Mind the Gap

At Webber & Grinnell, the Devil Is in the Details

Bill Grinnell

Bill Grinnell says his job is to protect businesses, and education is a big part of that.

The sales pitch at Webber & Grinnell Insurance often comes down to one simple question: what are you not covered for?

“That’s part of our renewal process, focusing on what coverage is lacking,” said William Grinnell, who, along with Richard Webber, has led this Northampton-based insurance agency to steady growth for almost two decades. “Business owners get a sense of where they’re exposed, and what they really want to know is what they’re not covered for.”

Take, for example, the broad realm of business-practices liability.

“That’s a huge one,” said Mat Geffin, vice president of business development. “They think, if they’re sued by an employee, their general liability coverage protects them. It won’t. There are exclusions for employment-practices types of claims, like sexual harassment and wrongful termination — those are a totally separate type of policy, completely excluded under your general liability.”

And, in an ever-more-litigious society, that’s no small matter for an employer.

Those suits are frequent; my clients have seen a lot of those this year,” Geffin said. “The more employees you have, the more turnover, the more likely it is that these suits will occur.

“It’s a huge risk,” he added. “I’ve had clients who have done all the right things in terminating a problem employee, but nothing’s stopping them from going to Mark E. Salomone and filing a lawsuit. That’s where that employment-practices policy steps up to protect the company.”

Sometimes, Grinnell noted, employers think they’re doing everything right and don’t believe they’re exposed. “But anyone can sue for any reason, and defense is very expensive and time-consuming” — often to the tune of thousands of dollars small businesses just can’t spare.

Fortunately, he added, the agents at Webber & Grinnell are trained to think like underwriters; in fact, even the most dynamic salespeople won’t get hired if they aren’t able to dig into the fine print of an 80-page policy, understand its strengths and weaknesses, and make sure clients understand them, too (more on that later).

“We help them understand that everyone out there has different risk tolerances,” Grinnell told BusinessWest. “Our job is to help them make an informed decision about what insurance they’re going to purchase.

“Our obligation is, obviously, to protect those businesses,” he added. “They had better be protected right, or we’re exposed, too.”

Digging Deep

Grinnell said his agency focuses on the property/casualty market. “Our main lines of coverage are workers’ compensation coverage, commercial property, and general liability,” as well as home and auto insurance.

On the business side, he said, some nuances have changed the game over the past decade or so. For example, workers’ compensation has become much more complex, and many employers’ policies are fraught with mistakes in classification or experience modification calculations — although companies are becoming more savvy on these matters.

Mat Geffin

Mat Geffin says cyber liability is one of the hot insurance trends that companies of all kinds need to be aware of.

From a liability standpoint, said Geffin, there’s more of a trend toward cyber liability, with more companies, especially retailers, doing business online. “It’s an area of growth in the insurance industry — you see all these lawsuits; you see Target losing millions of customer records,” he noted. “What happens when small businesses in this area are being hit with some of those exposures? They’re not all covered for it, and that’s the new thing we’re talking to people about.”

On the personal-lines side, Grinnell said business is always changing. “It’s been ever-more competitive with the introduction of competitive auto rates several years ago, so we battle with that.”

In the midst of such competition, Geffin said, “I do believe a differentiator for us is our knowledge, being a pure coverage insurance agency. We’re not out there just hawking prices. We really do take a hard look at the coverage, talk intelligently, take an underwriter’s approach to it. Bill and Rich were both underwriters, and were trained to look at risks like underwriters.”

Indeed, Grinnell’s first job after graduating from college in 1984 was with United States Fidelity and Guarantee Insurance in Boston. He received in-depth training there, which provided him with advanced knowledge of how policies are constructed. Webber had similar training experience at Aetna as an underwriter, and Grinnell attributes most of the company’s success to an ability to carefully examine policies, because, while clients are expected to read their policies, he realizes that they don’t always understand them.

Grinnell purchased his father’s agency, then known as Woodward and Grinnell, in 1997, and soon after teamed up with Webber. Their relationship has been synergistic, with Grinnell focusing on sales, and Webber spearheading office adminstration, technology, and relationships with larger carriers. Last fall, Grinnell became the company’s sole owner, and Webber is now vice president of operations.

Unlike insurance agencies that use a cookie-cutter approach to policy writing, Grinnell said, his salespeople are required to take a highly individualized approach.

“Everyone has different problems, and you’ve got to identify what the issue is and then capitalize on it,” he explained. “It might be a service issue, it could be a problem they had with a claim, a coverage issue … any of these things.”

One of the firm’s advantages is the number of commercial markets it represents, he added, and the leverage that brings. “As opposed to a smaller agency, we have dozens of different commercial insurance companies to approach, and we can get a good, competitive package from one of them.”

Knowledge Is Power

But Webber & Grinnell brings knowledge and information to its clients beyond crafting their policies.

Significantly, the company sends clients something called Business Digest, a national insurance newsletter agencies personalize according to their own needs. “Sometimes it contains timely topics concerning insurance coverage,” Grinnell said, “and sometimes it focuses on insurers and best practices and what we’re doing well to manage a particular risk they might have in their business.”

Over the years, the firm has also established informational hotlines for OSHA and human-resources matters, a workers’ compensation hotline staffed by an attorney in that field, and seminars on topics ranging from sales fundamentals to hiring rights to corporate leadership — all these efforts geared toward moving beyond the insurance relationship and becoming more of a partner with clients, to help their businesses run smoothly.

All those efforts are part of growing Webber & Grinnell, both in size and in scope of services, Geffin said. “We have a lot more competition that has come in with the direct writers, like Geico and Progressive. But we’re trying to grow.”

One reason that’s a challenge, Grinnell said, is that the agency is extremely cautious in its hiring process. “We’re very selective about who we take on. We’re trying to find a salesperson who fits our culture, and it’s very difficult. We get a lot of people in the door, but we don’t take many.”

The reason has to do with the dual nature — personal and technical — of what the company demands.

“You’ve got to be bright, and you’ve got to work hard,” he told BusinessWest. “And you’ve got to be a person who’s able to handle the technicalities of the insurance world and all the little details in the policy, and, at the same time, get along with people, communicate well with people, and build firm relationships.”

Geffin agreed. “It’s very much a hybrid type of role,” he said. “A lot of salespeople are not good at the technical standpoint, that other side of reading the contract language and interpreting the contract language. There might be hundreds of pages, and 100 ways you can write it depending on the risk. You need a very special person, and it’s very hard to find that mix.”

Even for employees who don’t deal directly with clients, the standards are high, Grinnell said. “Internally, we’re looking for a slightly different skill set, but, again, we test everyone who comes in here, interview them several times, check their references. We’re very selective about hiring. And I think that gives us an advantage.”

Giving Back

With so many human needs in Western Mass., the company also has to be selective about its charitable efforts, which Grinnell said have long been a part of the agency’s culture. These days, for example, Webber & Grinnell heads up campaigns for United Way of Hampshire County and United Way of Pioneer Valley, among other efforts.

“I don’t know if this is true for a lot of agencies, but we do a lot philanthropically in the Valley,” Geffin said. “It’s a huge commitment. Bill and Rich have always led by example, by giving back to the community that supports us. I think that’s a good message.”

It’s just one more detail that this insurance company strives to get right.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

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