Property Perspectives: Preparing Southeast businesses for the unexpected in NatCat
The 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season has been somewhat out of the ordinary. AXA XL’s Mike Smith couldn’t agree more. As Southeast Regional Underwriting Leader for AXA XL’s North America Property team, Mike saw this storm season’s uniqueness firsthand, with several hurricanes exhibiting unusual behavior including dumping excessive amounts of rain and bringing damaging winds to his region. For Mike, helping his clients prepare for extreme weather, and anything else out of the ordinary, is the most rewarding part of his job.
Did you ever think that you’d dedicate your career helping companies prepare for natural catastrophes?
Smith: In retrospect, probably not. I grew up more than 1,000 miles from my current base in Atlanta in a small town near the Canadian border in upstate New York. Hurricanes were not as frequent a concern in that part of the county, although we had our share of other weather-related issues such as sub-zero temperatures, ice storms and the occasional blizzard.
After graduating from Clarkson University with a degree in business management, quite simply, I needed a job. It wasn’t a particularly robust job market at the time so I was willing to take what I could get especially since I was married at the time with a child on the way. I answered an ad in the newspaper – for what turned out to be an underwriter for Industrial Risk Insurers (IRI), working out of Syracuse, NY. As most in the industry know, the loss control side of IRI was the predecessor of our current property risk engineering team and was a renowned training ground for many of us still in the insurance business today. So my underwriting career got off to a good start even though it was an unexpected start.
After working as a property underwriter for several years, IRI gave me the unique opportunity to transition to the loss control side of the business to train and work as a field engineer, and I took full advantage of it. Having both underwriting and field engineering experience is a powerful combination in my opinion. After a few years in the field, I went back to underwriting, spending time with positions at Zurich, Guy Carpenter, AIG and another stint at IRI.
My career path took me to Atlanta about 22 years ago, with a short 1-year period in California. But I returned to Atlanta when I joined XL Catlin in 2014.
What is so enticing about this region that it would bring you back from California?
Nothing against California, but this region is booming, so it’s an exciting place to be. The region continues to outgrow and outpace the nation's best-known metropolitan regions. Overall, the Atlanta region is a significant business center for the US with a great mix of industries -- manufacturing, real estate, healthcare, and tech companies, including many Fortune 500 companies which are headquartered here.
What does this region’s growth trends and diversity mean for you and AXA XL’s property business?
It means that there’s plenty of opportunity to demonstrate our strengths. For instance, many regional companies turn to us for our fronting and captives capabilities. These companies may be based here but they are operating in all parts of the world. With our ability to provide insurance coverage in more than 200 countries and our Global Programs Center of Excellence helping service our clients’ global programs, we’re able to help our clients address their coverage needs with locally compliant insurance wherever they do business.
Additionally, we offer significant capacity, up to USD 1 billion for companies that choose to insure 100% of their property exposures with us. These clients represent about 25% of our regional book of business. That’s significant. And it highlights the value that many area businesses see in working with one insurer to take a holistic approach and address all of their property risks.
Plus, as a former field engineer, I know how important it is to be able to tap into property risk engineering expertise, especially in a region prone to natural catastrophes like hurricanes. Because we can work closely with our field engineers, I honestly believe our clients were more prepared than most for the unusual weather we’ve seen this season.
That brings us back to hurricane season. What made this season so unusual?
There were a few unusual things. For instance, one storm formed before hurricane season began and ended up in Michigan. Florence defied what weather history statistics tell us after weakening temporarily when it encountered hostile winds. According to meteorologists, abnormally strong high pressure blocked Florence from turning out to sea as quickly as might have been expected. Instead, it steered it into the Carolinas very slowly, dumping excessive rain and triggering damaging flooding.
And then there was Michael, which was the most-intense storm on record to hit the Florida Panhandle. What was especially unusual about Michael was its rapid intensification. Michael grew from a tropical depression with 35 mph winds to a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds in 24 hours and it continued to become a Category 4 as it made landfall.
Were businesses in your region as prepared as they could be? Will this season change how companies plan for next hurricane season?
More than any other region of the country, the Southeast is prone to hurricanes. So overall, yes, most businesses are prepared for typical regional weather events, including an occasional hurricane. But this hurricane season was far from typical. And what we see overall are storms that are growing in frequency and severity.
Last season’s rapid succession of hurricanes changed the market resulting in double-digit commercial property increases across the board. While it is too early to tell how it will affect rates, the lessons that we glean from each hurricane season, from each loss, helps us learn and be even more prepared for the next storm. And, while we hate to see our clients suffer property loss or damage, when they do, they certainly are quick to recognize the value and expertise of our claims team.
For brokers and risk managers interested in enlisting Mike’s 30+ years of property underwriting experience to address complex commercial property risks, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.