Unique insurance partnership continues to add value to MBA membership

Issue July/August 2017 By Mike Vigneux

Terry Welsh vividly remembers the humble beginnings of the MBA Insurance Agency. The notion of a bar association owning its own insurance agency in 1997 was an outside-the-box idea - literally. The business arrived at 20 West Street in a truck, where 30 boxes of client files from broker Alexander & Alexander were unloaded and brought inside to a first-floor conference room.

"On my first day we had no office space. We had no desks. We had no computers. We had nothing," recalled Welsh, who has served as president of the MBA Insurance Agency for all 20 years of its existence.

During the last two decades, the MBA Insurance Agency has grown into one of the most unique business partnerships between a bar association and an insurance agency in the country. The MBA owns the agency, which provides members across the commonwealth with lawyers' professional liability insurance, personal auto and umbrella insurance, health and dental insurance, and life and disability insurance.

"At the time, and continuing throughout its two decades, the agency has showcased the superb talent and creativity that our individual leaders and staff bring to the association," said Martin W. Healy, the MBA's chief legal counsel and COO.

The MBA Insurance Agency is now the largest writer of lawyers professional liability insurance in Massachusetts, providing thousands of MBA members access to exclusive insurance programs designed and negotiated by the MBA's Insurance Committee. The agency is the state administrator for CNA, the largest writer of malpractice insurance in the country. Fifty percent of the lawyers in a firm are required to be MBA members in order to participate in the program.

"Our goal here is to make sure that we get the best price and the best product for the Mass. Bar members," said Welsh. "I'm not out to sell someone the most insurance I can sell them. I'm out to get them what they need so they can run their business."

The big idea

Prior to 1997, the MBA maintained a small insurance program for its members through national broker Alexander & Alexander. The arrangement basically involved the MBA licensing its member list to the broker, who provided the insurance program with input from the MBA's insurance committee. However, AON, a global professional services firm, bought Alexander & Alexander in December 1996, and wanted to gain more control of the existing agreement with the MBA.

It was around this time when Owen Gallagher, a member of the MBA Insurance Committee and founder of the Boston firm Gallagher & Associates, came up with the idea for the MBA to start its own insurance agency. Gallagher, who Welsh refers to as the "guru of insurance in Massachusetts," knew that anyone can own an insurance agency. A non-profit organization like the MBA could absolutely own a for-profit subsidiary insurance agency. But the idea was new and it had never been done before.

Through the strong support of the insurance committee and Susan Waters, the MBA's executive director at the time, the MBA Insurance Agency was born in 1997, with a new insurance company: Coregis.

"It was a situation in which there was a risk and there was an opportunity," remarked Gallagher.

The right man for the job

Once the MBA Insurance Agency was established, someone had to run it. Welsh was a regional vice president for USF&G at the time and had previously worked with Gallagher for many years through his roles at both USF&G and AETNA. Gallagher knew that Welsh was highly-skilled in the areas of property and casualty insurance, and thought he would be an ideal candidate for the job.

Although it was a risk making a leap from a world of business and insurance to a non-profit world of lawyers, Welsh took on the new role and his strong leadership has been a major factor behind the overall success of the MBA Insurance Agency for the last 20 years.

While Gallagher had the initial idea to start the insurance agency and recommended Welsh for the job, he is certain of who should receive the bulk of the credit.

"All the success of the agency I attribute to him. The idea was 5 percent. The execution was 95 percent," said Gallagher. "It was all on his shoulders at that time. He did, and has done, a marvelous job."

In the beginning, it was just Welsh as the sole employee before Tricia Walsh, Stan Carey and David Lee came over from Alexander & Alexander to join the agency.

Welsh said: "Tricia, Stan and David all took a significant career risk to join our start-up agency, but they did it because they wanted to make sure that the members they had taken care of for so many years would continue to be provided with quality service and a familiar name. To this day, Tricia remains committed to making sure that MBA members get the quality service they deserve as members of this organization. We have a staff that truly believes our member-focused message and delivers on it every day. We are fortunate to have this team of dedicated individuals who truly care about doing the right thing for the MBA members."

Welsh admits that the first year was definitely a struggle. Not only was starting a new insurance agency a risk for Welsh and his employees, he also had to get licensed and there was a lack of initial office space at 20 West Street in Boston. Eventually, the agency temporarily moved into room 101 on the first floor before moving to the fourth floor and finally the fifth, where its offices are now located.

In addition to the office space challenges, Welsh was commuting back and forth everyday from Wilbraham to Boston that first year, more than a 165-mile round trip. He'd leave his house every morning at 4:30 a.m. and wouldn't return home until after 7 p.m.

He opened an additional office for the agency in Springfield to expand the insurance program to MBA members in western and central Massachusetts. He also hired Lexie Dietz to help staff the new office, and the agency began writing insurance policies in Springfield.

Armed with the right people, the size of the statewide marketplace and the support of the MBA and its members, the agency was now poised for success.

"I knew the potential was huge for us to do something different that nobody had ever done before," said Welsh.

Both the MBA administration and its members have supported the insurance agency from the very beginning.

"Our officers recognize that the insurance agency is critical to the professional growth and success of our members as they practice," said Healy. "MBA leaders bring their own real world experiences in dealing with other insurers and they have strongly decided that our program will be a standout for its service and extensive and lasting coverage. Our members should know that these policies and coverages have met the test of busy practitioners who want peace of mind to freely practice law."

"Over the years, the officers have been tremendously supportive of the insurance agency. You couldn't ask for more support than the officers have given the insurance agency every single year since 1997," added Welsh. "Without their support and without Marty's support this agency wouldn't be anywhere near as successful as it is."

Benefits to members

Unlike auto insurance in Massachusetts where almost every policy is the same, malpractice insurance policies for attorneys in the state vary significantly. Through its unique structure, the MBA Insurance Agency acts as an advocate on behalf of MBA members to negotiate the best rates with CNA through its insurance committee. The program is MBA-backed, so it's vetted and trustworthy for members.

The policies offered are broad and cover many types of practices. For instance, there are currently other policies in the market that do not include BBO coverage. The comprehensive MBA program provides BBO coverage and cyber coverage for lawyers. The MBA program also offers a retirement tail policy which provides free lifetime coverage for members who have participated in the program for at least three years.

The MBA Insurance Agency also provides a level of personalized customer service that is unmatched in the marketplace. When members call the office, they speak directly to a staff member. When a member is in need of a policy quickly, the agency can turn it around in a day. What started as a one-person operation has now grown to an agency of 10 full-time employees.

A strong financial contributor to the MBA, the agency sponsors several events throughout the association year, including its signature sponsorship of the MBA's Annual Dinner in Boston.

To Welsh, there is one simple rule: MBA members always come first. It's not about selling insurance; it's about providing an excellent member benefit that adds value to the many advantages of being an MBA member.

"If you work with your local insurance agent and you go into their office they've got a wall of plaques - for all the companies they represent. We have one plaque. We have one company, one plaque," said Welsh. "And one focus - MBA members."

One insurance agency. One bar association. One distinctive partnership.