Jeremy Perlman, Vice President at CBIZ Borden Perlman, joins Broker Buddha CEO Jason Keck for a conversation how learning to say "no" transformed his career and why it's getting hard to find insurance products for the emerging businesses of our times.
Learn more about CBIZ Borden Perlman here.
Jason Keck: Hi, and welcome to another episode of The Enlightened Agent, the podcast that brings you conversations with top insurance professionals and industry leaders. My name is Jason Keck, and I'm joined today by Jeremy Perlman, vice-president at CBiz Borden Perlman. Jeremy, welcome to The Enlightened Agent.
Jeremy Perlman: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
JK: We're excited to have you here. Look, you and I have known each other for a few years now and even had the opportunity to hang out socially in New York and Las Vegas - stories that I won't share here on the podcast. For the sake of our listeners, can you tell them who Jeremy Perlman is and what do you do today?
JP: Absolutely. I'm a pretty new father; I have a 10-month-old son. I'm a husband, and I am vice-president at Borden Perlman, but my role would be most accurately described in our industry as a producer. It's a word that I really don't like because people have no idea what that means. It sounds like you work in the creative movie or TV industry, which couldn't be further from the truth. Or it sounds like a producer when you think about it - totally focused on sales and bringing in new business, which sounds sleazy. I think insurance people already get that moniker or the assumption that you are that, just because of the way that people think about insurance.
JP: Unfairly. Yes, absolutely. Look, there are sleazy, scummy people in every industry. But I do think if you look at the rankings of where people view different industries, insurance falls very close to the bottom of the list.
JK: Got it. Okay. Well, maybe help our audience understand, for those who don't know what a producer is or may be new to insurance. Beyond being a salesperson, what's involved with it, at least, for you? I'm sure it's different across different agencies, but what does it mean for you to be a producer at Borden Perlman?
JP: I can liken it to other industries where people may have more familiarity. You're like a financial advisor. That person is responsible for taking care of their clients, growing their business, bringing in new clients, and creating new relationships. Ultimately that's all centered on helping people solve problems and deal with certain aspects of their life or their business that really matter to them. They need to pay a professional to do some work for them that they're not able to do themselves. So that's what we do with our clients from an insurance and risk management standpoint.
JK: Got it. How long have you been doing that now?
JP: Coming up on seven years. I joined Borden Perlman back in 2014 on a full-time basis, but I was the fourth generation of my family in the business. I've been around the insurance industry since I was a little kid, talking about insurance at the dinner table and hearing my dad and grandfather talk about it with each other. It's really always been a part of my life, but in terms of how I pay my bills, that started in 2014.
JK: Very cool. Fantastic. Yeah, there are a lot of other multi-generation insurance agencies out there. It's amazing, I'm sure, how much you pick up at the dinner table or in casual car rides or otherwise about what happens. Then you show up on the job, and all of a sudden, you know a lot more about this than you thought you did. Here you are seven years in as a vice-president and probably kicking ass in the business. Seven years is a long time in any role. I suspect you enjoy at least parts of it, but what are some of the things you love about what you do?
JP: The thing that I love the most is becoming that trusted partner for our clients. I really focus on working with middle-market businesses, privately-held companies that are between a hundred and a thousand employees. Becoming one of those people that they go to when they need to make critical decisions about how to operate and grow their business - that, to me, is the most interesting part.
We'll probably talk about this at some point, but several months ago, we went through a merger with a much larger company, CBiz, which is why we're now CBiz Borden Perlman. But before that, I was a part-owner of Borden Perlman, so I was a part of the critical decisions we were making. To then be a part of those discussions with my clients about their businesses, I found it totally fascinating.
I could draw on the experiences that I had running our own business, making decisions about personnel, health insurance, benefits, about all different things, but then in different industries with our clients. That's the most exciting part. It's also the hardest thing to do because typically, people view insurance as a commodity and not as something where you're their partner.
