Greg Gamble, Vice President for Client, Brokerage & Data Operations at Alliant Insurance Services, joins Broker Buddha CEO Jason Keck and host Dean Gemmell to share his thoughts on the business. Our conversation ends with a story about securing coverage for a very important client.
Dean Gemmell: Hey, it's another episode of The Enlightened Agent, and it's Dean Gemmell with Jason Keck, the CEO of Broker Buddha. How are you doing, Jason?
Jason Keck: Good, Dean. Good to see you again. Good to be back on the show.
DG: Yeah. Good to see you virtually once more. We just finished up a great interview with Greg Gamble, who's the vice president- Well, I asked him during the interview, so people can listen to it in the interview. We'll hear what he actually does, but he's at Alliant, and it was a really good conversation.
JK: Yeah, Greg's great. Greg was one of the first people I met when I got involved and launched Broker Buddha almost four years ago now. He was in a role specifically focused on streamlining operations with technology, and we've stayed close for the last few years. I was really happy to have him on the show and to get his whole story.
DG: Yeah, it seems like one of his roles throughout his career has been how to make agencies more efficient. In fact, he mentioned one place where he was asked to shave 50 hours of time off of everybody's workload each year - something you know about.
JK: Yeah. I think he's the perfect guy for that role, and no doubt he crushed it.
DG: With that, we'll get to our conversation with Greg Gamble.
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to another episode of The Enlightened Agent. I am Dean Gemmell, and I'm joined, as always, by Jason Keck, the CEO of Broker Buddha. Hi, Jason.
JK: What's up, Dean? Good to be back.
DG: Yeah, Good to be back again. Today we have a great guest. We have Greg Gamble from Alliant Insurance Services. He's the vice president of client brokerage and data operations. So, Greg, my first question is explain what you do, because I don't know!
Greg Gamble: First of all, Dean and Jason, thanks very much for having me. I'm happy to be a part of this, and I appreciate the opportunity. Let me tell you what that means. I am responsible for operations related to how we interact with our clients, how my brokers interact during their day-to-day jobs, and, necessarily in 2021, that involves care, custody, organization, and marshaling of data. Basically, I'm focused on front-of-house-style operations, supporting customers and our brokers as they work together to get insurance solutions placed and serviced.
JK: You cobbled this together from a lot of your experience, from what I know about you. It's pulling together the relationship side, the understanding of the data and systems. It's a pretty cool role.
GG: Thank you.
JK: How long has it been since the Crystal-Alliant merger? Are we 18 months in now? How far?
GG: Time flies. Crystal was acquired by Alliant in April or May of 2018. So we're rounding three years.
DG: For people who may not know, who is Crystal?
GG: Crystal & Company was a reasonably large retail insurance broker, around since 1933 and owned by the Crystal family. They joined forces with Alliant in 2018.
DG: Got it.
JK: Three years ago, wow. Awesome. It sounds like you've taken all the things that you know and love and found that perfect role within the new org. I know mergers are always an operational slog, but it's good to see you've landed in a situation that fits you. I'm excited for you.
GG: Yes, so far, so good. Thank you very much.
JK: We tend to get into people's history a little bit, and there's the inevitable question about how you got into insurance. I wonder if you could share a little bit of that story with us today?
GG: Yeah, absolutely. Very simply, my father was in insurance.
JK: It's a good start!
GG: More specifically, my dad worked at Crystal & Company. He started there in about 1980, working for Jim Crystal. He was very good friends with my dad, and I had the opportunity to watch his career in the beginning stages of it and to learn a lot about what the commercial insurance industry had to offer. Out of college, I tried something else, but after a couple of years, through my dad, I got a bunch of interviews. In 1990, I started as an underwriter for AIG.
JK: Wait - so you started at AIG, but you got into the industry because you knew about insurance through your dad - is that the way it was?
GG: Yeah, that's correct. My father - he's retired now - he was essentially a salesman. He met Jim Crystal on Wall Street, they started talking, and my dad started working for Jim in 1980. He was selling DNL and other similar products to financial institutions and other similar firms. That's how I got into the business that I got into - at AIG and elsewhere.
DG: I have to ask you about the two years before you got into insurance, in case it was acting or something.
