Canadian Underwriter

All in the Family

November 30, 2014   by Craig Harris, Freelance writer

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A family-run business has much more at stake than the standard corporate structure of bosses and anonymous co-workers. It is not a 9 to 5 job, but instead both a way of life and a way to make a living. For Brian Polimeni and Anjelica Relic, the decision to start up Georgian Claim Services was one of the best they have ever made.

“It has worked out extremely well in terms of dynamics and working together,” Brian says of the firm, a partnership with his wife Anjelica and niece Tristina Relic. While they don’t focus on or advertise the family connection, they use it to their advantage to make their business successful.

“We don’t take the position that it is just ‘my claim’ or ‘your claim,'” Brian notes. “It is the company’s claim and at the end of the day it is the customer’s claim. We don’t have any divisions of who is handling what. We do what needs to be done and when it needs to be done on a claim.”

In operation for seven years, Georgian Claim Services is a full service boutique adjusting company. Located one-hour north of Toronto in Barrie, they serve the surrounding area and travel across Ontario as far as Timmins, North Bay, Sudbury and Ottawa to handle claims.

The firm handles all types of claims, from accident benefits, liability, auto liability and property losses to detailed fatality investigations.

Starting at State Farm Insurance about 30 years ago, Brian remembers simply applying to an ad in the newspaper for an insurance adjuster position. “I told them I didn’t know what an adjuster was and they said ‘you’re hired,'” he recalls with a laugh. “If I had known, it might have been different perhaps.”

Brian says State Farm provided “some of the best training in the industry back then” sending him on multiple training courses on a range of subjects, including estimating, fire investigation and liability.

“I realize I was fortunate to have that kind of training, nobody does that today,” he points out. Brian continues his commitment to professional development and today he has an impressive set of certifications and designations, ranging from Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) to Canadian Certified Fire Investigator (CCFI), Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) and Certified Fire Investigation Instructor (CFII).

After a ten-year stint at State Farm, Brian worked at two large national adjusting companies. By mid 2005, he and Anjelica were already considering going out on their own. “We decided we wanted to have more control over work and our lives,” he says.

Anjelica has more than 15 years of experience in the insurance industry, with a self employed background in worker’s compensation claims management. After deciding to switch careers from worker’s compensation claims to the insurance industry, she obtained her CIP in 18 months prior to becoming an adjuster.

Even with her CIP, she found it difficult to get into the industry. Although she received a great response to her resume, “insurers were all either ‘you are over qualified or (have) no experience handling claims,'” Angelica says. To get her foot in the door, she applied for a claims assistant position with Wawanesa Insurance and secured an accident benefit adjuster position. Although her stay with the company was short, she credits Wawanesa with great training and insight into how claims should be handled.

After Wawanesa, she joined a national claims adjusting firm. “I remember having all of six months experience and was given a large volume of claims to handle. It was sink or swim. I decided to swim,” she says.

Tristina joining Georgian Claim Services was not planned, say Anjelica and Brian. “She worked with us part time while at university and during that time ‘fell in love’ with Accident Benefit claims,” Anjelica says. “I remember I would ask her to respond to a submission on a claim and she would come into my office quoting a section of the SABS without the legislation in her hand…strictly from memory. We knew then and there we wanted her working with us, but it had to be her decision. It turned out she loved adjusting and has since chosen adjusting as a career.” Tristina, a licensed adjuster, is working towards her CIP designation

Both Brian and Anjelica understand the challenges of the profession today and the increasingly expansive “knowledge gap” facing the claims profession. “It takes many years to become a good adjuster, it is a complex business,” Brian observes. “I think today a lot of Insurers are not making an investment in education. They don’t have training programs, a victim of the many cost cutbacks over the years. Having said that, we have over 50 years of combined experience, so we can offer that expertise to our clients and to Tristina.”

Georgian Claim Services’ success in the insurance industry is not a secret formula Anjelica says, but rather a simple matter of hard work and sacrifice. “On a continuous basis we give up nights and weekends to continue to learn and get the job done,” she says. “There are three of us who are adjusters, we are very much a team here; it is not and can never be just about any one person.”

A steady stream of business tends to involve more intricate, complex claims that require knowledge and expertise. “We tend to do the larger more technical losses. We are not trying to compete with the national adjusting firms on a high-volume basis,” Brian says. “For us it is not a numbers game of ‘get them in, get them out.’ We tend to get bigger, more unusual claims or ones where Insurers need a thorough investigation and good claims handling.”

Over the years, Georgian Claim Services has handled a number of serious injury and fatality claims, some of which have involved vehicle accidents and municipal liability. “We do quite a bit of municipal work. We know many cities and towns are targets because of joint and several liability,” Brian points out. “They are often the only party that can pay and this results in fairly large exposures.”

Georgian Claim Services also provides special investigation services for fraud detection and prevention. “We are one of the few that has secured a criminal conviction for insurance fraud,” Brian says. “This does not happen very often because usually Insurers will not pursue it that far. They often deny an insurance claim and that’s it. I think the issue there is that there does not appear to be a downside to a person perpetrating insurance fraud. There’s no deterrent; they might as well try again next month with another insurance company,” he adds.

With a long career in the adjusting profession, Brian says he is well aware of the “cyclical” nature of the insurance industry. “Sometimes Insurers are pushing cutting expenses of adjusting, then the indemnity dollar goes up and then there is more money put to controlling indemnity,” he notes. “It is back and forth. We are fortunate in that we have not been affected by consolidation and market forces.”

The best solution to the sometimes random sway of market trends is an unwavering commitment to quality and service, according to Brian. “As a team, we are obsessed with quality and service,” he notes. “Before something goes out, someone else will review the work to ensure quality. It is another opinion. It is another set of eyes, because we are handling multiple files and a second opinion adds tremendous value. Our business model is not for everyone, but it works very well for us and our clients.”