JK: I was thinking about that. Of all the things that people think about with respect to insurance agents - you think about somebody who's knowledgeable about insurance, who's helping you get coverage for your business. I don't think a lot of people say I go to my agent, producer, or manager for advice on my business, but I bet a lot of them actually do. This is a person who's experienced, senior and intelligent, and they're also not necessarily in my business. If I were looking for some advice from another intelligent person who I trust, because most people do trust their agents, then I could see why an agent would be someone you go to. To your point, this is what you do for your business, and also, you do this for a lot of other businesses. I think that's an interesting role that I don't think people associate with agents. Very cool.
JP: Yeah. The other beautiful thing for our clients about it is that we typically don't charge by the hour, whereas most of their other "trusted advisors" charge by the hour. We joke internally, saying, 'Wow, if only we charged by the hour, things would be a lot different!' But it's good, though, because our clients feel like they can call us and actually spend the time on the phone with us, and we're not on the clock.
JK: There's a layer that I discovered early in my time in insurance around risk management, which is often paid for as a consulting service. There are businesses that need risk managers, and whether they're internal or external, that's a real thing. As you get to a certain size, there's risk to be managed. It sounds like, in the middle market where you operate, you play a little bit of that role for your clients. Is that correct and accurate, or do you work with external risk managers in what you do?
JP: Our target market and most of our clients are at the size just below where you would have an in-house risk manager. A handful of our clients have a chief legal officer or someone else that's responsible for risk management. It could be a safety manager if they have a warehouse-type of operation, but typically they don't have someone full-time on staff who's their risk manager. We've built our team around that. For example, we have a claims department and a senior director of claims. We have a director of loss control who spent his whole career in the safety and loss control industry. We wear those different hats for our clients so that they don't have to have an internal person do it.
JK: Got it. Awesome. Great. That sounds like you're saving them some money; hopefully, it's being appreciated. One of the things I try to do on the podcast is bring out the stories of the people we talk to on the show. I like to hear a lot, not necessarily about how you got into insurance. I feel that's a cliche - how did you get into insurance? Everybody has a story there, but I like to hear about the events that have really made up people's careers. I'm curious about what one or some of those events might've been. You said you started seven years ago. Were there any aha moments or significant events that really changed the direction of the progression of your career?
JP: I think so. I wouldn't say it's like a specific day or a story, but something that really clicked at a certain point was when I had the confidence to say no to suspects or prospective clients that were calling us and wanted to potentially use our services or buy insurance from us. Like I said, we don't charge by the hour. My time is valuable because there's always that opportunity cost. If I'm spending the time talking to this person that's probably never going to buy from us and is just looking to lower their costs, that's time I can't spend doing something else, which may ultimately drive greater economic returns in the future.
But people will always want your time and more of it than you may want to give them. So having that confidence in myself and valuing myself to the point to say, look, I'm sorry, this isn't a good fit. This isn't the right partner for you.
JK: Yeah, I'm not the person who's going to help you on this.
JP: And honestly educating people about why it's not a good fit. I've gotten yelled at a few times.
JK: Yeah. But you don't want to be a jerk. You have to do it in a polite way. You have to let people down. And, to your point, you have to educate them. For a lot of people, insurance isn't their first love, so they don't understand it all.
JP: Absolutely. Most of the time, we're talking to business owners; whether they own a pizza shop or a small nonprofit or a huge business, we are typically talking with the decision-makers, the business owner. If I can have that discussion with them about why it doesn't make economic sense for us to do business together, they're usually pretty understanding. If I can turn it around in some way to say if I came into your pizza shop and stood there for 30 minutes asking you to taste all the different slices and then asking you about where you got the ingredients from, you would just kick me out. You'd say it's not worth the $2 of a slice that you might buy at this point; just get out.
JK: It reminds me of taking my kids to the ice cream shop and all the different tastes they wanted at Baskin-Robbins. Can I try that one? Can I try that one? And then they buy a kiddy scoop for $1.99.
JP: Yeah. And thankfully, usually at Baskin-Robbins, the person that's standing there doesn't give a rip whether you buy 30 quarts of ice cream or one kiddy cup. They probably want you to buy one kiddy cup because then they don't have to stand there scooping the ice cream for 30 minutes.
