Risking It All for Surveyors

May 1, 2005
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Most people probably wouldn't be thrilled if someone referred to their newborn child as "the plumb bob." But as an insurance agent who works primarily with land surveyors, I understand that this nickname for my son conveys genuine affection from my main group of clients. My agency insures about 3,000 surveyors nationwide, accounting for 80 percent of our business. Specializing in providing insurance for surveyors has been well worth the risk I took years ago.

Discovering Land Surveyors

My relationship with surveyors began 15 years ago when I was a partner at an agency that wrote all lines of insurance. One of our walk-in clients, who was looking for commercial auto insurance, was a land surveyor. My conversation with him soon expanded to the rest of his coverages, including professional liability insurance. He told me he thought the insurance industry didn't seem to know that land surveyors even existed, and that all he could get was a professional liability policy designed for architects and engineers.

After I put together the best package of coverages I could for him, he suggested that I look into developing a program for his profession. I got in touch with my state's surveying society, the Professional Land Surveyors of Colorado (PLSC), to learn more about its members. To understand land surveyors' insurance needs, I researched their backgrounds and businesses, and found that some surveyors work in one-person shops generating almost $100,000 in annual billings, while others are employed in companies that earn $10 million to $12 million of work a year. I realized through these findings that my client was right; there should be a market for providing insurance to surveyors.

Once I got a solid understanding for what land surveyors do and for the exposures they face, I worked with an insurance company to develop a customized package product for land surveyors that covered everything except professional liability insurance. In this package, one specialized extension to the property form provides coverage for surveying equipment on and off premises. An accident involving an instrument may leave no external evidence of damage, but if its calibration is no longer exact, its use could create a professional liability exposure for the surveyor. Therefore, under our program the insurer is required to pay for the replacement of equipment if its accuracy can no longer be guaranteed. The property is even covered if it is in someone else's care, custody or control, such as a delivery service.

After the insurance company committed to offering the package policy and the PLSC endorsed me, I began selling the program to surveyors. In 1998, I left the agency I was with and founded Assurance Risk Managers.

Specializing Offers More for Surveyors

Since its founding seven years ago, my company has grown to eight employees. The package product we offer at Assurance Risk Managers for the surveying professional includes general liability, property (premises and equipment), workers' compensation, commercial auto, umbrella insurance-and everything else a typical small business might need. Separately, we provide professional liability insurance for surveyors. Stand-alone insurance companies generally won't write professional liability policies for surveyors unless they are covered as contractors. We look at surveyors as professionals who offer a service, rather than as subcontractors; this approach significantly reduces their liability.

Land surveyors involved in residential or commercial construction should ensure their professional liability policies do not have a construction defects exclusion. When mold or other damage arises from alleged construction defects, property owners typically sue most everyone involved in the project. Land surveyors are eventually dismissed from the suits, but they do need defense coverage. It's desirable to get defense costs covered "first-dollar" so that surveyors do not have to pay their deductible for the litigation required to dismiss them from the suit. Full retroactive coverage is also available for surveyors. Project-specific policies also can be arranged if a surveyor is required to have a higher amount of coverage for a certain job.

What It Takes to Insure a Surveyor

To get the best coverages possible for our clients, we strive to give underwriters as much information as we can. For the professional liability quote, we require surveyors to complete an application and attach a list containing details on up to five of their projects. We also ask for specimen copies of surveyors' professional services contracts, sample brochures and addresses for their websites. In addition, we request résumés of all employees authorized to sign maps, drawings and other documents, which typically includes all of the licensed land surveyors and civil engineers in the firm. Since the documents these professionals sign and stamp become court records, underwriters want to be assured that anyone signing them is qualified to do so.

The application asks for a detailed breakdown of the client's billing in the current and past year, as well as a projection for the year ahead. I advise clients to be as realistic as possible with these projections and to be as accurate as possible in the breakdown. The percentages of revenue derived from work on highways, subdivisions, condos, etc., affect the premium significantly. Underwriters look closely at the amount of work involving residential construction because of the construction defects exposure.

Underwriters also recommend, but do not always require, that land surveyors work with written contracts. Most carriers, however, expect contracts when land surveyors render service under the terms of written work orders from contractors and other clients. If land surveyors work with subcontractors, underwriters expect them to obtain certificates of insurance from the subs naming them as additional insureds.

Our objective is to have underwriters develop relationships with our clients. By fostering a three-way partnership among the underwriter, the client and ourselves, we can often get exceptional things done. For example, when one of our long-time clients had a serious claim that could max out his policy's limit, I sat down with him to make a plan of action.

"You made a mistake," I said. "Tell me some things you can do to prevent this from happening again. Give me something I can take to the underwriter." Together we drafted a letter to describe the changes the insured was making in his operation and explained how we believed those changes would prevent the recurrence of such a claim. In essence, we did our best to "re-sell" the account to the underwriting team. In the end, the insurer renewed it. Understandably, the premium was considerably higher, but the client still obtained coverage cheaper than he could have anywhere else-assuming he could have obtained it at all.

Growing to Fit in with Surveyors

I certainly haven't regretted my decision to specialize in offering insurance to surveyors. Every summer I "go to work" with different clients to see what they do so I can try to find ways to better insure them and lower their premiums. Over time, many clients have told me, "You've become one of us," which I take as a great compliment. Four years ago, when my son was born several weeks prematurely, I was surprised to get call after call of congratulations in my hospital room. One of my clients had sent an E-mail announcement to the members of the state association, congratulating all 386 of them on becoming "uncles" and "aunts" and describing the length and weight of my son in surveyor's terminology. "Essentially," concluded the surveyor who sent out the message, "he's no bigger than a plumb bob."

Working with land surveyors has given me great personal and professional satisfaction. The specialized insurance programs designed for surveyors have enabled me to take the measure of my clients' community and really become part of it. I can't begin to put a price on the mutual trust, loyalty and respect that make up the foundation of my relationship with land surveyors.

Sidebar: Collaborating with State Societies

Several state surveying associations have aided Assurance Risk Managers immensely in marketing my program, which offers their members a product with customized forms and attractive rates. My product, in fact, has become an effective membership recruiting tool for the societies.

I take an active role in the organizations, attending all of their conventions and conducting risk-management seminars for their members. The associations promote my program in their newsletters and publish articles I?ve written on insurance matters. I have been endorsed by the state societies in Colorado, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington and New Mexico, and I am currently working towards endorsement in Mississippi and a few other states. I have worked extensively with the Western Federation of Professional Surveyors (WFPS), and have also started to work with the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

The society I originally began working with, the PLSC, has become an integral part of my life. Currently, I am the acting executive director of the PLSC, and the PLSC office now adjoins mine. I sit on several different PLSC committees, including the education committee and the annual meeting committee. In October 2004, I expanded my office to form the Bill McComber Memorial Library in honor of Bill McComber, PLS, who was known as the "Surveyors' Surveyor." Bill was a close personal friend as well as a surveying mentor to many in Colorado and abroad.

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