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Top insurance brokers: BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc.

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Top insurance brokers: BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc.

Broker BB&T Insurance Holdings Inc. posted strong organic growth to boost its 2014 revenue while taking advantage of acquisitions made in previous years.

The unit of bank BB&T Corp. reported brokerage revenue of $1.71 billion in 2014, an 8.3% increase, making it the No. 6 broker in the 2015 Business Insurance ranking of the world's largest brokers.

Its commercial retail brokerage revenue grew 7.7% to $699.7 million, its wholesale revenue rose 8.7% to $739.7 million, and its employee benefits revenue jumped 15.8% to $176.5 million last year, while personal line revenue slipped 1.9% to $97.7 million.

“They are a very strong, cohesive business unit,” said Timothy J. Cunningham, managing director at Chicago-based investment banking and consulting firm Optis Partners L.L.C. “BB&T's insurance operation is a key contributor of noninterest income to the bank.”

The insurance operations had 2014 organic growth of 7.5%, up from 4.7% in 2013, said H. Wade Reece, BB&T Insurance's chairman and CEO.

“We had a great year in 2014,” Mr. Reece said. “It was our best year by a substantial margin, so we were very pleased with it.”

Mr. Reece cited past acquisitions, such as its 2012 acquisition of Crump Group Inc. for $570 million and the 2011 acquisition of Irvine, California-based employee benefits firm Precept Group Inc., as key to the firm's success last year.

“We had a lot of things that we invested in in previous years. A lot of it came together in 2014 and created a nice year,” Mr. Reece said. “A lot of investments we made, like Crump and in employee benefits — those efforts are maturing.”

“I think they have done a wonderful job in integrating and capitalizing on cross-selling” to customers of the parent bank, Mr. Cunningham said. “Cross-selling is in their DNA, and they know how to do it.”

BB&T sees more acquisitions in the future.

“We'd like to see acquisition activity pick up, and we think it's a fairly good time to do that,” Mr. Reece said. “Hopefully, there is a good stream of potential acquisition.”

“We're definitely looking to expand both geographically and through some specific industry expertise” such as cyber, financial lines and commercial property, he added.

Mr. Reece acknowledged that “multiples are high” to purchase brokerage business, but noted that “interest is high” as well.

BB&T's insurance operations continue to benefit from the activities of the parent.

“As a potential acquirer, they want to try to follow the bank footprint with their traditional middle-market retail,” Mr. Cunningham said.

“From a retail perspective, as BB&T has continued to grow the geographic footprint of the banking network, it brings some new opportunities to us,” said David Pruett, CEO of the company's retail division and vice chairman of BB&T Insurance Holdings. “Anytime we can be where the bank is, it increases our chances of success and profitability.”

Yet even as revenue and organic growth flourished, the brokerage faced soft insurance prices last year.

“We've certainly seen significant softness in property, particularly in larger accounts and especially in catastrophe-exposed property accounts,” said John Howard, Roseland, New Jersey-based CEO of BB&T's wholesale division and vice chairman of BB&T Insurance.

“What we're experiencing in the retail group is that the market in 2014 softened significantly from a pricing standpoint, particularly in property risk and even more so in large property risk and things that tend to be catastrophe-prone,” Mr. Pruett said.

“I would say casualty seems to be somewhat stable, but significant softness in overall pricing is the thing we're having to work through,” he said.

Mr. Reece said recruiting remains an industrywide challenge.

“It's an effort to constantly attract the best sales people to the organization,” he said.

“We can teach people the technical side, but finding people that fit from a production standpoint is always one of our greatest challenges,” he said.

“It's just a tough industry to recruit into. People don't realize what a great industry it is for a career,” he added.

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