GG: Yeah, it certainly wasn't acting. It wasn't as a Domino's pizza delivery driver. I worked in the healthcare field in a sales role, and I didn't like it. I was walking the halls of a hospital trying to sell home care-related products. Not for me.
DG: You realized you didn't like the sight of blood or the smell of hospitals?
GG: Yeah, and my territory was the Bronx, and that was hard.
JK: That's an adventure for you, man. I was up there getting my first jab of the vaccine last week. It's not a frequent stop for me, but I'm excited to get on the train and get this whole thing heading in the right direction.
DG: Let's talk a little bit about what you've seen. You've had a long career in insurance, and your father was in it. I'm sure there's a litany of things, but what are some of the significant changes that you've seen happen, and what do you think still needs to change?
GG: There have been a lot of changes on the insurance product side since I've been in the business. New insurance products, like employment practices and liability, were invented. Now everybody takes that for granted. Cyber insurance started in '98. I was involved in that, and I saw that take off. Now it's massively important and on everybody's minds every day. They've been through a couple of different market cycles - mostly soft markets. The whole of 1990 was a declining market cycle. As I was an underwriter, I was battling that: pricing constantly, getting cut razor-thin. When I became a broker, it was a brief hard market after 9/11. So I've seen different market cycles. I think, for my personal career, as I transitioned from underwriter to insurance broker - this is going to sound kind of funny. And I'm also old - 55-
DG: Not that old, come on!
JK: You're right down the middle. This is perfect.
GG: What I'm going to say is I remember when we really weren't using email that frequently. We were using fax, physical mail, and overnighting things to each other.
JK: Couriers - a good business.
GG: And we had paper files. I would say that one of the biggest changes that I think a lot of people take for granted is the migration to email, away from those other forms of sharing information. Then paperless files - that was a constant struggle - maintaining a file in a physical format. Where is it? Did you put it away? Do you have it poking holes and things? At this point, all these years later, I think it's something a lot of people have forgotten about, or they're too young to even know. Those are a couple of big changes that I think led to a lot of what I'm trying to do these days.
JK: You mentioned a couple of different roles: you've done underwriting at AIG, you were a producer or sales at Crystal when you were in that role, and now you're in this front office operations role. Is there an event from your career that sticks out in your mind that either propelled you forward or took you on a journey that you never looked back from? Anything like that you could share with us?
GG: By the way, I workedwas on Android for ten years, first at AIG and then Reliance National, which is now defunct, and it became Hartford. I think I got two Hartford paychecks, and then I went to Crystal. That's the brief timeline there. In terms of an event-
JK: A manager or a person?
GG: I've got to tell you, I think the biggest event for me was switching from underwriter to broker. That was a huge sea change for me. I was what they call a miscellaneous professional liability underwriter, which meant that if it wasn't a doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer, or accountant, it funneled into this whole other category called miscellaneous professional liability.
I loved doing that because I am super curious about all things. I was acquiring information and learning about title agents, advertisers, publishers, property managers, real estate agents, brokers, escrow agents, consultants, and technology companies. Then I took on the emerging cyber exposure set, and I learned about that. I was really into being an underwriter, and I liked it. I liked learning about it, which maybe didn't make me the best underwriter. Understanding it was a reason to issue a policy to insure it. Some people from my career a long time ago would say, Greg, you're doing better as a broker.
JK: I'm sure you did well in both.
GG: I don't know that I ripped the book up that badly, but it could have gone bad. The transition from underwriter to broker was massive to me. They're very different endeavors. An underwriter is taking care of themselves. They want to collect more premium than they pay out in claims. Everything they do, their whole bearing- They take risks, but they're risk-averse. It's a very interesting thing. Whereas maybe I was not as risk-averse as others.
As a broker, you're very much representing the client who needs the insurance and needs the policy to pay the claim. And you can't say no to that client. Underwriters can say no all the time. They do have to reach production goals, and, toward that end, if they say no too often, they won't write new business, and they won't hit their goals. But for the most part, the change that I'm talking about is, I went from an underwriter where I could say no when it suited me to a broker where I wasn't allowed to deliver a no back to my client. I have to find a way to get to a yes or at least present an option of yes every instance. That, to me, was the biggest change that I had in my career.
