Canadian Underwriter
Feature

Coasting Uphill


January 31, 2011   by Laura Kupcis


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Coast Claims wasn’t about to let losing 50 per cent of their business slow them down. In 1974, just four years after launching a new adjusting firm whose main source of business was adjusting automobile claims, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia became the exclusive automobile insurer for the province, effectively decimating this line of business for independent adjusters.

But 27 years later, the company has grown from one office to eight and from two employees to 50. Clearly, Coast Claims didn’t let the setback hold them back for long.

Three partners launched the company in 1970: Jim Bennolio, Jack Bell and Don Wakham. In 1972, Jim Eisler joined the firm, followed by Dave Hart in 1973. In 1974, after the loss of the auto claims, the original three partners went their separate ways and Coast Claims was left in the capable hands of Eisler and Hart. The two partners re-built the business by finding new opportunities to create a successful and thriving company, before retiring. Eisler retired in 1997 and, although still working, Hart sold his interest in the business five years ago. Today, there are two controlling shareholders:  Darwyn Stickle and Allan Hart. Many of the company’s adjusters are also shareholders in the business.

“We have had three management transitions in 40 years, a milestone we just reached,” A. Hart says proudly.

Over the years more than just the faces have changed. For Coast Claims, the biggest change has been the nature of communication within the organization and the industry as a whole. “Everything is immediate,” A. Hart says. “Insurers and insureds expect and get a much higher level of service because of the way communication is sent. Emails and electronic reporting has improved the way we convey information to insurers.” Previously, communication between independent adjusters and insurers was, for the most part, based on formal reporting. While that still exists to some degree, there is now constant email communication between all parties that didn’t exist previously.

Technological improvements

Another major change for Coast Claims was switching to an electronic file management system, which was implemented two years ago. This allows insurers to access their files online and check the status of the claim 24-7. They can access reports, attachments and enclosures, including photographs. Additionally, it allows the company to track the number of claims that Coast Claims is handling on their behalf currently, and throughout the previous year. The company can also provide the client with loss tending if they so desire. Furthermore, as a tool for management it allows the firm to monitor adjuster performance, workload and file status, keeping everyone accountable. “Our clients love it and are using it more all the time,” A. Hart says.  

“It was a bit of a challenge getting some of our “senior” adjusters to use the program” A. Hart adds. “Now we’ve got everyone working on it religiously.”
Digital technology has also allowed the firm to provide a much more thorough product. This includes more statements and photographs which are stored and sent to our clients in electronic format for future use, as needed.  

“The Internet is a fantastic tool which helps us in our investigations, research, sourcing and pricing. “It’s just easier to obtain information these days,” A. Hart says.

A great place to work

But while there might have been many changes in technology, the company has very little in the way of staff turnover. “Good people are hard to find and once we have them we work hard to make sure they never want to leave,” A. Hart says.

There have been a number of additions to the roster over the years – there are now roughly 50 employees including 27 adjusters and investigators in eight offices and one satellite office.

“We embrace a team concept, but encourage our adjusters to think independently and outside the box,” A. Hart says. “We also try to create a fun and creative work environment so that our people actually look forward to going to work.”

For Hart, the company is at a good size right now. “We are large enough to compete with the national firms in our area, but not so large as to be inflexible or to have excessive overhead.  

“We’re at a size where we appreciate every piece of business that we get and we ensure that each new assignment is handled properly by a competent and qualified adjuster,” A. Hart adds. “We’re also flexible enough that if there is an emergency in a certain area, we can pull adjusters from other offices and have them there in a matter of hours to assist.

“We can also accommodate any requirements that an insurer has and convey direction to our adjusters instantaneously. Furthermore, if there is a problem or concern it is dealt with by the owners of the business, and we follow up to ensure that it was addressed to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Looking forward

And while the company might be at a good size right now, that doesn’t mean they are not focused on growing further. Coast Claims is currently the largest independent adjusting firm on Vancouver Island, and while they are going strong on the Island and in Vancouver proper, they are looking at opportunities for growth in British Columbia and other parts of Western Canada. “We intend to carefully expand organically and by mergers and acquisitions,” A. Hart says. “We’re not looking at being a national player at this point. We already are strong in several niche areas and are looking for opportunities to expand in the West.

“There are still lots of opportunities out there for adjusting firms that are able to provide exceptional service, A. Hart adds.

“We’ve sometimes been disappointed when major insurers who have been long-time supporters decide to move all their business to a national adjusting firm. But those issues sort themselves out over the long-term.”

It’s also tough to find good adjusters to bring on board – a plight plaguing all adjusting companies.

“We’ve attracted great people with experience in other fields and other industries,” A. Hart says. “We’ve promoted several people from within
and we’ve recruited top talent from larger insurers. Finding good qualified adjusters is a challenge not only for us, but I’m sure for most firms”.

While there isn’t an official mentoring program in place at Coast Claims, if somebody expresses interest and has what it takes to be a great adjuster, there exists the possibility to move up the ranks to independent adjuster. “We’ve promoted several people from within in the last couple of years and it’s worked out really well,” A. Hart says.

Making good choices

Clearly, the choices Coast Claims has been making and the directions they have been taking have been for the best – they’ve increased their office space eight-fold, their staff 16 times over and they’ve added special investigators to the mix. “We’ve expanded and specialize in various niche markets, including marine accident investigation and damage surveying,” A. Hart says. “Our adjusters, especially our senior ones, have a tremendous array of skill sets and they are always willing to share their experience and provide advice to our younger adjusters. In addition to general property and liability loss adjusters, we have adjusters that specialize in large losses; property and complex liability, marine, municipal insurance and heavy equipment. We also have several investigators who conduct special investigations. We make sure that each assignment gets to the right person.”

The firm is also a long-time member of the association. Both Eisler and D. Hart were Canadian Independent Adjusters’ Association (CIAA) national presidents. A. Hart is currently the treasurer for the Pacific Region and served as conference organizer for the most recen
t convention which was held in Victoria, B.C. “It is the only organization of independent adjusters in Canada and it provides a united voice to deal with government issues, licensing issues and the insurance industry as a whole” A. Hart says.

“It has allowed us to meet and discuss issues with other adjusters and firms, in non-competing areas. We’ve made a lot of friends across Canada and the United States.”

And just like in business, you get out of it what you put into it.