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As the brokerage industry's largest play-ers beef up by swallowing competitors, members of a reconstituted broker network are counting on their independence to bolster their growth.
The challenge for the Worldwide Broker Network -- a 9-year-old international broker alliance with a 2-year-old U.S. membership, a 3-month-old name and an as-yet unveiled guideline on service standards -- is visibility, said George Worsley, who became the group's first executive director in May.
Many risk managers already are expressing concerns over how the fewer but mightier global brokers will influence risk-financing and related services and products.
For WBN members, risk managers' concern over adequate choice is a revenue-growth opportunity. By offering risk managers more alternatives of brokers with international service capabilities, WBN members hope to win and retain more business. Ideally, that business would be middle-market and large accounts, or companies with annual sales of about $250 million, said Mr. Worsley, who is based in London.
That business, in turn, would help network members grow without yielding their independence to other firms.
"We think the consumer needs a wider variety of choices," Mr. Worsley said.
"Major brokers may be able to provide all of the services that clients want, but clients may not want to get these all from one broker," Mr. Worsley said.
"The alliance allows us to combine each other's resources without us relinquishing our autonomy," said Robert C. Meder, assistant director at network member Kaye Group Inc.
Network members grew their revenues originally by placing business largely within their respective countries, but that approach no longer will work, Mr. Worsley said.
To grow, network members must be able to serve international clients and prevent other brokers from winning away smaller clients as they grow.
But, new business often comes at a cost "that makes it difficult to get anything like a profit" on that business, he said.
"At first, we may have to pull out all stops" to win business, he said. But, as clients get to know the network, they will be more willing to pay a reasonable price for the services they receive, he said. In the meantime, "account retention has become so important to protect your base of income."
All WBN brokers have a significant book of international accounts and rank among the largest brokers in their geographic regions, according to Mr. Worsley.
Last year, WBN members in total generated $325 million in revenues, according to Mr. Worsley. If the network were considered a single entity, its revenue figure would place it among the world's 10 largest brokers.
World Broker Network members handled a total of $3 billion in premium volume last year, Mr. Worsley said.
WBN has eight U.S. members and 32 members abroad.
Still, visibility is a major stumbling block for the network. It is one of the main problems network members hired Mr. Worsley to solve.
Compared with the 44-year-old Assurex International network of 60 U.S. and Canadian members and 32 international affiliates, WBN is an upstart. A group of European brokers created it in 1989 to facilitate the placement of cross-frontier business.
Until May, the alliance was called the International Broker Network. But then, because of potential trademark problems in the United States, it adopted its WBN moniker.
However, Mr. Worsley said the name change "was well-timed, when you look at the developments in the market."
The network admitted its first full-fledged U.S. partner just two years ago.
Before then, network members had their own correspondent relationships with U.S. brokers. But, that meant the network often sent business to competing brokers in the same U.S. city. And, there was no standardized agreement on how network brokers would handle international business.
The network wanted a more standard approach in how business was conducted and with whom it would partner, Mr. Worsley explained.
Alburger Basso de Grosz Insurance Services Inc., the 25th-largest broker of U.S. business based on 1997 brokerage revenues, became the network's first full-fledged U.S. member in 1996 and has helped draw other brokers to the network since then.
Mr. Worsley, the 49-year-old native New Zealander, who has held positions in the international business units of insurers and brokers in Europe and the United States since 1967, said he never had heard of the network before coming to work for it.
"Some members talked of it as a known entity. It wasn't to me," Mr. Worsley said.
And he assumed it wasn't to others.
For example, since May, he has visited representatives of several major insurers, discussing ways the insurers and the WBN can work together. He said he emphasized that WBN members are local and global.
The WBN also has been attempting to raise awareness of the network among insurance buyers through informational brochures and promotions. A World Wide Web site, www.
wbnglobal.com, also has been established.
But, perhaps just as important as those undertakings, Mr. Worsley said he also has had to raise the WBN's visibility among the network's own members.
Some staff in member companies "weren't aware they were part of the organization." They did not know what the WBN is and how it could assist them, he said.
"The image has to be consistent to staff, insurers and insureds," he said.
