This week we’re featuring our storefront, The Distinguished Programs Group, one of the largest real estate program managers in the country, with ten unique programs, about 100+ employees domestically, and the company’s ReSource Pro organization in China with 950+ employees. Named one of Inc. Magazine's Top 5000 Fastest Growing Companies in America, we spoke with Carla Vel, President and COO of Distinguished Programs about the company’s long history in the real estate space and the growth it has experienced over the years. Carla has been with Distinguished Programs for 15 years, having worked as a retail insurance broker prior to joining the organization.
Headquartered in New York, Distinguished Programs also has offices in California, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas; is licensed in every state; and writes $100 million in premiums. Its success lies in consistently innovating and providing quality, competitively priced insurance products that meet market demands and offer an economic advantage to all involved.
“We’ve been a part of the real estate industry since 1940,” said Carla, “having served as the insurance arm of a large real estate property management company in New York that handled the insurance needs of rentals, condos, and co-ops. From there we created our first property/casualty insurance programs, including Property, Liability, and Umbrella Liability. For many years, as a retail broker, we were active in the program management business, providing purchasing power to a group of clients. In 1995 we stopped doing business as a retail broker and became a full-time underwriting and program management company, distributing product exclusively through retail brokers. We decided that we were going to work with our insurance broker colleagues, first in the Northeast, and then throughout the country.”
In working with the broker community initially, Distinguished Programs took a conservative approach to ensure that they could underwrite as carefully as they would have if they were writing for their own retail clients. “We found over time that we did this quite well, and received a positive, strong reception from our retail insurance broker colleagues. We sold our retail entity and have continued in the program management/wholesale business ever since,” said Carla. Today, Distinguished Programs does business with about 2,500 retail insurance brokers nationwide.
The philosophy of the company is based on a number of key underlying tenets, as Carla explained: “We want to honor the partnerships and relationships we have with our carriers, and live up to the expectations of our program management agreements with them. We also take and accept risk with our offshore reinsurance company, Saranac – in most of the insurance programs we have. We’re not only committed to provide profit for our carriers but also for our retail insurance brokers… what we do is offer solutions to our brokers so that they can keep their clients happy and the insureds get the protection they’re looking to get from the financial vehicles put into place.”
In elaborating on the company’s philosophy, Carla explained that they focus on programs where they are most competitive, those that will make money for the insurer, the broker, and themselves. “During this soft market, we have virtually stopped selling some of our programs, not because they’re not available, but because we define ourselves through the larger picture of our programs. There are some niches where the market has gotten so soft that we just don’t write them at that price. We spend a fair amount of time telling people, ‘thanks, we would love to be able to write this for you, but we understand that you need a different price than we can give you so let’s try it another time.’ We want to provide competitive prices in selected risks that will work for everyone involved.
“We have also segmented our property owners’ programs so that we will not only write regular rental properties or condo associations, but also offer coverage for student housing, affordable housing, and senior housing,” said Carla. “This is a critical component of our expertise as well -- being able to look at classes of real estate and developing a type of mini program for a particular risk. For example, we understand that a small 4- to 6-story brick building with 20 units is different than a high-rise, fire-resistant condo. We study all of the particular characteristics for each of those classes and create their respective separate underwriting guidelines and pricing parameters.”
A flagship product for Distinguished Programs since 1987, the Umbrella Liability program is among the largest in the country. “We can write limits of $100-$200 million on all types of real estate -- from low-rise and mid-rise to high-rise for all different types of construction and classes (condos, rentals, office buildings, retail, malls, etc.),” explained Carla.
The Directors and Officers Liability for condo associations (Distinguished Community Association Protection Insurance) is also a very popular and key product. The program offers liability protection for the directors and officers of not-for-profit Community Associations, and is available on a national basis.
The New York Brick and Brownstone program in New York and CHIP (City Homes Insurance Program) as it’s known in other cities where the insurance product is written are also significant offerings of Distinguished Programs. “Both of these products are designed for urban multi-family properties, 4, 5, 6-story owner- or tenant-occupied brownstones or joisted masonry-type buildings, with retail space occasionally at the grade level. These small building programs are popular in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. We have access to a great deal of data and analytics to make sure we understand the exposure of these buildings and the rates we need to charge.”
Each program is open access to agents and there are no volume requirements. What’s more, in this competitive environment, Distinguished Programs understands that it needs to offer not only a comprehensive portfolio of products but also provide superior service. “We’re able to provide better service through our technology platform, and through our remote staffing operation in China with ReSource Pro, which has about 950 people, of whom 30 work on our business,” explained Carla. “When we get a submission, ReSource Pro obtains it electronically and inputs the data into our database. The risk gets rated and will also go out to third-party systems to obtain additional information that may be needed, such as flood and quake zones, crime stats. “Each day, when our underwriters in California or New York arrive in their offices, their e-mail is loaded with quotes so that they can then talk to our brokers. Our quoting turnaround time is 24 hours at a maximum as long as we have the data we need. This is one of the ways we think we provide better service.”
Distinguished Programs works with a communications agency to market its products, using a multi-tier marketing approach to reach brokers, including email blasts and advertising in national publications such as Rough Notes and American Agent & Broker. The organization is also a member of Community Association Institute (CAI) and attends national and local tradeshows. They’re also members of the PIA and attend some of the trade events around the country.
“We also have our Storefront on ProgramBusiness.com, and have about a dozen salespeople who locate agents and brokers in their particular territories,” explained Carla. “They introduce the brokers to us and develop a rapport and trust so that we can eventually establish and build a relationship. This, of course, starts with the first submission and with each submission that follows the business grows. We strive to be attentive.”
For more information on any of the products available through Distinguished Programs, please visit the website at: http://www.distinguished.com/products.aspx. You can also contact Carla at: 212-297-3102 or via email at: email@example.com.