JK: But the business owners, they're sitting there thinking, there's other work to be done here, and you're digging into my ice cream.
JK: I get it. How far along in your journey were you? Do you remember when that was?
JP: I'd say it was probably three years or so into it. We hired an executive vice president in 2017, so that was about three years into my career here. His coming on board with his prior experience, working on larger accounts in a very different way than we had been, I think is really what catalyzed that for me.
Got it. You've got to have good mentors in this space, and having people to help you see that is important. It takes a while to build enough relationships where you feel like you've got a set of clients who need you, and you know you're starting to let them down if you take on too much. That doesn't happen overnight for anybody in this space. Continuing on the storytelling angle, I'm curious to know what's changed since you started working in insurance. I know you've been more than just when you started seven years ago - your whole life has been related to insurance. What's changed, and what do you think still needs to change?
JP: That's a good question. I think what has changed from the agent's perspective is that our client's businesses are becoming more complex. The barriers to starting businesses have gotten so much lower. The things that I hear people doing are not like your typical things from 30 or 40 years ago.
With technology and access to capital, there are so many creative things going on, but insurance companies are becoming less creative in their underwriting. There's a disconnect there where our clients come to us, and they say, 'Hey, I'm starting this business, and I need insurance.' We go out to the insurance marketplace to our partners and say, 'Hey, we need insurance coverage for this business.' It doesn't fit in their little box that they have. That box is getting tighter and thicker, so it's getting stronger, and it's all based on predictive analytics and predictive modeling.
The underwriters used to be people who would look at risks and help price risks, and really be thoughtful and creative. Those classic, old-school underwriters are disappearing. They're retiring; they're not disappearing magically. Underwriters now are much different, the way they handle things, what their responsibilities are, what the expectations of them are. It's definitely very challenging: that balance with our clients, their expectations of how easy it should be to place their business, and then the insurance companies of how tight their box is of what they can and can't do.
JK: Yeah. We went through an accelerator program last year called BrokerTech Ventures; a lot of people know that. There's a company going through that program this year called Relativity6, and their whole focus is around helping categorize businesses. Insurance is often based on class codes. What type of business are you, and what type of risks do you have? That's how they figure out how to put you in their underwriting box. But to your point, the pizza shop may not just be the pizza shop anymore. They might be a pizza shop and sell merchandise, and then they've got an online delivery business. Then the entrepreneur that started the shop gets really creative, so under the same company structure, he is running something else out of the back of his office. All of a sudden, how do you underwrite that, and how do you get insurance for it?
I could see why that gets more and more complicated. We had another company on the podcast called Assurely that is specifically focused on spinning up new insurance products based on scenarios like this. I realize you can't underwrite every single unique situation, but if you can start to find patterns of companies doing similar things that can't get coverage, there's an opportunity there. That's where some of the digital MGAs and new players in the space have opportunity. Hopefully, they'll find good carriers to back them in the long run. Interesting.
What else? What's changed is that companies are not as simple as they used to be. What do you think needs to change? Anything in the space that has to go, come, or has to be different?
JP: One thing, and I always think about this when you and I talk because I think you guys are doing really exciting things from a technology standpoint to help make both the client and the agent's experience better. There's, I don't know if it's trillions, but there are hundreds of billions of dollars that are going towards insurtech, right? This subset of fintech, which is specifically focused on insurance. What I see is most of these companies are really focused on either lower-end personal insurance, auto stuff, renter's insurance - Lemonade is a good example of that - or small business insurance. That experience is becoming more seamless and convenient for buyers.
There are great websites and great platforms. You can get quotes quickly. You can download apps to access your auto ID card and things like that. But once you get outside of that average personal insurance and small business, it goes back to 1995. We're still sending faxes to each other with handwritten applications. It's just a very inconvenient process.
More and more now, peers of mine in their early thirties are moving into higher-level management or executive roles at larger companies that are spending a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, a million dollars on insurance. They are baffled by the process for securing insurance, renewing insurance, for doing all insurance things. A small business could do all those things much more easily because it's more repeatable. These tech companies are really focused heavily on that space.
