Big risks, big rewards

Big risks, big rewards | Insurance Business America

Big risks, big rewards

Michael Rice knows a thing or two about founding and growing an insurance business. In his last role before becoming CEO of CAC Specialty in 2019, he was the founding CEO and executive chairman of JLT Specialty USA, where he was responsible for overseeing the company’s operations and expansion into an entirely new market, which was no small feat. 

An insurance leader like Rice isn’t formed at any old organization. He gained much of his industry and leadership expertise from spending more than two decades at brokerage behemoth Aon. That’s where his insurance career started – in the summer of 1988, the year before he graduated from Boston College, Rice had the opportunity to take part in the first-ever intern program at Aon.  

Once he was done with school, he returned to join Aon’s management training program, where he was able to build a foundation in underwriting and gain a solid background in broking and reinsurance, mainly focused on the E&O and D&O lines of business.  

“The training program was built on learning a product and following it through the underwriting cycle, the brokerage cycle and the reinsurance cycle so you could see all aspects of the product,” Rice says. “I had this opportunity to learn from a firm that was one of the fastest-growing insurance intermediaries.” 

After the training program, Rice was placed in Aon’s D&O practice, which, at the time, was one of the most prominent in the world. He took on roles with Aon in London, Chicago and eventually Denver, running some of the brokerage’s global practice groups from 2001 onwards. After 24 years at Aon, it was time to make a career change. 

“We’re building the foundation of something great, along with a group of people who aren’t afraid to take on big goals and attack them – and the only way we can attack those goals is to go out and win with our clients and win with the markets”

A new chapter 

In 2014, Rice moved into the leadership role at JLT, which was then one of the largest brokerages in the world but had no presence in the US – a challenge Rice thought was worth taking on. 

“JLT was historically a fast-growth broker with lots of very aggressive goals,” he says. “The leader of JLT was fantastic when it came to acquisitions, and I learned a tremendous amount from him and his team on how you grow a broker by finding good partners and building strong cultures together.” 

Five years later, another opportunity arose that would give Rice the chance to put those lessons to good use. Building JLT’s US operation gave Rice a taste of what it felt like to grow a business from the ground up, and he was ready take on a similar challenge again. 

“I became addicted to the thought of building an insurance broker,” he says, “so when Cobbs Allen came calling and said, ‘We're looking to build something, and we know you have experience doing this – would you be interested in joining?’, it made me realize that I wanted do that all over again.”  

The two years since Rice took the reins at the new brokerage have been interesting, to say the least, as the risk landscape has shifted beneath everyone’s feet. Coming into a position like this, he says, first required setting a big target. Similar to JLT, CAC and sister company Cobbs Allen had aggressive growth plans. 

“Our goal is not to become the biggest broker in the United States. Our goal is to be the best wherever we choose to play”

“We had a group of people who were motivated in our first year to [say], ‘We hope we can do $35 million in revenue in the first year’ – and that's on an organic basis, when you're not making acquisitions of companies,” Rice says. “That's unheard of in our industry … and I loved the fact that we had a lot of people who were willing to challenge themselves to figure out how we could do it.” 

Above and beyond 

Do it, they did – in the span of a year, CAC attracted 100 professionals and blew past that lofty revenue target, eventually reaching $53 million. And it accomplished this while dealing with a global pandemic that upended the way we all live and work. In fact, CAC was able to stand out during this period of social and economic upheaval because it was one of the only brokerages with a practice devoted to turnaround situations. As COVID-19 wreaked havoc on companies and put entire business models under strain, firms started turning to CAC for its expertise in the field of bankruptcy and turnaround, which set it apart from competitors. 

Looking back on his time at CAC so far, Rice says the most satisfying part of growing the brokerage has been the response of clients, who have appreciated having a seasoned and aggressive team advocating for them in a hard marketplace. 

“We're building the foundation of something great, along with a group of people who aren't afraid to take on big goals and attack them – and the only way we can attack those goals is to go out and win with our clients and win with the markets,” Rice says. “The group of people that I work with are always looking for next best alternatives to the way that things have been done forever, and it's working very well for us.”

While it’s hard to maintain the same growth trajectory that led CAC from $6 million to $53 million in revenue during 2020, the company’s leaders still expect to grow in the double digits for the foreseeable future, Rice says. A bulk of that will come from growing organically by hiring best-in-class individuals who bring diverse ideas to the table, he says, but mergers are also on the table. 

“If there's another broker out there that likes what we're doing and we like what they're doing, and we think that we can grow together better, we would absolutely consider [partnering up],” he says. “Our goal is not to become the biggest broker in the United States, though that would be nice. Our goal is to be the best wherever we choose to play.”