It started with a man, 80 years ago, with a passion for needlepoint.
But this man with a passion for needlepoint soon became a man unable to support his needlepoint stores during the Great Depression. So he became a man with a passion for insurance.
Jonah Sterling founded Sterling & Sterling Inc. (S&S), now headquartered in Woodbury, N.Y., in 1932 as a one-man life insurance agency. Since then, the company passed through three generations and transitioned from a principal driven firm to become the professional international sales company it is today.
Third-generation owner, chairman and CEO, David Sterling, worked his way up through the family business: from file clerk to assistant to account executive to sales manager to president to chairman.
“I fell head over heels with the business,” Sterling said. “At Sterling, I knew that if I performed well, I would have an opportunity to work at virtually every level and do everything from sales to claims, which I did. Insurance is my blood.”
When David entered the business in 1978, Sterling & Sterling was generating $2 million in annual revenue. Despite the soft market, S&S now boasts 3 years of consecutive growth and 2011 premiums of more than $450 million. Gross premium growth last year was 20 percent. The company now aims to triple its revenue within the next 5 years.
Staffed with 180 employees, S&S has grown substantially in recent years, both organically and through small acquisitions. Last year the company bought a stake in Ascend Insurance Resources, a boutique aviation and commercial insurance firm out of Park City, Utah, complementing its existing aviation industry practice.
With a book of business comprised of 92 percent commercial and 8 percent personal lines, this multinational insurance firm represents companies including Chubb Group, Zurich, Chartis, CNA and Travelers. It offers services including property-casualty coverage, employee benefits consulting, risk management, loss control, claims management, estate planning and business succession planning.
new ways to innovate
Though net property-casualty premiums written decreased nationwide in recent years, Sterling & Sterling’s sales efforts remained well-insulated from the economic slump. The company adapted to financial trends by adopting a more aggressive strategy, which they hold today—increasing marketing efforts and introducing additional risk management services.
“We are always thinking of new ways to innovate and stay competitive,” Sterling said. “Our three keys are inventing new products, developing relationships and continuing to grow.”
The company—which among others specializes in the food, real estate, amusement, museum, high-tech finance, healthcare and construction industries—works hard to set itself apart from competitors. S&S offers specialty programs with deep discounts and provides loss control and claim management services.
Additional services include aggregate deductible billing adjustments, claim reserve analyses, pursuit of third-party claims and payments for coverage denials.
“Our customers are normally blown away by the services we provide and the money we are able to save them,” Sterling said.
S&S has built a dedicated team of claim consultants. They have pursued third-party claims on behalf of clients, resulting in full repayment by carriers and no out-of-pocket client expenses. One example of Sterling’s advocacy on behalf of a client resulted in payment of $40,000 for additional expenses on an initially denied claim.
Be prepared to constantly move and change
S&S took past periods of good fortune—where even the company’s ties to construction didn’t adversely affect progress—and channeled them toward future success. In an effort to adjust to an ever-evolving market, achieve an effective workflow and lower prices, Sterling & Sterling adopted a platform of empowering management.
Managers are given authority and responsibility. Senior managers are told to create financial and business budgets. They have complete authority in terms of hiring, firing and expenses, as long as they remain within their budgets.
The company also invests in education and mentoring programs for its staff, paying for employees to take CPCU and CIC courses.
By investing in technology, S&S also stays on pulse with the industry. In past years, staff programmers created numerous online quoting engines and integrated the company’s information to Salesforce.com. S&S also uses social marketing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to enhance its selling experience while continuing to develop and update its own website microsites.
“The simplest and most useful piece of advice I can offer is this: be prepared to constantly move and change,” Sterling said. “You will not find a truly successful independent agency that is comfortable with being stagnant.”
S&S also is committed to giving back to the community. The company recently donated $20,000 to the Nassau County Firefighters Museum and Education Center in Long Island to purchase a robotic fire safety dog. In addition, Sterling donated 15 percent of the company’s 2011 profits to various aid programs, including the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, North Shore LIJ Hospital, United Way and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Eighty years ago, a chain of needlepoint stores went bust. Three generations later, this has resulted in a small insurance empire. And looking at the company’s current growth rate and capacity to innovate, Sterling said, the future looks promising.