February 1, 2004 by Vikki Spencer
Wading into the murky waters of the property and casualty insurance industry’s attempt to finally achieve a single-entry, multi-company interface solution (SEMCI) last summer, David Patrick would have been characterized by many as brave. But, Patrick has made a career of embracing challenge, and that is just what he was prepared to do again when he took on the role of interim CEO of the Centre for Study of Insurance Operations (CSIO).
At the time, Patrick explains, the CSIO desperately needed an overhaul – a new governance structure and renewed commitment to the launch of the industry’s technology “holy grail”, the CSIO portal, which will link insurers and brokers online. Moreover, Patrick witnessed the need for new enthusiasm and energy around the portal. “Since I joined in June, the whole atmosphere and pace and discussion points have changed. There is a new level of interest,” he says of the changes that have taken place. One example is portal committee meetings. “When I got there in June no one attended them,” he admits. Now people are participating, having healthy, animated discussions about what it will take to move the portal forward.
As it stands today, the portal is up and running with the signed-off rates of all major companies involved in the project for Ontario personal lines auto and habitational business. The project will be piloted through February of this year with 12 brokers representing a variety of levels of connectivity – all representing the full range of broker management systems (BMS) available on the market.
Connectivity issues have been the project’s biggest challenge, Patrick admits. Not only are there four major BMS vendors, but individual brokers may be on any given version of a BMS, and have different operating systems, Internet connections and other technology variables. “If you looked at the portal, you would say it’s pretty simple, but then you look at the complex web – brokers, broker management systems, third-party vendors, insurers.”
Despite this complex web, Patrick says the portal project is on plan and on target. “We have a steadied, measured pace of rollout, and we don’t want to accelerate that pace until we understand as much as possible about the connectivity issues and are ready for a full roll-out. As we do these 12 [pilot brokers], we will understand the connectivity issues we’re going to run into. Out of that, we hope to establish a pattern of early successes and what they look like.” Not only will this success involve straightening out the connectivity concerns for specific brokers, but also judging appropriate levels of support and maintenance, troubleshooting and stumbling blocks.
Right now, the CSIO has a significant number of brokers lined up to be next online with the portal. “If brokers are interested in being on the portal, they should call us now to get into the queue,” he says. As the portal rolls out to more brokers and across the country, Patrick expects the pace of advancement to speed up significantly.
The first step on the road to CSIO’s recovery last June was to ensure the support of brokers and insurers. This meant not only a commitment to the first phase, which provides workflow improvements such as quick batch renewals, but to the crucial second phase where single sign-on will be implemented. The portal was originally conceived as a means of maintaining control over the industry’s technology path by those within the industry rather than being at the mercy of outside systems. This requires full commitment from all parties involved, Patrick says. “The level of control over the portal is directly related to the level of participation and commitment of the different partners.”
Brokers, through the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada (IBAC) and the Ontario association (IBAO), have put their brute strength behind the project. IBAO has been crucial in helping brokers to prepare, in troubleshooting and handholding through the process, for early brokers using the portal, Patrick says. To sustain momentum, IBAC and the IBAO continue to conduct “road shows” across Ontario to get the portal message out to each region, with regional directors acting as “go-to guys” to help brokerages become “portal ready”. “Brokers are going to make this thing happen,” Patrick asserts.
Insurers have also shown support with the promise of funding and fulfilling the mandate to have rates online by January of this year. Axa, Aviva and its subsidiaries, Royal & SunAlliance, Dominion of Canada, Economical, Pembridge, Gore and ING are the major players who have stepped up to the plate. Several mutual insurers are also preparing to have rates ready in the next month, Patrick observes. The notable hold-outs at this point are Allianz and Wawanesa, he adds, “but we’re confident their brokers will be asking them to participate.”
The CSIO’s chair Bob Fitzgerald and Patrick have held meetings with insurer CEOs to reinforce the viability of the portal project. Following those meetings, “they [CEOs] have made follow-through commitments,” Patrick notes. This funding will be required until the portal becomes “self-supporting”, which Patrick says should be achieved when it reaches 600-700 users. Given that this represents just 20% of Canada’s 3,200 independent brokerages, “that [goal] is achievable,” Patrick observes.
In fact, plans are already underway to expand the portal’s connectivity to Quebec, the country’s second-largest insurance market, by the end of this year. “The Quebec brokers are fired up,” Patrick notes. At recent meetings of the CSIO Quebec sub-board, “all of the brokers said they want the portal. There was a lot of interest expressed to me.”
Brokers will gain flexibility in how they do business with insurers through the portal, a must in the highly competitive financial services arena, he adds. “The bank e-business strategy is the ability to do business with the bank consistently, any time of day, with any channel. What the portal does is it moves you, as an insurance company, to do business with the broker on any channel they want to do business on.” Brokers can potentially become as efficient as direct writers, but maintain access to a variety of markets. “If banks are ever allowed to sell insurance at branches,” Patrick speculates, “the industry needs to get its act together to compete.”
The road to the portal has not been a smooth one. As the project lagged over deadline and over budget, some questioned if the portal would ever get off the ground. But, in signing an outsource agreement with IBM, the CSIO made the decision to hand over the portal’s application software maintenance and development, as well as running of the data center and disaster recovery programs. “They [IBM] have the skills and services because we [CSIO] are too small an organization.”
Patrick says lacking the breadth and depth to be a technology vendor, CSIO needs to focus on the business management role. This includes rebuilding some bridges burned during the last few years, specifically with BMS vendors. He notes that the organization is striving for greater transparency with its partners, and to be open about issues facing the project. The single largest stumbling block to achieving SEMCI to-date has been bringing together competing companies, competing vendors and the broker community. “We’re not all under the umbrella of one company, that’s the challenge.”
Patrick brings a diverse background to the CSIO, having engineered a number of turnarounds at technology, oil and gas, and healthcare companies over the past thirty years. This was the kind of “hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves” approach the CSIO was seeking to turn the portal project around, he observes.
Most recently, Patrick served as senior vice president of CGI’s insurance solutions and services division where he was responsible for a $94 million operation and 220 employees. His work within the insurance industry helped establish an early rapport when he came to the CSIO. However, Patrick maintains that the success
of the portal will depend on more than his own effort – it has to be seen by all as an industry enterprise. “This isn’t about me or any one person. It’s going to be about everyone and together we’re going to make this happen.”