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I joked during a speech almost two years ago that the investment bankers would keep driving mergers among the insurance brokers until there was only one left, and then J.P. Morgan would buy McAon.
I got a decent laugh at the time.
Now my quip doesn't quite sound so funny. Or so far-fetched.
My reaction to the latest news, that Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. is buying Sedgwick Group P.L.C., is similar to that of Alice during her visit to Wonderland: "Curiouser and curiouser!" she says, after growing abnormally tall.
Alice, puzzled by her size and all the odd events occurring around her, decides to test whether she knows all the things she used to know. "Let me see: four times five is 12, and four times six is 13, and four times seven is -- oh dear! I shall never get to 20 at that rate," she laments.
In the "The Annotated Alice," author Martin Gardner explains that, indeed, Alice never will get to 20 if she keeps it up, because Lewis Carroll had created a non-sense progression that stops at 19.
("Alice in Wonderland" was my favorite book as a child, both when it was read to me and when I could read it for myself. Now I am quite entertained by "The Annotated Alice.")
Please do not take our decision to stop ranking the world's 20 largest brokers as proof that we consider all the mergers and acquisitions nonsense.
We sliced our rankings to the 10 largest brokers last year because we were concerned that, with all the mergers among the largest brokers, we could not accurately identify the brokers around the world that deserved to be ranked numbers 11 through 20.
But, as I have said before in this column, it remains to be seen if the mergers among the brokers, and the insurers and reinsurers for that matter, will create companies that can deliver improved profits to their shareholders and improved service to their clients, as is being promised.
At the risk of carrying this Alice analogy too far, the people working in the companies buying and selling also must feel a bit like Alice during her adventures in Wonderland.
One day Alice complains that "being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing." So must it be confusing being swallowed up by another brokerage or being the employee of a company that grows by leaps and bounds every few months.
Certainly, any employee of a brokerage in the midst of a merger or acquisition must be as concerned about his or her job as Alice was that she would become the object of the Queen of Hearts' exhortation: "Off with their heads!"
As for the clients, they may feel as though they are guests at the Hatter's tea party. The empty seats at the table are reminiscent of all the brokers that once were. How many remember the names Nordstrom Larpenteur, Emett & Chandler, or Financial Guardian, all of which were ranked among the Top 20 just 20 years ago?
And the conversation between Alice and the March Hare is rather relevant. ". . .You should say what you mean," the March Hare advises Alice. "I do," Alice responds. "At least, I mean what I say -- that's the same thing, you know." The March Hare begs to differ. "You might just as well say that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like.' "
Clients must be thinking, if only that were so.
Perhaps it's not worth lamenting the loss of so many companies in the insurance business, or wishing that, like Alice, we would wake up to report merely on the events of a "curious dream."
It seems only appropriate for those working in the business of insurance and their clients to remember those few choice words of advice for Alice from the Caterpillar:
"You'll get used to it in time."
Publisher and Editorial Director Kathryn J. McIntyre and Editor Paul D. Winston publish columns on alternate weeks.