Steve Mariano, chairman, founder, president and CEO, Patriot National Insurance Group
In the United States, workers’ compensation insurance is the second biggest cost for employers, representing a $50 billion marketplace nationwide. So when Steve Mariano built a company focused on sales of workers’ comp insurance, he knew that there was opportunity for long-term growth.
“Workers’ comp insurance — it’s not a really sexy area, but it’s been around for a long time,” says Mariano, founder, chairman, president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Patriot National Insurance Group. “It’s kind of like this small brother compared to health insurance.”
But since the credit crisis, it has also become more difficult to compete in this type of insurance business. In the last three years, declining payrolls and cost cutting at many companies has inevitably affected sales for Patriot and other workers’ comp insurance providers.
“It was always a tough business, but it’s gotten a lot tougher these days,” Mariano says.
To grow, Mariano has stayed true to many of the same principles that the company was founded on in 2003, specifically a commitment to finding and developing a team of unparalleled talent.
“That’s probably been the biggest reason why we’ve been successful,” he says. “We’ve been able to attract the talented people and their skill sets and we’ve been able to train the people to do the business, follow the procedures and protocols and leverage technology the way that we at Patriot do it, different than other companies.”
As a result, the organization has had some of its best sales years despite the recession. Here’s how Mariano develops Patriot’s team of 425 employees to excel in the workers’ comp business.
Grow talent in stages
Prior to launching Patriot, Steve Mariano founded two other companies. From experience, he knew that it would be difficult to attract many strong employees with the skills they needed to grow before they got a foothold and developed a reputation in the business. To create a deep bench of talent from the beginning, it’s important to be patient about growth and not bring on people that you don’t truly need yet.
First, develop a core team of people local to your business and who you can trust to get your business off the ground.
“You’ve got to get your business plan up and running with a couple of core people in your management team that you know and have experienced working with them,” Mariano says.
Once you see growth in your business plan after a couple of years, then you have a story to use to attract corporate talent from around the country and from other fields. Bring on a strong core group and grow initial sales and then bring on a strong secondary senior team to continue to grow them.
“With each cycle that the company grows and evolves, you have to balance your ability to sell your product along with your costs,” Mariano says. “This may not be perfectly in tandem — but you can’t have one or two major years of losses coming from the expansion without balancing it out.”
By growing in stages, you can build the infrastructure to support a larger and larger team. That way, you ensure that as you go through hiring cycles that people will see you as a stable employer with a track record of growth. In addition to bringing people from out of town with certain skill sets to the corporate office, the organization has also hired hundreds of employees locally, including about 300 people in the Fort Lauderdale area.
“Once you get to a certain size, it becomes easier to attract talent because, number one, talent starts looking for you,” Mariano says.
By 2006 and 2007, the company’s sales growth put it in the position to hire the senior talent it needed to pull from outside of South Florida. As you add new talent, finding people who are fair and also have good ethics is equally important to finding the right skill sets. You want to hire people who are talented but also people who are ethical and going to fit within the company’s culture, much like a professional sports team.
“You can have the best talent, but if they don’t work together in the same culture, they’re not going to win,” he says. “You’ve got to find the right people that fit within the organization. It’s not just asking who is the best talent, but who is the best talent for our company.”
Mariano says that growing responsibly sometimes means taking it little bit slower than you’d like to make sure that you bring everybody with you. That’s not just in expenses but also growing the culture in a way to make sure it permeates the entire company as you add more and more people.
“Sometimes that just means taking a step back, whether it’s three months, a quarter or two quarters, and focusing back internally on the company and having internal parts of the company like accounting and legal really catch up to the growth of the company,” he says.
But while he tries to be deliberate about growing in stages, Mariano doesn’t place limits on how big the company can become as it continues to scale.
“If you pigeonhole yourself into not thinking of things as big as they can be, you’ll never get there,” he says. “You’ve got to really think about the potential and not sell yourself or your ideas short.”
Invest in training
Employee training is an area that not all business leaders invest in equally, especially in the insurance industry.
“In the insurance business, there is very little training that goes on these days, and I think it’s because of cost overhead and other things,” Mariano says. “Insurance companies don’t have the same type of training programs for young people as they used to.”
Yet training talent is an area that Mariano cites as one of the most critical elements in facilitating Patriot’s sales growth. Fundamentally, the company has had certain departments training on an informal basis for years. An example is the company’s claims management program that started in 2008.
“That type of training and that type of culture that’s been built around our business has allowed us to be successful,” Mariano says.
When you don’t invest in growing people’s skills, they could feel undervalued or feel that they don’t have a long-term future with your company. This can result in higher employee turnover, which in the end, sucks up more time and resources as you hire and train new people.
Retention is a major factor in why Mariano readily invests in employee training that others might find an unnecessary expense. Investing in your people helps your emloyees be more successful, which in turn helps your company be successful by developing and retaining talented employees.
