Tyler Asher, president, independent agency distribution, Liberty Mutual, Safeco and State Auto discusses the 100-year anniversary since Safeco sold its first insurance policy.
This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the first policy written by Safeco. On May 1, 1923, Safeco was founded in Seattle by Hawthorne K. Dent as the General Insurance Company of America, commonly known at the time as “The General." A little over two weeks later, on May 16, the company sold its first insurance policy.
Decades later in 1953, The General formed a new auto-focused subsidiary, SAFECO, which was built to cater to independent agents. SAFECO stood for Selective Auto and Fire Insurance Company of America. An extra “E" was added to the name because SAFCO didn't sound quite right, according to the company. Fifteen years later, the subsidiary was so successful that The General changed its name to Safeco in 1968.
While the name may have changed, what hasn't changed is the company's commitment to independent agents. Safeco first appointed five agencies in eastern Washington in 1923. Today, more than 25,000 agencies are appointed with the company.
“The company has a rich heritage in partnering with independent agents," says Tyler Asher, president, independent agency distribution, Liberty Mutual, Safeco and State Auto. “When Hawthorne K. Dent went into the business, he was considered a maverick at the time because his approach was to only sell through independent agents."
Dent also focused on preferred customers, which is a strategy that has endured after being “borne out of the heritage of the organization," Asher says. He notes that the company's strategy was and is represented by the origins of “S" for selective in the name of the company. “It was a novel approach and agents still play a huge role in putting their best clients with their best partners," he adds.
Another trend emerges in Safeco's history: a track record of innovation. In addition to partnering with agents as frontline underwriters, Safeco was one of the first companies to leverage direct billing through early computers.
In 2023, “we're really just focused on building a foundation for the next 100 years," Asher says. As independent agents embrace technology and play an increasingly influential role in developing day-to-day technology, “we're focused on our own digital transformation and making sure we're incredibly easy for agents to do business with," he says.
The areas where Asher believes the company can add the most value to its agent relationships include creating easier quoting and servicing capabilities, leveraging mobile apps and online platforms, removing transactional tasks from workflows, and providing customers with on-demand options so agents can focus on loyalty-building and revenue-generating activities.
In addition to research that the company shares via its Agent for the Future Program, which provides resources on hiring, diversity, technology and more, Safeco is focused on ensuring its products are suitable for the current marketplace.
“We are always focused on what we can do from a product innovation standpoint and making sure that we continue to stay on the leading edge on the coverages and solutions that we provide in the personal lines and small commercial space," Asher says.
In the hard market, where carrier appetite and capacity have reduced and premiums have risen across the board, Asher says that “underwriting excellence is a huge area of focus" and Safeco “continues to push the envelope on advances in underwriting, whether that's aerial imagery or being selective on risks."
And as the U.S. enters wildfire season, granular data, analytics and mapping related to brush, proximity to a fire hydrant, elevation and slope are key data points for understanding risk. But as the inflationary environment raises construction costs, homeowners are still frustrated by the cost and availability of coverage.
However, “there's a lot that consumers can do, and agents play a huge role in that," Asher explains, referring to initiatives such as the national Firewise USA® recognition program, which provides a collaborative framework to help neighbors get organized and take action to reduce wildfire risks at the local level, and Safeco's Wildfire Response Benefit, which sends a contracted company to protect policyholder properties threatened by active wildfires.
“Customers and agents have to be part of the answer in this environment," Asher adds. “And agents play a critical role in terms of communicating and educating clients on the entire landscape."
Will Jones is IA editor-in-chief.