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Meet Charles Symington, the New Big 'I' President & CEO

Charles Symington reflects on his first 100 days in office and outlines how the Big “I" can support members in the hard market and put them on a course toward growth and prosperity.
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meet charles symington, the new big 'i' president & ceo

Amid the hardest market in a generation, a technological revolution and consolidation within the independent agent and broker channel, Charles Symington, the new Big “I" president & CEO, assumed the mantle of guiding the Big “I" community through these turbulent but promising times on Sept. 1, 2023, after nearly two decades of service at the Big “I" in other roles.

His leadership and experience will undoubtedly be instrumental in helping independent agents and brokers navigate the perfect storm of challenges that has engulfed the channel. As the association is set to change and evolve in 2024 and beyond, Symington sat down with Independent Agent magazine to reflect on his first 100 days in office and outline how the Big “I" can support members to continue them on a course toward growth and prosperity.

What are some of your immediate reflections on your first 100 days as Big “I" president & CEO?

It's been quite a whirlwind. The week after officially becoming president & CEO, we had our Big “I" Board of Directors meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A significant takeaway from that meeting was a top-to-bottom review of all Big “I" programs, resources and services. With new leadership comes a fresh perspective, and we saw this as the perfect time for an extensive assessment. Collaborating with our board, CEOs of state associations and agent leaders, we're pinpointing key services and programs where we truly excel, aiming to focus on our strengths rather than spreading ourselves thin across various areas.

But what has struck me profoundly is the feedback I have received from veteran agents during my travels these past 100 days. Agents with decades of experience are emphasizing the unprecedented difficulty of the current market. It's a national crisis, distinct from prior hard markets, not only in severity but also in its widespread impact across the country. Our members increasingly look to the national association, alongside our state counterparts, for guidance and solutions in navigating this challenging landscape.

Tell us about your work on Capitol Hill and joining the Big “I."

I attended law school at Emory University and when I graduated, I worked for the largest insurance defense firm in Georgia. That's really where I cut my teeth and learned about insurance. After a brief stint working for a small, general practice law firm in Northern Virginia, I found my way onto Capitol Hill.

I started my work on the Hill with the House Energy and Commerce Committee—focusing mainly on health care—and then moved over to the House Financial Services Committee. That's where I specialized in insurance. I worked on important pieces of legislation that impact the property & casualty marketplace, most notably the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. There I learned about the Big “I" and their advocacy prowess. Then, in 2004, the top lobbying position opened up at the Big “I" and I jumped at the chance.

Can you talk about some of our government affairs accomplishments during your time as our top lobbyist?

We have chalked up a number of wins for our members the past 20 years, whether it's on the tax front or the regulatory front. And when we do member surveys, advocacy is always at the top of the list for our members. But translating that into tangible returns for our members can always be a challenge. We always highlight those wins, whether it's tax cuts or avoiding certain regulatory requirements that are coming out of Washington, D.C., to show that value for our members.

How did your legal background prepare you for an insurance career?

Going to law school and then practicing law the way I did helps you think through issues and take that critical perspective. And after my experience in insurance defense litigation, I continued to use that law degree on Capitol Hill as an insurance counsel and it enabled me to get a perspective from a public policy vantage point. I like to jokingly refer to myself as a “recovering attorney,"—but my law degree certainly gave me that important foundation.

What makes the Big “I" such a strong force in government advocacy?

The Big “I" is very different from other insurance trade associations. Because of our confederation structure and having a Big “I" association in every state, we have boots on the ground and representation in all the state capitals with all the governors' offices, with all the state legislatures, and, most importantly, with all the individual insurance departments. Being a state-regulated business, that's all important. There is no other insurance trade association that can say that. I call it the great differentiator.

What do you enjoy most about working with independent agents and brokers?

First, I really do love their entrepreneurial spirit. It's that kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that I think has made this country what it is. Second, I've always respected how our members have their fingers on the pulse of their communities. They're a true barometer of what their clients are experiencing, and our members have their tentacles in almost every facet of their towns and cities. You can't say that about a lot of professions. If you really want to know what's happening in communities, what people are thinking about and what voters care about, you go talk to independent agents.