Last year, Mariano introduced Patriot University, the company’s first formal, full-time training program to provide employees with cross-training enhance their core competencies and develop their skills. The company also collaborates with South Florida colleges to put together training opportunities for people who are interested in working for the company and want to learn some skills in advance. This creates a local pipeline of talent so that when the company hires in the future, it has a pool of candidates who already have some key skills.
“We’re proactive now in making sure that we have more than enough talent and with these training programs, making sure that we’ve got the talent and the internal operations ahead of time ready for the next big expansion,” Mariano says.
“There’s no question that we’re going to continue to grow and hire most of our people locally moving forward. That’s only gotten a lot easier.”
Because of its efforts to nurture people up through the ranks of the company, the organization now has one of the best retention rates in its industry.
“If you don’t train people, then you’re not going to keep them,” Mariano says.
“We know if you churn employees, you hire and then fire, hire and fire, it really increases your costs as a company. It’s cheaper to retain them by training them in their job functions and cross-training them in other department skills, so that as one department grows maybe faster than another, we can use their skill sets in different departments.”
In an industry with a lot of big players, Patriot’s entrepreneurial culture is one of the reasons many job seekers are drawn to work there. When you have a culture that allows people to have a more direct impact on your business, you can attract the kind of innovative thinkers that can help you grow.
“We have procedures and protocols too, but we’re always looking for our employees to find a better way to do something and to innovate within their organization and within their departments,” Mariano says.
Having an innovative culture that embraces new ways of doing things tends to attract those with the desire to succeed.
“Talent is looking for a way to put a fingerprint on the company they’re working for,” Mariano says. “If you come to work for a company like us, you can really put a fingerprint in your area and be able to look five, ten years from now and say, ‘I really had something to do with this part of the business plan and help with the building of the company.’”
By not having just standard ways of doing things, Mariano says you make it harder for employees to just come in, check a box or work a 9-to-5 just to pull a paycheck.
“We’re looking for ideas of how to better our company in all areas, from the mail room all the way up to the top financial parts of the company,” Mariano says. “If there is a better procedure and protocol or a way to innovate it to service our customers better or make us a better profit, then I ask for those types of things and very much support that type of thought process.”
As a result, the company has been a leading innovator in its field, specifically when it comes to technology. It was among the first to spearhead the use of iPhones, iPads and mobile technology to video stream information for surveillance. Being able to use the mobile devices and video streaming tools nationwide gives insurance adjusters, investigators and legal teams the ability to help employers evaluate compensation or compensability issues and make faster decisions in fraud cases.
Because fraud makes up about 20 percent of the workers’ comp cost in the United States, these advances make a big difference in helping the company differentiate itself for growth.
“Very few workers’ comp competitors really use that kind of Apple innovation on the front end to be able to be out in the field getting this information,” Mariano says.
“It’s billions of dollars being wasted each year in fraud. If you can just stop a small piece of that going on in your own companies, then that is a big thing.”
As a result, Mariano says that the company is planning its biggest expansion in the last three years. Investing in a culture and training to engage employees has helped it attract new talent as well as capture market share from its larger, but less nimble, competitors. It recently opened up offices in the Los Angeles area as well as major cities including Sacramento and St. Louis, and in 2011, the company added 85 new jobs to downtown Fort Lauderdale.
“So we’ve been an innovator,” Mariano says. “We’ve been able to come in, leverage new technologies and really come into the marketplace with a fresh set of ideas and reduce costs for the employers.”
How to reach: Patriot National Insurance Group, (954) 670-2900 or www.pnigroup.com
1. Be patient in your talent search.
2. Create formal training for employee development.
3. Nurture employees’ engagement in innovation.
The Mariano File
Chairman, founder, president and CEO
Patriot National Insurance Group
Born: New Jersey
Education: Georgia Tech and Ursinus College — graduated with a degree in economics.
What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?
Most people don’t know I read a new book just about every week. There is so much information out there, so many experiences to benefit from.
What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?
My morning workout. Mental and physical shape are linked, and the time I spend every morning at the gym helps me clear my head, set my priorities for the day, and build the energy I need to take on the day’s challenges.
What’s the toughest business decision you’ve ever had to make?
At our prior company right after 9/11, the marketplace for insurance really shrank, and I was in a situation where I had to eliminate about 85 to 100 employees just because the business model wasn’t supporting it. To me, any time you have to eliminate a position or you have to fire someone, from a leadership position, you haven’t succeeded. Any time you have to let someone go, that means you either didn’t train them correctly or they weren’t able to deliver what you thought they would be able to deliver. Or in the case when you just have a bad event like 9/11 — you just have no control over it – it’s even harder because as a CEO you have great people sometimes and there’s just nothing you can do about it.
What do you see for future growth in Florida?
I think South Florida and Florida will do a lot better over the next couple of years. I know it’s been very tough for the state in a lot of areas … and I think just given the amount of business that we’re doing with Latin and South America, and just how wonderful a state this is — no state income tax and all of that — there’s a good balance for its growth. We’re really bullish that there’s going to be better times ahead, and we look forward to being part of the community here.