JK: Obviously, this is a space we live in; we breathe in this. A lot of people don't understand. If I've got a couple of million-dollar business, and I'm applying for insurance, I don't necessarily want to get a real time quote and buy. There's a lot more that goes into that. But I also don't want to send faxes around and have to scan documents. What do you think is missing from that journey as a buyer? Put yourself in your client's shoes. At Broker Buddha, we have our smart forms and have the ability to gather data and generate documents, but that's becoming a thing - agents are adopting that. What else in that client journey do you think is missing? If you were a buyer, what would you expect to see that maybe you don't have today?
JP: One of the things that makes it really complicated is we ask for a lot of information, and people don't understand what we're asking for or why. Often, a lot of the questions we ask aren't just general things about their business. If you ask someone when was the last time your building's electrical system was updated? Who knows that? I don't know that about my house or the building that I'm sitting in right now. It's not only like the format in which we ask for it, but the information that we ask for is very challenging. There are drones flying overhead all the time, collecting information about buildings and things like that.
The more centralized some of those information and data points can be, possibly the easier it is because the insurance companies need that. Our clients try to say, why do you need that? Well, they're trying to assess the risk of a fire. They have very sophisticated models that help them do that based on how old the roof is and when the electrical system and heating system were last updated, and all that. Our clients don't really care about that. They just want to get to the endpoint as quickly and painlessly as possible.
JK: It came to mind - better collaboration tools. If you're in a building and you need to send that question to somebody else. In the data-gathering exercise, some questions are about the business, but some questions are about the property. You don't necessarily have all the answers as the business owner or the person managing the insurance. Really landing that collaboration process, not just between you, Jeremy, and your client, but between the client and the other stakeholders that they have in their business. It feels like we're just at the tip of the spear on that with some of the tools that are out there. So interesting. The other thing that comes to mind is information management, process management, workflow management. Okay, I need to know - we're getting ready to go through my insurance renewal. What happens first? What happens second? What are you doing now that I've given you the information? Who are you working with? An overall timeline and status could be an interesting value add for the insured. Okay, I sent you all my stuff. Now what? I haven't heard from you in a week or two weeks. I'm sure you're working on it, but I don't know what's going on. Interesting. Good product riffing opportunities here.
JP: Yeah. I think that's a great point because it's not just something that's unique to insurance. In general, when you're working with someone else, and you're waiting on information, there's just generally, in our economy, a lack of updating.
JK: Yeah, transparency. What's happening? Are you doing anything or not? I know I'm paying you a lot of money for this, so I hope you're doing something.
JP: And even if you don't have an answer now, just tell me that you're working on it. You just want that peace of mind. Right now, how does that happen? I have to remember to send someone an email or call them or text them, say, Hey, we're still working on this. And then I'm setting reminders to remind them. It's pretty inefficient, but it's important. I know as a consumer of things. I was just in with my state attorney dealing with our wills after our son was born. 'I haven't heard from you in four weeks. Does this take that long? What's going on here? Did you forget about it? Just let me know.'
JK: Yeah, silence is tough. Interesting. We started talking about change a little bit. The industry is going through a lot of change with the amount of consolidation happening. You guys just went through a pretty significant event here. Can you tell us a little about what happened with the company and the new setup?
JP: Yeah, absolutely. We were an independent insurance agent owned by the Bordens and the Perlmans for over a hundred years, and we were not looking to make any significant changes in terms of how we were structured, but the right partner came along at the right time, which is CBiz. They're a national financial services company. They're one of the top ten accounting firms in the country, but they have a growing insurance division. They really gave us the opportunity to partner with them and draw on their significant resources but continue to operate pretty independently.
Of course, they have expectations of us. There are metrics that we need to meet, but an account manager in our office or a standard employee has seen very little change in what they do and how they do it on a daily basis. Yes, their paycheck comes from a different company, and they have different health insurance, but day to day, their manager is the same, the way that we do business is the same. That was very exciting for us because that wasn't something that we were willing to change.
