(Networked Insurance Agents)

Full speed ahead" is Networked Insurance Agents' (NIA) call to action as it continues its expansion across the West. NIA is a premier network membership organization that provides small to medium-sized agencies access to preferred, admitted, A rated carriers for commercial lines, workers comp, personal lines and farm/agribusiness, without significant up-front costs often charged by wholesalers. There is no initiation fee, or policy fees, and only a small monthly charge.

Affiliate members remain independent, own 100% of their book of business and maintain their own direct appointments, supplementing their product menus with those offered by NIA. NIA's centralized underwriting staff performs many of the tasks usually handled by agents. With knowledge of more than 60 carriers' appetites, NIA quickly identifies the best carriers for each risk. Dedicated to a 24-hour acknowledgement turnaround time for new submissions, NIA's back-office team uses Internet-based technology to handle endorsements, billing, renewals and customer care questions. Affiliate members enjoy generous commissions (15% on BOPs), premium financing and bonus incentives.

Headquartered in Grass Valley, California, NIA had its beginnings in 1990 as a retail agency. In 1993 its success launched it into the world of "agent networking." Mike Lewis, one of the founders, explains, "We hit the road, knocked on hundreds of doors, and peddled the wares of our new network concept." The concept was well received and in December 2002, NIA was purchased by Strongwood Insurance Holdings. NIA founders Mike Lewis, chairman, and Lee Johnson, president, together with Brent Humes, chief operating officer, are carrying out their expansion plan. Lewis notes, "Our future in the industry is to be a low-cost provider, and we place emphasis on adding value to both the agency as well as the carrier, producing profitable results for both."

"Within the next five to seven years," adds Johnson, "our goal is to be in 20 to 25 states while serving the needs of 2,200 to 2,500 affiliated agents. We're looking for additional members to add to our 675 California independent agents and 100-plus agents in other western states. We have hired regional territorial sales vice presidents (TSVPs) to work with existing affiliates, appoint new affiliates and work with all of them to meet their placement needs and help them grow their agencies. NIA currently has TSVPs servicing California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and we recently hired a new TSVP for Texas. We're currently looking for underwriters so we will have a local presence in Texas."

NIA is also managing its own growth. To ensure the continuing quality of the membership, agencies requesting affiliation with NIA must undergo a thorough application process to confirm a match for the organization as well as its carriers. Optimum candidates sell up to $5 million in annual premium volume, although larger agencies can become affiliates if they have a need for NIA's markets and otherwise fit the NIA model.

Members looking for general preferred programs or niche markets depend on John Erickson, vice president of NIA's special programs department. Current programs include errors and omissions, directors and officers liability, employment practices liability and fiduciary liability. Members have access to professional liability for accountants, lawyers, mortgage brokers, collection agents, computer services, school leaders, real estate agents, training consultants, Web page designers, Internet liability, media liability and miscellaneous professional liability. Specialty programs are available for concrete cutters and janitorial services.

By partnering with carriers, affiliate groups and retail specialists (program managers) that have underwriting expertise in a specific niche, NIA targets proven profitable opportunities in specific classes, continuously refining and enhancing products. The carriers NIA represents include AIG, Chubb, First Specialty, Meadowbrook, Philadelphia Insurance, SAFECO and St. Paul Travelers.

Asked why joining the Target Markets Association was important to NIA, Lewis says, "The association identifies markets that may have otherwise been unreachable. Considering the challenges facing agents in the current marketplace, carriers failing or limiting what classes and coverage they may write, we believe Target Markets will assist us in identifying more stable carriers for our affiliate members.

"We want our carriers and affiliated agents to see the difference between us and other models and recognize our value proposition," Lewis adds. "Our success testifies to the fact that our model is working."

Networked Insurance Agents assists agencies to grow their business and expand their market access. While providing the benefits of networking, NIA allows the independent agency to retain ownership of its business and remain independent. *