Three top insurance companies have come together to build yet another online insurance agency, in an effort to improve their sales of personal product lines through the Web sites of banks and other financial institutions.
American International Group of New York, Kemper Insurance Cos. of Long Grove, Ill., and Prudential Insurance Company of America of Newark, N.J., announced their plans this month to establish Fusura.com, which is to go live in the fourth quarter.
The agency, which is the brainchild of Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of AIG, is to sell auto, homeowners, and term life insurance from the three companies as well as other future partners. It will sell to banks, brokerages, and financial information portals.
Were really looking to be the agent for a market not served regularly by agents now, including consumers interested in buying insurance online, said Richard Bender, acting president of the joint venture.
Mr. Bender, who is also executive vice president of AIG Life Insurance Co., said the insurers research indicates consumers want to buy insurance online but also want good customer service, access to brand-name products, and the ability to complete the transactions online.
Edward M. Rafter, chairman and CEO of Prudential Property and Casualty Insurance Co., said a key feature of the planned site will be the ability for users to get quotes, buy insurance, and download the completed policy in a few minutes.
This ideal may be tempered by the regulations of specific states, he said, and may take time to establish.
Many sites already let people get a binder (proof of insurance coverage) online, but final policies are usually mailed a few days or weeks later, Mr. Rafter said. The Web process should take minutes not hours or days, as in the offline insurance world he said.
The first product to be offered on Fusura.com will be auto insurance, Mr. Rafter said. Auto is an ideal candidate, because it is relatively simple and has a broad customer base, he said.
Fusura will watch how auto insurance does before deciding when to start offering homeowners and term life products, he said.
To build this site, the three companies will draw upon their existing technology to collect customer data and build new underwriting programs that can examine the data, check driving and claims histories, and make determinations about coverage, Mr. Rafter said.
All three companies insist the online agency will not compete with brick-and-mortar agencies that already sell their products. It also will not compete with Web sites with whom the insurers have existing relationships, such as Insweb, Inslogic, Financial Keyosk, InsureZone, NetInsurance, and Coverage Corp.
Rusty Reid, president and CEO of InsureZone, said insurers bringing their products directly to the Internet will not be big competition for existing online platforms.
It takes more than two or three carriers to fill the footprint of a large money-center bank with customers in several states, he said. You have to make sure you can cover a vast majority of the customers that request a quote.
Todd Eyler, a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., who follows the online insurance market, said Fusura has dubious potential. To me this is a defensive move, he said.
While he commended the three companies for committing to build the technology to sell insurance over the Internet, he said the biggest roadblocks for online insurance sales are not technological ones, but the actual structure of insurance products.
Binding coverage over the Internet is something other companies like Progressive and Travelers have been doing for years, he said. The whole problem with online insurance is that existing products are not structured to be sold directly over the Internet. Too many questions are asked, and the language is too confusing. Its very difficult for a consumer to get through that process without a human being.
Companies need to simplify the whole application process to make Internet sales attractive, he said.
While the insurers say Fusura intends to provide access to agents through online chat rooms and on the phone, Mr. Eyler said he is skeptical that three insurance companies are going to do a better job than an online supermarket site, that every day shows up and is completely focused on creating a very positive experience for consumers.
In addition, the best aggregators are those that offer multiple competitive quotes, not just the products of a few carriers, Mr. Eyler said. Consumers want five competitive quotes equal or better than what they have today, preferably from brands that they recognize, he said. Thats difficult to do with a relatively small number of carriers participating.
However, Fusura has the strength of three big names behind it, which should give it leverage as it approaches banks and other institutions about providing platforms for its products, he said.
Mr. Bender said the insurers are looking for at least one more co-owner, and will add other insurers as vendors on the site.
The companies declined to discuss the financial arrangements of the three owners.