JK: What about your clients? One of the things that I always wonder about in the space is, in many ways, consolidation is good for the acquiring company and for the company being acquired. What does it mean for your clients? Does it make life better or worse? What happens at the end of the day?
JP: It doesn't make it worse. I think, for the most part, most of our clients, other than the fact that our logo in our email is different now, they probably don't really see much change at all. As an advantage, though, with CBiz, their property and casualty business is several times the size that Borden Perlman was before we joined them. We now have access to more insurance companies than we had before. We have more leverage with those insurance companies. For example, Travelers can use that.
We did a certain amount of premium with Travelers. CBiz does six or seven times that amount of premium. We have more buying power and more leverage in the marketplace than we did before. But at the same time, a lot of agents sell to a private equity firm; they sell to a publicly traded insurance broker, and their model is based on cutting expenses by 30, 40% to make the numbers work, to make that acquisition price work.
CBiz does not operate that way. We haven't had to reduce our service team at all. Typically, if a company or an agent sells to a publicly traded broker, the number of service staff is going to be reduced. That's where you'd say, okay, this isn't good for the client because there are fewer people to help them now, but we don't have to do that at all. That was another thing that was critical to us in going through this process with CBiz. We want this to benefit our clients.
For example, CBiz is an accounting firm, so their IT security is so strong because of the sensitivity of the information that they deal with that now our clients benefit from that. We handle a lot of sensitive information as well, but for us to invest millions of dollars in IT security as a company doing 15 million in revenue, it's not possible. We can't make the numbers work to do that.
JK: There are definitely some wins there, and it sounds like it doesn't fall into that classic category where there may be a client impact from a service perspective. I'm happy to hear that. Speaking of clients and the benefits they get, I love hearing stories on this podcast about how our agents have been helpful for clients. I always like to tie it back to what we do. Enlightenment is defined as the state of having knowledge or understanding. This podcast, for me, when I started it, was all about finding enlightened agents who really make a difference for their clients. We talked before the show about a pretty awesome pandemic-related thing that you guys did for one of your clients where you were able to have an impact. Can you tell our listeners about that here?
JP: Yeah, absolutely. So we have a lot of clients that are driving schools, as well as some large school bus contractors. As you can imagine, when COVID started, and everything was shut down, they had no business. They really went from bustling companies that they'd built up over many years to doing almost zero in revenue, basically overnight. Each of them has a fleet of vehicles, forty, fifty, a hundred vehicles that used to be their revenue generator, but now that is this cash vacuum because of all the expenses that are associated with each vehicle. You've got maintenance, insurance, and financing costs. What we were able to do is work with our insurance companies on some of these larger accounts that have these huge fleets to do what's called a layup endorsement, where they're basically suspending the insurance for an agreed-upon period of time and not requiring that our clients pay premiums for that period, 30, 60, 90 days. Typically if a client wants to stop paying the premium on a vehicle, they have to sell it or forfeit or.
JK: Or cancel the policy.
JP: Or cancel the policy, which then becomes a whole other problem because you have to cancel a policy for every vehicle. This gave them a lot of flexibility. Of course, the insurance company required them to take off the license plates. They had to lock the keys in a drawer. They had to put a sign on the steering wheel of every vehicle that said not in use and then provide pictures of every vehicle showing this. But it saved our clients; I think some of them probably from going out of business because they didn't really have options. There was no demand for the vehicles, so selling them would be impossible. I'd never heard of a layup endorsement until March 22nd or something of last year, and then it became a huge thing that we were trying to help our clients with.
JK: Did somebody in the company say, Hey, I have this idea. Did the insurance company or your clients call you and say, Hey, can I stop paying? How did you come about this?
JP: I think it started with questions from our clients about if there's anything that we can do. It started from one or two, and then we started looking into what exists out there where you can do this. Internally we had identified a layup endorsement or someone in the company had used them in the past. Then we basically approached the insurance companies and said, Hey, will you do this? Some of them said no. It wasn't across the board that they were willing to do this. Some of them were only willing to do it for a certain period of time. For insurance companies, it's not easy for them to say, sure, we'll forfeit the premium that we've budgeted for the next three or six months. But we did find a lot of partnership from our insurance companies with clients through COVID, trying to help them as best they could.
