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Top insurance brokers: Hub International Ltd.

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As one of the few privately held companies among the world's largest brokers, Hub International Ltd. remains one of the most acquisitive.

Having made 43 acquisitions in 2015 and about 20 already this year, the challenge for Chicago-based Hub will be deciding “what their culture is going to be,” said Bobby Reagan, CEO of Reagan Consulting Inc. in Atlanta.

The entities Hub has acquired “are entrepreneurial, they're not big broker kind of cultures, and I think the challenge is bringing that together ... with the scale and capabilities of a larger organization,” Mr. Reagan said. “They probably have the freedom today, more than some other acquirers, to be more selective in what they go after. There's no real pressure on them to do a certain amount.”

John Wicher, principal at John Wicher & Associates Inc. in San Francisco, said being privately held allows Hub's management to “stomach short-term earnings volatility in exchange for operating flexibility.”

The ability to “focus on achieving long-term success ... adds something to their story. At the same time, they're competing with Alliant (Insurance Services Inc.) and USI (Insurance Services L.L.C.) and others that also can make that argument,” Mr. Wicher said.

Hub has been privately held since 2007, when it was acquired by private equity firms Apax Partners L.L.P. and Morgan Stanley Principal Investments Inc. The brokerage recapitalized after San Francisco-based private equity firm Hellman & Friedman L.L.C. bought it for $4.4 billion in October 2013.

With a 13.5% jump in brokerage revenue for 2015 to $1.47 billion, Hub is No. 8 in the 2016 Business Insurance ranking of the world's largest brokers, up from No. 9 last year. Gross revenue grew 13.4% to $1.47 billion.

The rise was due in part to 4.7% organic growth and about $153 million in revenue from acquisitions, said Hub Chairman and CEO Martin P. Hughes.

In 2014, the company had 4.2% organic growth and about $170 million in acquisitions, but that “was a monster year for us,” Mr. Hughes said. “It may have been the largest year we've ever had for acquisitions.”

“We do not try to target the number of acquisitions we're going to do or the revenue we're going to acquire,” he said. “We just know we're good at this piece. We know we'll get lots of opportunities, and we just want to make sure we're disciplined in our approach.”

Location doesn't matter as long as firms are a good fit “culturally, strategically and financially,” Mr. Hughes said. However, he added, “don't look for us to expand outside of the U.S. and Canada.”

“When we've gotten in trouble is when we fell in love with geography instead of the people,” Mr. Hughes said. “We don't do that anymore. Are there scenarios we'd love to be in? Sure. But if we can't find the right firms, we're not going to force feed it.”

To that end, Hub sold Harmonia Corretora de Seguros Ltda., the São Paulo-based insurance brokerage it acquired in 2011, in November 2014.

Last October, it established a new unit, Specialty Program Group, and named Chris Treanor to lead the unit as president of programs and specialty products to not only develop specialized products but also acquire and develop top-notch managing general agents.

Producers are going to “be much more specialty-focused, have much more subject matter expertise and many more resources built around them to augment that expertise,” Mr. Hughes said. “We expect Chris to build that business out for us.”

Along with specialty, Mr. Hughes said employee benefits is likely to grow faster than other parts of the business, noting that Hub more than doubled the number of producers it hired in 2015 from a year earlier.

In the process, Hub boosted its employee benefits revenue 23.8% to $326.0 million in 2015.

Now it's focusing on bringing its brokerages into a single management system. The process, which Mr. Hughes called a “massive undertaking,” will likely be complete within the next year.

“If you're going to be in the specialty practices arena, you need to have access to quality data and you need to be able to manipulate that data,” he said.

Mr. Reagan said investing in technology and subject matter experts are important to risk managers who want to work with experts who “have depth and metrics and benchmarks.”

“Certainly there are a lot of risk managers that have been looking for that for many years,” Mr. Reagan said, “but there's more interest in it today than ever.”