JK: That's a big step, right? It's so interesting. I work with some people who used to work on the carrier side or the underwriter side, and the perspective is very different.
It's funny because it's the same industry. The policies are the same, but the perspectives and what you care about are very different. Whether you're on the agent side, the carrier side, or a buyer at the client level.
GG: A lot of what you say is true. Early on, as a broker, this was very difficult for me because I was still thinking a lot like an underwriter. I was probably a little too empathetic.
JK: To underwriters?
GG: Towards the underwriter. I would never do that, so why would I ask you to? I actually had some people call me out on that. Other underwriters with whom I used to work. 'Greg - you taught me not to do this, so why are you asking me to do it now?' I had to get past that. What happens is that you become - and this is true with any experienced broker, but it takes a longer period of time than you would realize.
For a broker to become a real true master of his or her craft, you need five or six years of seeing the beginning, middle, and end to anticipate what's happening. This is what underwriters don't really like to hear, but it's true: a good broker is fully in command of the entire thing. Even in a hard market, when it seems like the underwriters are driving the change and driving the decisions, as long as I've managed my client's expectations the right way, the broker's in charge. Always - regardless of the market cycle. I'm not a broker now in this current market, but I hear it's pretty bad. I never went through this type of market, frankly. I always had options.
JK: It's complicated now.
GG: That's what I managed on behalf of my clients. Those are the big changes: the process, the perspective - underwriter vs broker, and then who's in charge. A lot of underwriters, in normal market times, don't realize that a good, experienced broker is actually in charge. They know what's going to happen in most cases.
JK: Do you think you're better suited on the agent side?
GG: Oh, very much so. In fact, I could never go back. Anybody who's listening to the podcast, thinking, I remember Greg in 1998. Yeah. They'd be thinking, thank God! I was a good underwriter, but I like this side better.
JK: Your personality fits it really well. You've got a really strong organizational and personable approach to things.
GG: That wasn't always true!
DG: Greg thinks there's somebody out there disagreeing right now. I'm sensing that. Self-awareness is a good thing to have, though. That's for sure.
JK: I think most people in their careers, Greg, when you find the thing that fits you right, then that's when your career really jumps. When you find the thing that aligns with your personality, interests and it fits who you are, you get a huge change and huge growth. Obviously, you had a lot of success there, so I'm super excited for you.
GG: That's a good point. Another part of the enlightened Greg, the enlightened agent, the enlightened insurance professional, whatever we want to call it. That's actually why I got into the business. There's something for everybody in the insurance business. If you're super analytical, as an underwriter, you can dig in on that and learn your craft there. People have to like underwriters. The brokers have options - there's a lot of competition. There's a salesmanship component to being an underwriter as well. It's the same thing on the brokerage side, right? If an underwriter likes you best, they'll help you out more. If you're burning bridges all over the street and pissing people off, you're not going to get things done. I think there are two or three different columns of skill sets that you need on both sides of the equation, which I think was one of the reasons why I've enjoyed being in this business.
DG: Greg, you're a New York guy, right?
GG: That's correct.
DG: For people who aren't from New York, tell me a little bit about what New York business is like and why you like it.
GG: Oh boy! There were whole regions of the country where I just didn't do very well; now that I look back - number one. Number two, for New Yorkers, there's an intensity that we bring to things. There's a story - I hope a lot of people listen to this, but there was a wholesaler that started with people that I knew early on in my days at AIG. They went out to California, and they started their own insurance brokerage operation.
At the time, it was called ECM, and nobody really knew what ECM stood for. Then we came to learn - I'm reasonably certain that this was what it was referred to as - it was East Coast Mentality. You had three principals who went out there to California, and they started a wholesaler. They call it East Coast Mentality because they were up at 5:30 in the morning, ringing our phones back east. They knew how to trade with New York-based underwriters because they were from New York. People from New York, we're just direct, some call that aggressive, and I think we're thinking two, three, and four moves ahead.
DG: That's a true New Yorker there, saying that.
GG: We're always rushing. We're in a hurry.
