January 31, 2015 by Craig Harris, Freelance Writer|Craig Harris, Freelance Writer
Trevor Cortese vividly remembers an insurance presentation he attended when he first started in the insurance business with Zurich Canada in the early 1990s.
“I’ll never forget the instructor saying that by mid-2000, the independent adjuster would be extinct and there would be three of four massive insurance companies operating in Canada,” he recalls. “Sure, there have been purchases and acquisitions. But I always feel there will be that smaller niche for adjusting with the personable touch that clients appreciate. That is the strength of our firm.”
Cortese, president and owner of TC Insurance Adjusters, has not just witnessed the M&A activity in property and casualty insurance; he has been an active part of it. After learning the ropes as an accident benefits adjuster with Zurich Canada, he moved to Underwriters Adjustment Bureau Ltd. in a small London office in 2001. UAB was bought by CGI Group Inc. in November 2002 (later to become part of SCM Adjusters).
In 2003, Cortese was contacted by Dennis Schembri of Mississauga-based Vanler Insurance Adjusters, who wanted to set up a London office. He jumped at the opportunity and worked for Vanler until 2007, when it was purchased by then-McLarens Canada (later to become Granite Claims Solutions and, more recently, SCM Insurance Services).
“I had already worked for a large company and I wanted to continue at a smaller firm,” Cortese says. “So I made the next natural move, which was to set up and incorporate TC Insurance Adjusters in 2007. I have watched the consolidation in this industry; in fact, I have lived it. Now the only way I can control it is to be my own boss.”
TC Insurance Adjusters has two offices in London and Exeter, serving all of southwestern Ontario. There are five adjusters at the firm including Cortese – Amanda Vojin (who has been with the firm since 2008), Anthony Edwards, Donna Marry and Peter Maurer. Three administrative assistants provide crucial customer service support.
Cortese’s expertise is in accident benefits claims. He says he brings a personalized, intuitive approach to personal injury losses.
“I am a sensitive person first and I look at the situation with an empathetic perspective,” he explains. “But I am also an insurance professional and I have to carry out my line of business and responsibilities as well. I do it as personably as possible. I give my time and energy to the people I deal with, and I am able to explain the insurance part to them as clearly as possible.”
“I bring an element of calm to the situation and I have got a lot of positive feedback from brokers, insurers about my dealings with people,” Cortese points out. “That is what has helped me in my business; my clients know me, they know how I interact with people and my approach to business. There are times when you have to make insurance decisions and deny things; don’t get me wrong. But if you handle it in a professional way, the outcome can be positive or at least well understood by all parties.”
That steady approach has worked well for TC Insurance Adjusters, particularly in the early start-up years of the business from 2007-2010. Demand for qualified, skilled independent AB adjusters was at one of its highest peaks. And insurers valued the expertise that Cortese brought to the table.
“I can sit in front of a person and get a feel for them within the first 20 minutes,” he says. “There is that element that you will never get away from in handling claims. While you can’ t confirm or deny a claim based on feelings, you can certainly dig deeper and that is something a computer program simply cannot do.”
When the Ontario government introduced major changes to the auto insurance system in 2010, things changed. In particular, reforms to the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule meant lower statutory accident benefits, with the option for consumers to “buy up” to previous levels (few have done so). It also meant a higher portion of claims brought in-house by insurance companies.
“This created a massive concern, although I believe it is the right thing that happened for insurers and the industry in that there are fewer frivolous losses and expenses,” Cortese observes. “When the legislation changed, it affected our business.”
In response, Cortese diversified the business. “We can do more than just adjust AB claims; we can do bodily injury claims, which are similar but also have a more detailed investigative side that requires insight into the law and liability of accidents,” he notes. “We do slip and fall claims for our clients; we can also work for third party administrators, instead of just insurance companies.”
In a major move, TC Insurance Adjusters purchased Grand Bend-based PRM Claims Services in 2013, an adjusting firm headed by Peter Maurer that specializes in agricultural, livestock, property and liability losses.
“That has been an important part of our diversification strategy,” Cortese explains. “Before we bought PRM, we did advertise that we did property claims, but we were a bit typecast. Now, we are getting more and more property referrals; we are an all-lines adjuster.”
Another key aspect of TC Insurance Adjusters is its work on file reviews and audits for insurance companies.
“I find examples where they pay for things that they shouldn’t have,” Cortese says. “So there is value that my clients are wiling to pay for in terms of my AB experience and the experience of all of our adjusters here. We look at what is paid or whether a claim could be settled more quickly. It may result in a closed file for me and less income, but in the bigger picture, we can help our clients with things that are not pure loss adjusting.”
This kind of adaptability defines the life of an independent adjuster, according to Cortese. “When things slow down, you market yourself in other ways,” he says. “So you meet new people, you keep your portfolio of contacts out there, you network. That is how you have to get through the revenue cycles. You can also fill the time by pursuing continuing education.”
Another crucial component of life as a smaller independent firm is being part of the local community and giving back. TC Insurance Adjusters participates in a scholarship program with London’s Fanshawe College. Each year, it contributes a portion of proceeds from claims to fund a bursary for the highest graduate in the Insurance Institute program.
“We wanted to pay it forward and give back something to the community related to insurance,” Cortese says. “We have done if for two years now, and we plan to keep on doing it in the future.”
As for the future of independent firms like TC Insurance Adjusters, Cortese is optimistic that there will continue to be a demand for the niche, relationship-based business.
“Every insurance company has a different policy, different procedures, different protocols,” he says. “Our challenge is to understand our clients’ needs, know what the requirements are and maintain those relationships on an ongoing basis. We keep in touch, we know their priorities and their business strategies.”
Cortese says there is no guarantee that those relationships will continue or stay the same. But the proven ability of independent adjusting firms to adapt to new developments is something that will guide the viability of the profession in the years ahead.
“Our lines of work may change, we will have to adapt to different types of claims and to technology,” Cortese concludes. “We will have to be flexible and diversified. But, from my perspective, I still see that niche sticking around for a long time.” W