Canadian Underwriter

A fire-eating broker builds her own program

March 30, 2016   by Jeff Pearce

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You get the sense that Hala Zabaneh might be half insurance professional, half mythological character. On her Facebook page for “Hala on Stilts,” there are photos of her rocking a yellow parasol while nine feet tall; one of Hala dressed as a lobster with huge red pincers. She makes several of her own costumes and sometimes makes some for her colleagues.

“The secret about stilts is that it’s like learning to ride a bicycle,” she explains. “You’ll fall at the beginning, but once you learn, you know how to do it.” And then there’s the fire. “I can spin fire around and eat fire and do most of the fire things.”

In regular life, Zabaneh stands a more modest five foot three and works as a broker in her father’s life insurance and investments brokerage. She’s only spent about three years in the biz, but her twelve years as a performer gives her a unique perspective on an under-served market. For venues, “if you’re an aerialist putting something in the ceiling, they want to make sure that if you rip their ceiling out that they’re covered. They want to make sure if you blow up the building with fire, they’re covered.”

But unique performers like fire eaters and aerialists have had a hard time getting coverage, especially affordable coverage because “they’re looking at between $1,000 to $3,000…”

Zabaneh started doing her homework, calling specialty underwriters, including some prominent ones. “They all said no, we don’t want to insure fire at all. Then finally when I called SUM [Strategic Underwriting Managers], one wonderful person, Mary Georgas [assistant vice-president], said, ‘Okay, we’ll consider it, please give us a risk analysis.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, risk analysis—okay.’ Since I’m life licensed, I’m not RIBO licensed, I didn’t know [about it]. So okay, if I try and do this they’re going to know I have no idea what I’m doing…”

Zabaneh, however, seemed to know very much what she was doing. She reached out to an insurance agency in Wisconsin that covers fire performers, clowns and aerialists. Canadians weren’t actually covered, though some had tried to finagle it through using U.S. addresses. Since she wasn’t in direct competition with them, the agency gave her a claims review going back five years.

“I was very, very grateful, very impressed, and I looked through the whole thing, and only five claims in five years were for fire, and I think only three of them had any payouts… I had a whole spreadsheet—a stack of all this stuff—and they wrote also in the email, ‘Please notice that even when there are high claims, the reserve fund is very high.” The Americans had handed her the key to how to make this palatable for an operation at home. “So in comparison to the claims they were having, they had so much business that it was profitable, and I gave this to SUM… They said, okay, the only way we can accommodate that is this has to be a group policy,” recalls Zabaneh, “so you have to guarantee us a certain number of participants. You need to show interest… so the master policy would be written to a corporation.” She started up Circus Artists of Canada as a not-for-profit federal level association, which is growing nicely as word of it spreads.

Given the premium costs offered by the Americans, Zabaneh wanted a policy for Canadians to be comparable with the exchange rate—no higher than $500. So her insurance professional father approached the folks at IBMG Canada, with whom he and his family have had a long-term working relationship, to be the brokers of record. Normand Haas, president of IBMG, calls the amount of work she put into the initiative “unbelievably impressive. When I saw the amount of due diligence that she put into this program, you know, it would be like serving you a beautiful Thanksgiving turkey on a beautiful silver platter, with all the trimmings.”

SUM’s $1 million in liability coverage is $500 for one year, or you can select $2 million for $750. Both tiers include a standard $1000 deductible on claims. It’s a godsend for circus performers who may only land up to 100 gigs a year.

“If you’re an aerialist, it’s $2,000. I know a fire guy, he was paying almost $3,000 and all the aerialists, they showed me. I said what are you paying, what are you getting? And they showed me what they were getting from all the different companies, and the rates are definitely all over $1,000.

So this is like, a dream for everybody, for these performers. If this is their full-time thing, they’re not making huge amounts of money.”

Normand Haas says the coverage is “strictly a goodwill thing” that won’t bring in a lot of business “and the commission is minimal.” But it’s helping the performers, “and Hala’s a great person, and I just thought to myself, ‘Good for you,’ you know?”

Zabaneh, in fact, still performs at about 25 to 35 gigs a year, often performing on stilts in her fabulous costumes. But her initiative gives her another reason to hold her head up high. She chalks up some of the credit to staff in her father’s office who told her not to give up. “I had the support that I think that was lacking in maybe other places, so I’m really grateful for that, and I had the experience behind me to do it.”

Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.