DG: I think there are things that we can all learn from each other, but I think that East Coast Mentality and New York-style has something good in it.
GG: Listen, thank God, I'm 55. I've tried to mellow a bit. I try to laugh a little bit more at myself.
JK: You've done a couple of different roles we talked about in the industry. What do you think needs to change in this space? You've been doing this for a while now. What needs to happen? What's the next step that the industry needs to take? It could be anything, right? Whether it's on the product, tech, people, or talent side: there are a lot of directions we could go. What are one or two things you think need to happen in this space?
GG: In 2017, Sandy Crystal gave me a different opportunity at Crystal, and now I'm carrying through with that at Alliant - to be more corporate client services and brokerage operations. That's how it started at Crystal. It's carrying through. When Sandy created this role, he said, "Greg, how can you save my people 50 hours a year, each? That's your charge." It was me and two other people in other functions in the company, different insurance product functions - the P&C function and the Employee Benefits function.
Use data and technology, get your head underneath the current processes, find out where they're redundant, old, in need of refreshing, and just go do it. That's what needs to change.
JK: Change needs to change. Change needs to happen!
GG: Change needs to happen. The commercial insurance ecosystem, large commercial - other than paperless files and email, for the most part, hasn't changed. I got burnt out, frankly, in my career. In 2011, 12, 13, it was brutal. It was nonstop. It was faster, faster, faster, faster, faster. I was spending all of my time, literally as an experienced broker, in front of customers, in every context you can imagine.
I was a front-of-the-house cat. A subject matter expert: cyber, E&O, travel to see clients, RFPs, meetings, negotiating with underwriters, everything. Yet, I was spending all my time with administrative stuff. Crystal was known as a very lean shop - one of the original EBITDA houses.
I don't say that negatively because I've always known what's going on. It's the same thing at Alliant. We're focused on our clients, growth, and margin - like every strong business. What does that mean? That means that you have professional people of all levels working harder and harder. So how can we make that hard work smarter? We're always going to work hard, but we need to work smarter. That's what needs to change: the entire straight-through process between client and broker and underwriter, and then underwriter back to broker, back to client, and every other stakeholder in between. If we were drawing a diagram, we would see all these other stakeholders. That needs to become massively more efficient.
JK: I'm a huge believer in that. The friction there is-
GG: There's a lot of friction. But that's what needs to change.
JK: Well, I'll make sure to sign the check for you on that one and the marketing message. Dean, cue the courier to deliver the check to Greg. Thanks for that.
DG: We should do that.
JK: These are awesome stories, and this podcast really is about stories. That was the main reason we started it - to hear stories like this. The story I like to ask all of our guests is about who we are and what we do at Broker Buddha, which is trying to bring peace and serenity and ultimately enlightenment to the agents that we work with. Enlightenment is defined as the state of having knowledge and understanding.
Something I like to ask all of our guests is what special knowledge do you have that sets you apart? What makes you enlightened? Do you have any stories that you can share with us specifically around that? No pressure.
DG: We're not going to use gongs or anything here! We're not getting all Zen on you.
GG: What I would say is very corny and patriotic. What I learned at Crystal, and what I think our special knowledge is, even on the Alliance side, is anticipating what a customer needs. To our earlier joke around thinking three, four, five moves ahead and stuff, that is a discipline that I think I had in my DNA. I think that's why I have done well at Crystal over the years and Alliant currently. We're trained to think, anticipate, and get there first on behalf of our client.
It doesn't stop. It's a constant state of anticipating - you don't take a breath. On behalf of our customers, we're always trying to think ahead to get to the problem and address it with options on their behalf. That is, I think, a special skill that I've developed, and I take that now to my internal clients. My clients are now all the brokers I work with in three profit centers, 80 million in revenue inside Alliant - a hundred people. I'm trying to anticipate what they want. I think that's a special skill. Um, what was the other question?
JK: Let me follow up on that, and I'll fall on the question. You talked earlier about being able to project multiple moves ahead. This is chess, and you're trying to scenario plan. You can only scenario plan so many moves ahead before the permutations get out of control. Your ability to predict which way things are going to move in each scenario is based on experience. This means if you can say, I'm going to go down this path a little bit more because I think it's more likely to happen, that gives you a level of knowledge and predictability. I don't think other people have this because you've seen the underwriters, broker, and the operation side. I think that's pretty notable, powerful, and probably what makes you really good at what you do.
