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Top insurance brokers: Hub International Ltd.


Top insurance brokers: Hub International Ltd.

For the third year in a row, Hub International Ltd. reported organic growth in its insurance brokerage operations in 2013, and it continued its growth-by-acquisition strategy with new private equity owners.

About $94 million in merger and acquisition revenue, coupled with its organic growth — which Hub said in a statement “continues to improve,” though it declined to disclose figures — pushed its 2013 global brokerage revenue up 16.1% vs. 2012 to $1.15 billion. A third of that brokerage revenue came from non-U.S. clients, mainly in Canada.

The Chicago-based brokerage now is No. 9 on the 2014 Business Insurance ranking of the world's largest brokers, up from No. 10 last year.

Hub completed 28 mergers and acquisitions in 2013, making it one of the year's most acquisitive brokers, and it has already announced 16 deals in 2014.

“(Last year) was much an average year for us in terms of M&A,” Chairman and CEO Martin P. Hughes said. “Our goal is to do $80 million to $120 million every year, so that was pretty much in the middle of what our expectations are.”

John Wicher, a principal at John Wicher & Associates Inc. in San Francisco, said what he finds most impressive about Hub is that it has completed so many acquisitions in a short period.

“They've been careful in terms of their acquisitions to ensure that the partners are not only good companies but share their values,” Mr. Wicher said. “It sounds simple, but the road of acquisitions is filled with some very bad decisions — ones where people thought short-term about the opportunities rather than really thinking about whether it was a good fit.”

Kevin P. Donoghue, managing director of Mystic Capital Advisors Group L.L.C. in New York, said Hub's approach to deals is one of the biggest secrets to the brokerage's success.

“They're constantly looking for areas they should be in, but at the same time they've avoided the areas where the prices are maybe too high and the timing isn't right,” Mr. Donoghue said.

“We work hard to identify and source our own deals,” Mr. Hughes said. “Secondly, we have a history of success that I think is unparalleled.”

Hub has completed 330 acquisitions since it launched in 1998.

Hub reverted to a privately held firm when it was acquired in 2007 by Apax Partners L.L.P. and Morgan Stanley Principal Investments Inc. The brokerage recapitalized after being bought for $4.4 billion by San Francisco-based private equity firm Hellman & Friedman L.L.C. last October.

The decision to recapitalize instead of going through an initial public offering was made “because we were able to save $10 million a year,” Mr. Hughes said.

Currently, Hub is concentrating on expanding in the Southeast, though the focus is still making sure the fit is right.

“The fact is,” Mr. Hughes said, “we're very opportunistic. If it fits us strategically, culturally, financially, we're going to fight to do the deal. If it doesn't, we won't. The biggest mistakes we've ever made in M&A is when we've used geography over the other three issues. We don't make those mistakes anymore.”

The company hasn't made any acquisitions outside North America since acquiring São Paulo-based Harmonia Corretora de Seguros Ltda. in 2011. Mr. Wicher said getting into Brazil was an important step for Hub, “one they needed to take” to enter a growth market.

The brokerage also is focusing on employee benefits as clients continue seeking advice on health care reform, Mr. Wicher said.

“Given the circumstances in the property/casualty industry in general here in the States, it's a tremendous growth opportunity for all brokers, including Hub,” Mr. Wicher said. “That's a strength of Hub, in that they've made some acquisitions which have created fee-based opportunities in the benefits space.”

Scott Goodreau, Hub's Chicago-based chief sales officer, said the firm is well-positioned in the middle market to advise clients in a “time of uncertainty.”

“For us, we've always been about the customer,” Mr. Goodreau said. Whether that is risk services, whether that is in the employee benefits space where we see we can bring some consultative resources around it, we're going to take advantage of that. We've identified four to five of these growth initiatives we think are going to be important to take us to the next level.”

Mr. Donoghue said it's too soon to tell if Hub will do another recapitalization or a public offering in the years to come, but they're likely only going to get bigger. “The market will dictate the timing,” he said. “I expect that they'll have at least 24 months of focusing on M&A and being private before any transaction occurs.”

“I think what you'll see is that we'll have the same options available to us in five years that we had available to us this time,” Mr. Hughes said. “If the world is the same as is it today, it probably means we'd do another private equity deal. If the world is different, which you have to believe will probably be the case, an IPO would probably make more sense.”

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