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Top insurance brokers: BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc.

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A change at the top followed by a major acquisition marked the start of 2016 for BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc.

On Jan. 1, John Howard, previously the Roseland, New Jersey-based CEO of BB&T's wholesale division and vice chairman of BB&T Insurance, succeeded H. Wade Reece as chairman and CEO of BB&T Insurance.

Mr. Reece announced last September that he would retire at year-end 2015 from the unit of Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based financial services holding company BB&T Inc.

Mr. Reece, who joined BB&T in 1978, took the insurance brokerage operations from revenue of $6 million in 1990, when he was charged with overseeing the insurance side of the business, to $1.68 billion in 2015, making it the sixth-largest insurance broker in the world, according to Business Insurance's 2016 ranking. Gross revenue for 2015 came in at $1.75 billion.

Several weeks after naming Mr. Howard, BB&T said it would acquire the North American brokerage business of Cooper Gay Swett & Crawford Ltd. for $500 million, further cementing Raleigh, North Carolina-based BB&T Insurance's standing as a major wholesale marketplace player.

“It's an excellent insurance operation. They've done a nice job building that franchise within a larger commercial banking chassis,” said John L. Ward, CEO of Loveland, Ohio-based private equity firm Cincinnatus Partners L.L.C.

“Their margins are strong, their performance is outstanding, and they have good strategic alignment within the bank,” Mr. Ward said. “Their acquisition strategy is somewhat unique in that they drive the insurance strategy through the wholesale and specialty operation, which now appears to be about half of their revenue source.”

BB&T's 2015 wholesale revenue grew 2.3% to $756.5 million, while retail brokerage revenue dropped 8.3% to $641.8 million. Employee benefits revenue remained virtually flat at $175.3 million.

Mr. Howard said the retail brokerage revenue drop reflected BB&T's sale of Sunrise, Florida-based American Coastal Insurance Co. in April 2015, and that BB&T Insurance had a positive organic growth rate, which the company reported as 1.8%.

In addition, BB&T last year bought a majority stake in AmRisc L.P., a Houston-based managing general underwriter with 2014 gross written premiums of nearly $1 billion.

The two acquisitions bolstered BB&T's position as a premier wholesale broker, said Mr. Howard.

“Our experience in wholesale brokerage, underwriting and programs, and knowledge of the industry make the wholesale business attractive to us,” Mr. Howard said. “Our scale, diversity, financial resources and culture combine to create a powerful platform that is very effective at serving our clients.”

Mr. Howard said integrating the Swett & Crawford business “is going according to plan” and that BB&T's newest acquisition is performing well. “Swett is a great fit with our wholesale property and casualty business. Our cultures are similar,” he said. “We are able to provide ongoing investment and stable ownership for Swett, which removes the distractions that they have faced in recent years.”

Other 2015 acquisitions include The Addis Group L.L.C. in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut Underwriters Inc. in Middletown, Connecticut. Acquisitions this year include National Penn Insurance of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Howard said the brokerage market faces several challenges.

“There is modest economic growth in the U.S., and the property and casualty industry is overcapitalized, so we continue to face soft market conditions,” he said. “The brokerage market remains competitive, but we are very well-positioned and continue to grow.”

BB&T has a large presence in the U.S. Southeast, and catastrophe-exposed property is “a particularly soft area,” he said.

BB&T Insurance also has a large energy practice, “so that's another headwind, but we're able to overcome those market challenges by adding talented producers, retaining our customers and winning new business,” Mr. Howard said.

The company is meeting such challenges by investing in operations and talent.

“Talent is the key ingredient of our business,” he said. “We have a good reputation, and talented producers want to work for us. It is a competitive industry, but we are always developing those relationships and have a good track record in retaining and hiring extraordinary producers.”

Mr. Howard joined BB&T in 2012 when BB&T acquired Crump Group Inc., of which Mr. Howard was president and CEO.

“The investments in Crump, Swett, and AmRisc have significantly strengthened our company,” said Mr. Howard. “We have evolved BB&T Insurance and positioned it well for the future.”