When Christopher Cavallaro co-founded ARC Excess & Surplus LLC alongside Albert Salvatico and Richard Fierstein in April of 1986, they began the company with $90,000 of their own money.

Executive Summary

It’s possible to build an insurance company without outside capital, three entrepreneurs insisted during the recent 2019 Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) Conference. Here, Insurance Journal’s Elizabeth Blosfield conveys how they did it using a disciplined plan, commitment and drive.

“I don’t think you can do that anymore,” he joked.

Without help from outside capital, the three founders agreed not to take salaries for six months and were eventually able to turn ARC into a single independent wholesale broker specializing in management liability and professional liability products that places more than $500 million in premiums with more than 45 insurance companies.

“It’s all about the people, being brave and doing the right thing,” Cavallaro said, looking back on the company’s success since its onset more than 30 years ago. “If you manage people, if you manage a company, you have to manage for the benefit of the overall company and not yourself. Of course, you will share in the success, but it’s not just your success. I’m only as good as all of the people who work at ARC.”

“It’s all about the people, being brave and doing the right thing.”

Christopher Cavallaro, Arc Excess & Surplus

Cavallaro was speaking on a panel of insurance company founders at the 2019 Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) Conference, held this year in National Harbor, Md. Cavallaro and panelists David A. Bell, president and CEO of ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company, and Laurie Banez, executive vice president and head of US Management and Professional Lines at Canopius, shared challenges they faced starting their businesses, how they overcame them and their views on the landscape for insurance company founders today.

“Every single opportunity has been different,” Banez said. “But with every single opportunity, you learn from it and you can then apply it to the next.”

You need to have the right relationships and the right partners externally in order to help you.”

Laurie Banez, Canopius

Banez has more than 30 years of professional lines insurance experience and began her career with National Union Fire Insurance Company (AIG), where she spent 13 years in various underwriting and management positions. After moving on from AIG, she joined a team to start up Kemper’s Financial Lines capabilities and subsequently established Axis’ Financial Lines team. Since then, she has done five startups, she said. In describing her various experiences with each of those startup opportunities, she echoed Cavallaro’s idea that success comes down to the people.

“The opportunities presented are really tied to who you bring on the adventure with you,” she said. “It’s not in any way accomplished by one person. It takes a village.”

For Bell, each of the opportunities presented throughout his career has provided him with a different perspective on the insurance industry, he said. After graduating from the University of Montana in 1996 with a degree in finance, he began his insurance career with Chubb and later served as a founding executive and the chief operating officer of Allied World Assurance Company. After that, he joined ALPS, a lawyers malpractice insurance company, in 2012.

“Through those three different experiences going from a very large company to a startup and then to an established but changing business, as well as going through soft markets and going through hard markets, the one constant is culture,” he said. “If an organization has the right culture, it can adapt to just about any other environmental circumstance.”

If you lead your organization, then you have the responsibility and the blessing of creating the culture, because there is no more culturally influential person than the person at the top.”

David Bell, ALPS

Bell explained that he views a good organizational culture as a team of employees that feel not only empowered, but safe.

“We all know that when town hall meetings occur, the leader asks if there are any questions and the crickets are chirping. It’s not because people don’t have questions or don’t have thoughtful ideas,” he said. “It’s because at some level, they fear whether what they’re about to say will look negatively upon them or affect the perception of them.”

He said he believes organizations should do more to build a culture that encourages original mistakes—not repetitive mistakes—which can provide a learning opportunity and useful knowledge to be applied going forward.

“If organizations did nothing other than chase down and stomp out that fear so people have the ability to feel open to express their ideas, I think it would benefit all organizations,” he said.

Creating the right company culture can be a challenge, however, especially for leaders, Bell added.

“If you lead your organization, then you have the responsibility and the blessing of creating the culture, because there is no more culturally influential person than the person at the top,” he said.

A large part of the challenge behind building an effective culture is establishing the right talent, Bell explained, as a majority of young talent prioritize organizations that have healthy working environments. He said he believes young talent today has brought to the industry a prioritization of work/life balance and other cultural considerations that are long overdue and make the workplace more authentic.

“When a workplace is more authentic, we can become less guarded and more risk tolerant,” he said.

Cavallaro said that at ARC, the company has always pursued free-thinking people who desire to work hard.

“We branded the company with our name, and we always wanted to make sure that we hired the right people who were dedicated to doing a good job and respected each other,” Cavallaro said. “We initiated the culture that way.”

Banez added that not only is talent acquisition internally an important part of building culture, but establishing partners externally is a factor as well.

“You can’t necessarily bring everyone you need on board right away from a startup perspective,” she said. “You need to have the right relationships and the right partners externally in order to help you.”

She pointed to product development as one example, in which she emphasized the importance of having lawyers in place to ensure everything is up-to-date and compliant, as well as to indicate where improvement may be needed.

However, with a strong emphasis placed on securing talent, especially as the insurance industry continues to grapple with a talent gap as older generations retire and new generations enter the workplace, Bell offered a word of caution.

“I do worry that the industry has withdrawn from the broad commitment to technical training because we’re asking people to just kind of pick it up along the way without an intentional transfer of knowledge,” he said. “I think that’s dangerous, and I think we’ll ultimately live with the byproduct of folks who are in the market and don’t have some of the fundamental skills. That’s a yellow light of caution in an otherwise bullish sense of the market.”

Cavallaro agreed that deep knowledge of the industry is imperative, and learning shouldn’t stop at the initial hiring stage, either. Good leaders will continuously prioritize learning, he explained.

“I’m learning all the time,” he said. “When I stop learning, I should stop working.”

His best advice for insurance company leaders to continue learning is to listen carefully to those around them. But he said this advice isn’t his own. In fact, it came from someone he has looked up to throughout his career.

“My grandfather had a great line,” he said. “He used to say, ‘Chris, you can’t learn by talking. You can only learn by listening. So listen.'”

(Elizabeth Blosfield is the East region editor for Insurance Journal. Reach her at eblosfield@wellsmedia.com.)