In addition to his leadership role in helping create the RPLU program, Stephen was responsible for hosting the opening night reception for several years while acting as CEO of Executive Risk, a company he founded. Initially, it was Robert Hansen who contacted Bill Holland, who, in turn, approached Dr. Bill Feldhaus from the University of Georgia and, with the assistance of Stephen Sills, created the structure and foundation of the RPLU program.

With the Harrington company managing and overseeing the convention operation, we had our first conference in 1987 at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago, with slightly over 125 attendees. It was a success. It also didn’t hurt that Dennis Busti, then president of Reliance National Insurance Co., was our keynote speaker and substantially contributed to our cause. More importantly, my credit card, which the Knickerbocker Hotel held to cover any overages, was not charged. We finally made it!

A Labor of Love

Looking back, I now recognize that PLUS was a labor of love for everyone involved. People shared thoughts and ideas – collaboration and cooperation at its finest. People are willing to work together and put aside their differences for the organization’s greater good, intending to “Bringing the Best Together.”

Today, PLUS has over 40,000 members, making it one of the most significant insurance associations in the world. They offer curriculum training, an RPLU designation with over 4,000 members achieving this accomplishment, cyber practitioners, and several certificate programs.

This is in memory of my friends Ron Berman, Bill Gates Sr., Dave Smith, Bill Holland, Leo Gilmartin, Ed Harrington and Dennis Busti – they would be amazed at what we accomplished if they were alive today. I also want to thank everyone, including our past presidents and officers, board members, all the volunteers, the corporate sponsors, the fantastic membership for their contributions and ongoing support, and the excellent staff in Minneapolis for making the dream a reality.

So now it has been said, and now it can be written.

Remember: When determination and dedication become your destination, success will follow.

Topics New York Underwriting

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