To that end, Mr. Worsley has visited the network's eight U.S. members.
He also is conducting a "due diligence study" of all WBN members to help the network gauge its strengths and weaknesses. It also will help the WBN determine how committed each member is to strengthening the network, he said.
To aid WBN members in assembling international programs "in as seamless way as possible," Mr. Worsley is developing guidelines. For example, in the area of loss control services, the guidelines may call for site visits every six months. WBN members then could accommodate clients that want more frequent visits, he said.
Mr. Worsley said that a "workable skeleton" of the guidelines should be completed in six months. Network members already conform to most standards he has in mind, he said, but "there's always room for improvement."
The WBN also has charged Mr. Worsley with building up the network.
The network, like Assurex, has 32 members abroad. But, there is room for WBN membership expansion in countries where the network is not already represented.
For example, insurers in Brazil, Italy and Japan are approaching the network about adding WBN brokers in those countries, Kaye Group's Mr. Meder said. Insurers there want to expand the sources of their business, he said.
WBN representatives said the network eventually may admit a couple more U.S. members, and Mr. Worsley hopes that WBN's first Canadian candidates will be approved by year's end.
But, network representatives neither expect nor want more growth than that north of the Rio Grande.
That limit on growth heightens WBN's value to members in a couple of ways, according to some broker executives.
First, when a network member needs to send business elsewhere in the network, there is no doubt where the business will land, and it will not be "diluted" among two or more members, said Rod Hampton, managing director of ABD's international services.
"We don't want so many so we're not stepping on each other's toes," Kaye Group's Mr. Meder agreed.
Second, having fewer partners simplifies keeping track of each one's specialties, Mr. Hampton said.
The WBN's U.S. members are geographically spread, though three are based on the East Coast. From east to west, the U.S. members are William Gallagher Associates Insurance Brokers Inc. of Boston; Kaye Group of New York; Riggs, Counselman, Michaels & Downes Inc. of Baltimore; Palmer & Cay Inc. of Atlanta; Hylant-MacLean Group of Toledo, Ohio; The Hays Group Inc. of Minneapolis; Summit Global Partners Inc. of Dallas; and Alburger Basso de Grosz of Belmont, Calif.
Five of the brokers rank among the 100 largest brokers of U.S. business.
Indeed, the U.S. contingent now accounts for the bulk of the network's premium volume and revenues.
Of the network's $3 billion in premium volume last year, U.S. members accounted for $2.3 billion, or 76.7%, according to Mr. Worsley.
And, of the network's $325 million in total revenues, U.S. members racked up $225 million, or 69.2% of the total.
With its 2,750 employees worldwide, the network's revenue per employee last year exceeded $118,000. That fell short of the mark set by the world's Top 10 brokers by about $2,100. It was $3,000 less than the other 182 brokers listed in Business Insurance's 1998 directory of agents and brokers (BI, July 20).
Despite the strength of its U.S. contingent, the WBN is not a U.S.-controlled group, according to Mr. Worsley. U.S. members fill two of the seven seats on the WBN's executive committee.
That spread of member representation on the network's executive committee will help all WBN members -- and therefore the network -- succeed, Mr. Worsley said.
Despite continuing industry consolidation, WBN representatives said they do not envision the network or its members meeting the same fate as the UNISON network and many of its former members. UNISON unraveled last year after Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. acquired Johnson & Higgins, the network's flagship broker. Since then, M&M and Aon Corp. have acquired many former UNISON members.
Kaye Group's Mr. Meder noted that J&H was UNISON's lone U.S. member, whereas the WBN has eight U.S. representatives. "And each one is its own entity," he said. If one WBN member were acquired, the network still would have plenty of U.S. representation until it selected a new partner. "The impact would not be that great," Mr. Meder said.
Mr. Worsley does not have unrealistic expectations for the WBN. In the year ahead, "it's not fair" to expect the WBN to wean away the business of "10 Fortune 100 companies" from their current brokers, Mr. Worsley said.
But, if the number of brokers continues to dwindle, large companies will "look to us more," he predicted. "Those people will hear about us.'