JK: That's good. I know there were some carriers who were really looking for opportunities to make an impact. If I remember correctly, I think Travelers paid commissions in advance to brokers for upcoming renewals. It was a huge sum of money. I know a lot of the tier one carriers were breaking their backs to try to find solutions. I'm glad to hear that a lot of your partners were helpful, and I'm bummed to hear that some of them weren't, but everybody has to make a business decision when the time is right. Good on you guys to figure that out. We were all scrambling for stuff to do last April/May - it was a unique time.
JP: Absolutely. That was a big example because it went from them paying a hundred percent of their premiums to close to 0% for a period of time. Then also, across the board with our clients, trying to work with them to figure out what changes we can make to our insurance program during this period of time to reduce the impact from a cash flow standpoint. Whether it was delaying payments or if we thought we were going to do 30 million in sales, but now we're going to do 10 million, let's make that change now and see what the savings would be. Again, insurance companies worked with us on that, on a spectrum. Some were super supportive, and with other ones, it was like pulling teeth. We got there for most of our clients and really helped them.
JK: Awesome. Jeremy, this has been, dare I say, an enlightening conversation.
JP: I hope so. I'm glad. It was fun. I liked doing this. I told my wife. I did one podcast and said, I like this podcasting thing. I think I want to continue with it.
JK: I think I can do it. I helped my wife with a school event during the pandemic. I provided color commentary for a pop quiz. She said, hey, you've got a knack for this - you should keep going. I said, 'You know what? This isn't that hard.' We would just get on Zoom calls to have an honest, fun conversation about things that people care about. The next thing you know, we have a podcast. It's been really fun. I've enjoyed having you on the show. Before we wrap up here, is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners?
JP: No, nothing too much. I just appreciate everyone's attention and time spent listening to this. If you've made it this far, that's great. I hope it was interesting. I really respect what Broker Buddha's doing in the space. Like I said, a lot of attention is being put on small business insurance, on that lower end, commoditized, personal insurance, but what you guys are doing spans all sizes of companies and all sizes of brokers. I think that's really important. There's a lot of improvement that we can make, but we need tech people to help us with it. Insurance people are not very good at technology - as much as we try. Thank you to the listeners, and thank you to Jason and your team for all that you're doing.
JK: My pleasure. I appreciate the shout out and thanks for being on the show.
JP: Absolutely. Yeah. Namaste.
JK_ Namaste. Perfect, man. That was awesome. That was exactly what we needed. We've got about 30 minutes in, and I think we got some good stuff in there. We usually pull out a couple of audio bites, and we'll put them into these things called videograms, which are text-on-screen things. We publish one a week and we've got three or four in the backlog right now, so I'll give you a heads up the week before we push those out. We tend to do one post a day with a different audiogram. We'll tag you in the posts, and we'll give you a heads up the week before.
JP: Cool. Thank you.
JK: Cool, man. I'm going to stay and record like a little pre-roll, and then we'll get it over to our editors. I'll hopefully see you soon. Let me know if there's anything CBiz-related. When you think there's an opportunity to poke our heads in there, I'd be interested in having that conversation. We just finished our first Sagitta integration so there could be some interesting discussions with them.
JP: Yeah, absolutely. I'm trying to think of who - it's pretty fragmented.
JK: Don't chase it. If something comes up.
JP: Understood. I don't know if you know - are we the only CBiz broker or office that uses Broker Buddha?
JP: Okay. Also, one thing I realized I didn't mention about CBiz, and I didn't want to interrupt you when you went into The Enlightened Agent thing, but I should have said that CBiz do employee benefits, payroll, HR services, all of that, which now our clients can benefit from. That was a miss on my end.
It's all good. Cool, man. I look forward to seeing you again soon.
JP: Likewise, thanks for having me. Good to see you as always.
JK: See you later.
JP: Be well. See you, Jason.