Of all the awful things that happened in 2020 — pandemic deaths, restaurant and retail closings, a hotly divisive presidential election — what cost American employers the most?
Not acts of government, but of God, says one expert who makes his living measuring damage and planning for more damage ahead.
“We had losses because of social unrest and COVID, but they were not material in the grand scheme of things. Hurricanes and wildfires were much more significant, in terms of impact to the bottom line,” says John W. Glomb, who will take over as chief executive of the 2,600-employee, Bala Cynwyd-based Philadelphia Insurance Cos. (PHLY) on Friday.
If year-end industry data expected early in 2021 bear out what Glomb has tracked so far, climate change will prove to be the biggest story in 2020, at least in financial terms.
After extra-destructive fire seasons in California and other Western states, and storm damage from Texas to the Carolinas, “these catastrophes now appear to be an annual occurrence” — so he and other underwriters who price business risk and insurance are projecting higher property insurance premiums in the same sunny but lately disaster-haunted states that have been leading U.S. growth in recent decades.
Glomb, a Connecticut native who has two degrees from Penn, was his firm’s chief underwriting officer for the last nine years, charged with pricing policies so the company makes a profit but stays competitive with other insurers.
He worked at global insurance giant American International Group and Bank of America before joining PHLY in 2007, just before the company was purchased for $6 billion from founder James Maguire and his investors by Japan-based Tokio Marine Group.
The company has continued to expand its national sales force and grown sales in the specialized markets that Maguire built, including colleges, religious institutions, and other nonprofits, sports teams, small-business directors’ and officers’ insurance, and car collectors, among others.
Under Glomb’s past boss and mentor, Bob O’Leary, the company has added environmental, accident, corporate, surety, and health divisions, among others. O’Leary will stay on as board chairman.
Insurers this year have paid many property damage claims from looting that followed protests in Philadelphia and dozens of other cities in the spring after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and in Philadelphia in October, after police fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr.
Though claims were paid, Glomb warned that stores in the Philadelphia neighborhoods like those where drugstores, sneaker, clothing, and hair care stores were targeted can expect more scrutiny on whether they have enough insurance. “There will be more rigor,” he said.
But insurers have been resisting covering much larger losses resulting from business interruptions at restaurants and other retailers stricken by antivirus shutdowns and cutbacks. Courts have generally upheld long-standing clauses that prevent paying business damages from epidemics and other national catastrophes that analysts say would wipe out insurers or force drastically higher prices for all customers if they had to pay.
As with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such large-scale catastrophe costs are at times borne by the federal government, at taxpayers’ expense.
To be sure, Glomb said state legislatures, particularly in California and New Jersey, have barred insurers from canceling small-business policies too rapidly during the pandemic.
Insurers also tempered businesses’ virus pain somewhat by dropping policy prices, too, for places that shut their physical operations and now operate online, he added.
Philadelphia Insurance Cos. has more than doubled its workforce since the Tokio Marine acquisition. This in part reflects the company’s combination with U.S.-based Tokio Marine operations — now run from Philadelphia — and its purchase of a handful of agencies, but most are from new business, Glomb said.
Glomb said the concentration of insurance education programs at Penn, Temple, and St. Joseph’s University has helped the industry in the area. “It’s a very solid pipeline here,” he affirmed.