Fine Lines and Fine Print

Webber & Grinnell Agency Makes a Policy Statement
Fine Lines and Fine Print

At left: Rich Webber (left) and Bill Grinnell examine a policy in their newly designed conference room. At right: Bill Grinnell (left) trains salesman Matthew Geffin to cull policies for details that could present future problems.

Bill Grinnell calls it “copy, quote, and pray.” That a phrase he’s contrived to describe how many insurance agencies conduct business. He says things are different at the agency he owns with partner Rich Webber. There, the focus is on being an effective and trusted advisor — and on making sure clients understand the details often buried in an 80-page business policy.

Bill Grinnell was sitting at his desk and reading the motivational quote from the most recent edition of a national newsletter called the Business Digest, news and notes from which he shares with his clients. “If you’re not sure where you are going,” it reads, “it’s possible you’re on the right road.”

Grinnell is a marathon runner and president of Northampton-based Webber & Grinnell Insurance. His partner, treasurer Rich Webber, is also a marathon runner and ironman triathlete. And although they are experts in the insurance field, they have chosen to take an uncharted road to success and to ensure that both they and their clients end up as winners.

Their expertise lies in uncovering potential roadblocks in the technical and detailed aspects of insurance policies. But since their lifestyles are focused on fitness, they also take the business health of their clients seriously. To that end, they offer a plethora of seminars, informational programs, and other non-typical services, such as the faxed copy of Business Digest (sent, as part of the company’s subscription, to major clients), as well as hotlines established to circumvent problems and help clients move toward excellence in their fields of endeavor.

“It’s not just about taking someone’s policy, photocopying it, and offering a quote that is less than what they were paying,” Grinnell said. “We want to become a trusted advisor to our clients and have relationships at deeper levels. We want to touch them in a valuable way and do more than just deliver a bill. It’s what I enjoy most about this job and what makes it fun.”

But although that’s important, Grinnell, the unofficial spokesperson for the partnership, said it’s the inner workings of what this firm does that sets it apart from the pack. “We really consider ourselves students of the insurance business,” he told Business West. “We really understand and have a solid grasp of 80-page business policies. When the time comes for a claim, you need to be able to understand the fine print and pitfalls within the language. Most of our success is a result of examining the client’s current program and finding issues in their policies. There’s a lot that gets missed by agencies that are not as architecturally savvy as we are. The devil is in the details.”

Inside View

The partners’ skills at wading through the fine print were derived from their early training.

After graduating from college in 1984 with a business degree, Grinnell landed a job 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.

“Rich had a similar training experience at Aetna as an underwriter,” he said. “So we understand the other side of the fence, and that experience is invaluable. It really strengthens our negotiating position, as, having sat in that chair, we know how it works.”

In fact, Grinnell attributes most of the company’s success to an ability to carefully examine policies. Although they expect clients to read their policies, “we don’t expect the average person to understand them,” he said.

Grinnell took over his father’s agency in 1997, purchasing what was then known as Woodward and Grinnell. He teamed up with Webber, and they began taking steps to transform the way business was done. “I’ve always been in sales, and Rich is the inside guy who takes care of the office adminstration, technology, and relationships with our larger carriers,” Grinnell said.

They take a different approach to what Grinnell sees his competitors doing, which he refers to as “copy, quote, and pray. They copy a policy, give a quote, and pray they get the business,” he said. “We really examine the fine line of the details coverage and look for gaps and errors. We are very technical, and 65% of the time we find significant mistakes.”

One of their areas of expertise is workers’ compensation. “We find gaps in coverage that we are able to negotiate very effectively with companies,” Grinnell said. “Workman’s comp is one of the largest expenses a company faces, and many policies are fraught with mistakes and errors in classification or experience modification calculations.”

Over the past two years, the partners have built a suite of additional services to help better serve clients. “We contracted with people to have an OSHA hotline and a human-resources hotline,” Grinnell said, adding that companies may need advice on matters such as how to handle the dismissal of an employee. They also introduced a workers’ compensation hotline manned by an attorney in that field, “so people can understand the often-contentious process of a claim or how to handle a situation where a worker is seeking additional damages or fraud is suspected,” Grinnell said. “Other agents we know don’t offer these services. But we are trying to reach above and beyond what is traditional, and we are having some great success.”

Seminars are also on the company’s menu of services, ranging from the fundamentals of selling to a human-resource workshop on hiring rights. “We have held business-builder seminars and have a leadership seminar coming up, for owners or key management people, that will focus on the emotional intelligence of the leadership team,” Grinnell said.

Faxing daily copies of Business Digest to clients is something Grinnell enjoys. “People love it. If we miss a day, we get phone calls about it,” he said. “Some of our clients read the motivational quote in it to their employees each day.”

His firm also uses it as a marketing tool. “We send it out to prospective clients to try to get them hooked,” he said. “In this day and age, you definitely need to differentiate yourself, and we feel that what we are doing is a cut above our competitors. Plus, it’s fun to see people get fired up at seminars.”

Inner Sanctum

Employee attitude and appearance are important to Grinnell and Webber. The partners recently made improvements to their King Street office, which include paving the parking lot, new landscaping, new signage, and a newly designed conference room, where a timeline of photographs showcase their agency’s history from its beginnings in 1849.

Continuing education for their employees is also a priority. “It’s something we have really focused on in the last 10 years,” Grinnell said. “They need to be efficient as they do the behind-the-scenes work. We have raised the bar many times over in what they are capable of doing and the type of questions they can answer.”

Their commercial-line department meets weekly, and there is often an instructional component to those gatherings. “Everyone has to set educational goals, and we have a review process that everyone undergoes,” Grinnell said.

The partners hired a consultant a few years ago who measured aspects of their business, and when a problem with communication was uncovered between Grinnell, Webber, and their employees, they initiated quarterly meetings with them.

“Rich and I share financial information with our staff about where we are growing and shrinking and what is going on,” said Grinnell. “We talk about changes in staffing so they don’t open up a newspaper and see an ad for a job here in the paper. We don’t want people working in an environment where they don’t know what is going on.”

Their beliefs in keeping healthy and informed also extend to the community, and they have sponsored golf tournaments, a room at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and Northampton’s Hot Chocolate Run, which benefits Safe Passage, a shelter for battered women, in addition to involvement with the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

It’s just one more step on their road to success and what Grinnell describes as “a sense of real satisfaction.”

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