How does their work make a difference?

I'll steal a line from Mike McBride, Big “I" chairman. He likes to say, “Our profession is both a noble one and a necessary one." It's a noble one because our members serve their clients in their greatest time of need. When there's a loss or when their clients need assistance, our members are there for them. But it's also a necessary one. And this is where I'll quote my former boss and former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Mike Oxley (R-Ohio). He would say, “Insurance is the glue that holds the economy together." Without insurance, commerce doesn't work. The economy doesn't move forward. You can't drive a car. You can't own a house for the most part. You can't run a business. Insurance is critical and necessary to commerce and our economy.

How is the Big “I" supporting members in the hard market?

This is a complicated and multifaceted problem, so we're attacking it from various angles. We're heavily investing in our market access programs to provide members with those all-important markets. We have some technology upgrades that should be done by the springtime, and throughout the year, we'll be focused on attracting new carriers to join the market access programs.

We're having some tough conversations with the leadership of carrier partners, telling them what these underwriting and compensation changes mean for their distribution force. We're also engaging policymakers both at the state and federal level, which is one of the things we do best. Trusted Choice® has also done a great job putting out resources, such as the Hard Market Toolkit, to help agents have difficult conversations with their clients and explain the value of an independent agent in this market.

I can tell you one thing—I'd much rather be an independent agent than a captive agent or a direct writer in this environment. What's our strength? It's choice. It's customization. It's advocacy. We have a constriction in our markets, but we have multiple markets. When challenges arise, opportunity follows. That's why I see this as an opportunity to highlight the strengths of the independent agency system and what sets it apart from our competitors.

How is the Big “I" helping members with technology?

Trusted Choice does a lot of work in the digital space, whether it's free digital reviews, digital marketing reimbursement, or TechCompare, which we recently launched. It allows our members to hear from their colleagues about what technology providers have made a difference in their respective businesses. The peer-to-peer communication and comparing of notes is really important.

Many of our state associations have been doing really good work on this as well. They've invested in Catalyit to help our members obtain consulting and guidance for their technology needs. 101 Weston Labs is another endeavor where our states have taken the lead.

There are also some new undertakings that are coming to fruition at One example is ClaimIt. I call it the Uber of insurance because it can connect agents with customers on a minute-by-minute basis. Of course, there is also the Big “I" Agents Council for Technology (ACT), which brings various stakeholders together so they can all be singing from the same hymn sheet.

Any technology challenges no one is talking about?

The next big question mark will be “who owns the customer data?" Do insurance agents own their data like they own their expirations? Is it technology vendors? Or is it carriers? These are very important matters where the Big “I" and ACT can play a key advocacy role for our members. 

How is the Big “I" improving its technology to better serve members?

We're actively advising our members on how to enhance their technology game. But as an association, we need to do the same thing. We're undertaking a major investment in our content management system, association management system and marketing capabilities.

Gone are the days of bombarding our members with everything we do, expecting them to sift through it all. We need focus on what matters to each individual member. By pinpointing their priorities, we can concentrate on what truly makes a difference for them. This approach helps us cut through the noise and reach our members effectively. Moreover, it empowers our members to better understand the support provided by both the national and state associations.

When I travel and provide national updates, I often hear people say: “I didn't know you did that." We aim to bridge this gap, ensuring they comprehend the scope of what we offer on the issues that hold the most significance for them.

What are some things that you're looking forward to?

A lot of the projects we've got in the pipeline are going to come to fruition in 2024, so I'm looking forward to bringing them to a conclusion. In addition to all those irons we've got in the fire, there's a very important election in 2024 and the Big “I" will do what we do best: advocating for our members.

Of course, I always look forward to the Legislative Conference. That'll be my first Legislative Conference as president & CEO. Even though it'll be my 20th, it'll be through a new lens. I look forward to welcoming our members and friends in the carrier ranks to Washington, D.C., so that we can advocate on behalf of the independent agency system and the p&c marketplace.

Will Jones is IA editor-in-chief.

Thursday, February 1, 2024
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