Everyone talks about the weather, but out in America's farmland, where the right kind of crop insurance can mean the difference between troublesome drought and financial disaster, they are doing something about it.
"There don't seem to be any 'average' weather years anymore -- look what happened in the Midwest this year -- so multiperil coverage becomes that much more important," says Richard Gibson, 48, CEO of American Agrisurance (#167), of Council Bluffs, Iowa, a general agency that writes crop insurance mostly in the Midwest. "Come hail or drought, farmers are obligated to repay loan money to lending institutions. You can't eliminate their risks, but you can reduce them."
Gibson has a strong sense of empathy for the customers he serves. A native of Weeping Water, Neb., located near Omaha, in the heart of the Corn Belt, he grew up working on and around farms before getting a college degree and a job as a field representative with Insurance Company of North America. After 12 years with INA, Gibson saw many of the large insurance companies pulling out of rural markets -- not because their loss ratios were bad, but because the lack of major industries in these markets and the more rigid volume demands of the big insurers had cooled their interest in small-town customers.
Sensing opportunity, Gibson and three co-investors raised $75,000 in capital and shopped around for a licensed insurance company to front policies for them. (Managing general agents, while providing most of the services of licensed insurers, including billing and claims assessment, must find others to carry the actual policies for them.) Today, American Agrisurance sells policies through 1,500 independent agents, has 150 field adjusters, and clients in 21 states, the largest pool (some 500 customers) being in Iowa and Nebraska, where individual premiums range from $100 to as much as $250,000. AA has thus become part of a growing trend away from federal crop coverage, with its attendant hassles (farmers and federal bureaucrats don't always mix), toward private underwriters, which, in 1983, accounted for some $150 million of the $350 million spent on crop-coverage premiums.
Gibson is also developing new policies in such areas as municipal liability coverage for small cities and counties and dram shop insurance for Iowa tavern owners. But he credits AA's success as much to ambulation as innovation.
"When you're dealing with smalltown agents, you have to know them on a first-name basis," he says. "As big as we've become, I still put a premium on making field calls myself."