GG: Thank you. The only thing I'd say is, you're right. You cannot anticipate everything, but the discipline that I'm trying to describe of always thinking about it does one thing - it prepares you. You're prepared; your clients know you're prepared. If you don't know the answer to a question, even if you know why you don't know or how you're going to get the answer, as a result of preparation, they feel good about it.
JK: One of the things I love to ask all of our guests on the podcast is related to our company and our brand. It's around the topic of enlightenment. Enlightenment is defined as the state of having knowledge or understanding. I wanted to ask if you have any special knowledge or skills that set you or your team apart, or if you've got any enlightened stories that you could share with us from your career in insurance?
GG: One of my favorite stories as a broker would have to be when I had placed some coverage. It was a difficult placement for a genetic testing lab out west. It took some time to get.
JK: I think that's actually one thing that people take for granted. Sure, you can get insurance - people can get insurance, but then you start to think about these nuanced businesses, like genetic testing. Oh my goodness.
GG: That was what I did. As I mentioned previously, I was in the miscellaneous professional liability business for a long time as an underwriter. It was a private equity company that we represented, and I placed this coverage for a genetic testing lab in New Mexico. It took a while. It wasn't an easy placement. I had to scour the market. I finally got it underwritten in Lloyd's of London.
About a week later, I got a call from a woman who was a breast cancer survivor, and she was starting a startup company. She wanted to get out there and send kits out to women so they could screen themselves for the genetic marker for breast cancer. She had a startup business, and she was going to use the genetic testing lab that I had just placed coverage for as her lab.
I helped her out, but it wasn't easy. It was easy to cover the lab because they were doing the actual testing, but trying to find an underwriter to understand what this woman was doing - it was almost like contingent genetic testing Errors and Omissions coverage because she wasn't doing the testing.
JK: She was selling it, though.
GG: The underwriters were a little worried about it. I worked really hard to find reasonably-priced coverage for her so she could start this business and get it going. That was pretty cool. You don't come across too many examples to help somebody in that kind of context. I felt like I was helping out a little bit for a larger issue.
JK: You think about her and what her alternatives would have been. You think about agents, why they're important, and how they help people find the coverage they need. The alternative is appealing - 'I can just go do this myself.' I can't imagine that woman trying to go through the experience of finding a carrier directly who's going to get her coverage.
Yeah, there's no way. This was super-specialized. You really have to walk the underwriter through their fears and you have to find an underwriter that's willing to understand where the exposure lives. It was good. It was a great experience to help her, and you're right, Jason; she would not have had an alternative. If she couldn't get the coverage through me, or any other broker for that matter, she wouldn't be able to run the business - there's too much risk. In fact, I think that the genetic testing lab was making her a carrier, so she wouldn't have been able to even open her doors without it.
DG: That's a great story, Greg. And a big example of why we're doing this podcast, determination, tenacity, and creativity, and certainly, you're right. Nobody's going to get that kind of insurance by pointing and clicking on the screen, are they?
GG: Not yet. Maybe in the future, but not anytime soon, that's for sure. This takes relationships, communicating, good, clear, honest information, and talking things through.
JK: Also knowledge and experience, which you can't bottle. You have underwriting experience, you know the companies out there, or at least have connections to the companies out there who could help, even possibly. Then you use perseverance and grit to get the job done, so kudos to you.
GG: It's also trust. The underwriter I was working with knows me, and they trust me. A lot of times, I would tell them this is a tough risk - you might want to do this, add this exclusion. I had a lot of street cred anyway because I would help underwriters see things that maybe they should be worried about.
In this scenario, I told them I had placed the coverage for the actual genetic testing lab also, so I was able to provide a lot of information around that. It worked out.
JK: Your credibility mattered there as well, which is awesome.
GG: That's all you have, really, when you're a broker.
DG: Well, Greg, I trust you, and I have enjoyed this conversation. It's been a pleasure to have you on, and thanks for making time for us today.
GG: I appreciate the opportunity, guys. Thanks very much.