It’s easy to sell risk management in a hard market. But when premiums start to plummet and capacity is plentiful, it takes a truly dedicated, disciplined and even courageous independent agency to walk away from prospects who only want quotes for the lowest price, and don’t share a commitment to loss control, safety and lowering the overall cost of risk. Such fortitude is largely what set this year’s finalists apart from the pack in the sixth annual National Underwriter Commercial Insurance Agency of the Year award program.

“We don’t peddle policies and get in bidding wars,” emphasized David Becker, president of Cottingham & Butler, 2007′s champion, which managed to build a growing national brokerage business (complete with some impressive captive programs) out of its modest headquarters in Dubuque, Iowa.

“We help our clients understand the insurance marketplace, not just shop it,” is C&B’s mantra, noted Mr. Becker. “When the market is soft, we help them understand that, and potentially adjust their appetite for risk…We thrive serving clients who take on more risk–who are willing to bet on themselves and make the investments necessary to make that a winning bet.”

Echoing that risk management philosophy were the two agencies receiving well-deserved honorable mentions. All three finalists put their money where their mouths are, determined to avoid prospects from clients who don’t share their loss control approach.

“Too often, clients try to make it all about the premium,” noted David McKinney, CEO of J. Rolfe Davis Insurance in Maitland, Fla., which seeks to become a “strategic business partner” rather than merely a price shopper for clients.

“If you want to create an auction, you should hire an auctioneer,” added JRD’s president, John Turner.

Our third winning agency–Gillis, Ellis & Baker–has the most exciting story to tell, after not only surviving but prospering in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. GEB’s harrowing and inspirational tale is even more impressive given the fact–as its president, W. Anderson Baker III, pointed out–that the market “certainly isn’t softening down here” in The Big Easy.

Indeed, the fact GEB practiced what it still preaches to clients–an overriding commitment to risk management–kept the agency in business to serve its devastated clientele and spurred growth in the midst of the worst conditions imaginable.

GEB’s disaster-recovery plan “allowed us to increase our penetration in the market,” noted Mr. Anderson. “Certainly, that was not the design–the design was our survival–but it had that effect.”

To learn the secrets of their success, please read the profiles of our award winners by clicking on “Agency of the Year” under “This Week” in the upper left-hand corner of our Web page, or by clicking on “Associated Stories” at the end of this file.

While I chose the three finalists, I want to thank the two industry leaders who joined me to pick this year’s champion–Bobby Reagan, president of Reagan Consulting in Atlanta (who helped me set the criteria for the award when we launched back in 2002), and Paul Hering, CEO of last year’s champion, Barney and Barney in San Diego.

For more insights from our three winning agencies, read the coverage of NU’s annual roundtable discussion on “The Future of the Independent Agent” in our Oct. 29 edition.

I also want to thank all those agencies that entered this year–far more “winners” than we have space to honor. The competition is always steep, but if you reapply next year (or enter for the first time), perhaps you, too, will receive national recognition as a role model for your peers.

I look forward to hearing from you!