A Kansas twister that ripped up five houses changed the way Capitol Federal Financial's insurance agency does business.
The 1993 tornado spawned a barrage of claims, mostly from expensive hail damage, against the Overland Park banking company's agency, through which the homes were insured. Those claims strained the agency's service capabilities and cost the unit three years of profit-sharing revenues from its underwriter partners.
In response the 15-year-old Capitol Agency has implemented catastrophe plans and a strategy of not overloading with particular kinds of policies.
The plan, which is constantly being revised, seeks to protect against profit-sharing losses and improve service capability, said Lee Hays, who runs the agency.
Bank insurance seminars tend to ignore such issues in favor of instruction on how to make money, Mr. Hays said. But solid catastrophe preparation is vital to an agency's long-term success, he said. "You better have the staff people'' in place to handle a crisis. "and you're never really going to be tested until you've had a couple of major disasters.''
Banks in the business may get some severe meteorological tests in the coming months. In the August-November Atlantic Hurricane Outlook, issued Aug. 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that the conditions are in place for above-average tropical storm and hurricane activity this fall. Furthermore, there is an even stronger likelihood of three major hurricanes this year, the NOAA said.
If the meteorologists are right, this year's hurricane season would in line with a decade of soaring catastrophe losses. Such losses totaled $99.5 billion in the 10 years through 1998, nearly twice the inflation-adjusted total for the preceding 40 years, according to the New York-based Insurance Services Office, a data provider for the property and casualty insurance industry.
One hard-hit player is BB&T Corp., the Winston-Salem, N.C., banking company. Thanks to an aggressive acquisition program, its BB&T Insurance Services now insures Eastern Seaboard customers from Virginia to Georgia. But that has flung the unit into the teeth of some of the record-setting hurricanes of the 1990s, so it keeps refining disaster plans.
Under a three-year-old policy, whenever a hurricane's landfall is predicted BB&T redirects incoming calls to unaffected service centers. The idea is that customers with cell phones in a disaster area can reach representatives, said H. Wade Reece, president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based agency. Local agents are then freed from the phone to go into the field to help.
"We have found it to be very effective and customer-sensitive,'' he said. Asked whether customers long remember the assistance they receive after a disaster, Mr. Reece gave a personal response: "I know I do.''
In 1996, Hurricane Fran left Mr. Reece's house unlivable; repair work took nearly a year.
The agency "put me and my family back in my home, and I can't tell you how much that means personally.''
Mr. Hays said customers are likely to hold the bank responsible if they are dissatisfied with an insurance company's service. "Here at Capitol Federal they purchase insurance from the bank, and they don't make a huge differentiation between the insurance company issuing the policy and the bank.''
Prompt contact from the agency or insurer helps customers through an uncertain time, Mr. Hays said.
Insurer partners have become much better at responding to a disaster quickly since Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992, Mr. Hays said, noting that most now have "storm troopers'' and in some cases catastrophe vans that rush to a crisis. Simplified forms for the bank and insurance company speed claims.
Nothing is as satisfying, Mr. Hays added, as helping someone who has lost everything.
And after a disaster has passed, profit-sharing arrangements surely will be affected, said BB&T's Mr. Reece. His view is that losing profit-sharing revenue for a time is part of being in the insurance business.
Mr. Hays, who notes that profit-sharing is crucial to a company with thin margins, came up with a plan to diversify Capitol Agency's book of business. Under his strategy, agents attempt to write 40% of the agency's work as homeowner and the remaining 60% as auto, boat, and recreational vehicle policies.
"We've been working hard to keep that premium in balance,'' said Mr. Hays, who said the strategy is difficult but effective.
Mr. Hays, who claims to be as knowledgeable about weather events as many meteorology experts, said he is reasonably sure Kansas is safe from any hurricanes brewing in the Caribbean --despite unusual events like tornadoes in Utah and Maine this summer.
Mr. Reece, however, is just at the beginning of the hurricane season. He said he is pleased that dire predictions have not come true so far.