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Top insurance brokers, No. 5: BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc.

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2016 brokerage revenue: $1.81 billion

Percent increase: 7.9%

While integrating a big wholesale insurance operation was the main task for management at BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc. in 2017, future expansion will likely focus on its retail operations.

The insurance unit of BB&T Corp. continues to be an earnings driver for the bank, and the brokerage will likely benefit from its parent’s recent expansion efforts, its executives say.

Organic growth last year, however, remained limited as the soft insurance market continued.

The $500 million purchase of wholesaler Swett & Crawford was the main growth driver for BB&T insurance last year, said John Howard, chairman and CEO of the brokerage.

“For our overall company, the biggest driver of growth was the wholesale business, and it was driven by the April 1, 2016, acquisition of Swett & Crawford, which brought about $2 billion of premium volume,” Mr. Howard said.

The integration of the business is largely complete, and BB&T retained nearly all the Swett & Crawford producers, he said.

“We’ve done our management, brand and agency combinations, and the remaining synergies will occur as office leases come up for expiration,” Mr. Howard said.

With the addition of Swett & Crawford, BB&T Insurance reported brokerage revenue of $1.81 billion in 2016, a 7.9% increases over 2015. BB&T Insurance is the world’s fifth-largest broker in Business Insurance’s 2017 ranking.

BB&T Insurance can now focus on new business after digesting Swett & Crawford, said Brian Klock, managing director for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in Boston.

“It seems the focus is now again about getting out there and generating revenue,” he said. “It looks like they are setting up for a good 2017.”

During the parent bank’s first-quarter earnings call, Christopher L. Henson, BB&T’s president, said the insurance unit would be an earnings driver.

“Certainly, one of the drivers next quarter will be insurance ... first quarter is always seasonally strong, but second quarter is actually our best quarter of the year. So, we see the possibility to be up in the 5% to 6% kind of range second quarter.”

Mr. Henson added that the insurance brokerage unit’s new business is offsetting soft markets.

“We’re very happy with the trends we’re seeing. While pricing is still down in the 3% to 4% range, our core organic growth is up 1%. So, we’re really outpacing the pricing through underlying new business growth,” he said on the earnings call.

“There was pretty decent growth in their fee income business, up 10% year over year. It was a good strong quarter, a little higher than we thought their insurance income would be,” Mr. Klock said.

“It provides a good source of relatively stable fee income, and it’s somewhat unique in the large banking space,” said Rian Pressman, director of global financial institutions ratings for Standard & Poor’s Financial Services L.L.C. in New York.

Mr. Howard sees growth coming from both new business and further acquisitions.

“I do expect to continue to grow organically and to continue to grow through acquisitions,” he said. “We remain focused on driving profitable organic growth while we continue to consider acquisitions that expand our capabilities and our footprint.”

The Swett & Crawford deal left BB&T Insurance with a business split 53% in favor of wholesale, so the next acquisition would likely be in the retail brokerage sector, he said. “On balance now we are tilted a little toward wholesale,” Mr. Howard said. “I would like to see retail acquisitions that would help us adjust that balance so that it tilts back toward retail.”

In the past few years, BB&T has acquired banks in southeast Florida, Texas, Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “all of which creates opportunity for us from an insurance brokerage standpoint,” Mr. Howard said. “I would like to find attractive acquisition opportunities that position us to serve those markets.”