ST. PETERSBURG — American Strategic Insurance Corp. was a scrappy startup in flood-prone Snell Isle when Hurricane Charley hit.
Suddenly, everyone but the CEO was taking claims calls, in conference rooms and in closets. Then came Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.
While his 70 employees worked 12-hour days, John Auer turned himself into head caretaker, caterer and cheerleader. He baked breakfast casseroles (sausage and vegetarian), delivered lunches to desks and offered to pay for laundry service.
Auer needed spirited employees to keep call wait times low and service high — even as some waded through knee-deep water to get to work.
They remember the 2004 storm season as the crucible that formed the ASI family.
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Before ASI stood for "American Strategic Insurance," it represented three pieces of Auer's vision for his new company: Attitude. Speed. Innovation.
The words are carved around an ASI logo just off the elevator in the company's post-Charley offices in Baypoint Commerce Center. They're repeated by employees around the building. "Attitude" trumps them all.
"It's the people that make the difference," Auer says. "We have happy employees."
In the early days, ASI hired friends and family, especially former colleagues with strong reputations. Now that the company has more than 160 employees with plans to add 20 more this year, it doesn't leave attitude to word-of-mouth. It tests for it.
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It's Monday after lunch, and Leslie Knapp, 31, is effervescing in her cubicle. She's an agent with ASI's internal agency, Sunshine Security Insurance.
"I tell people all the time about the company," she says. "I really love getting up and going to work. I love everyone I work with."
She interviewed for a job at ASI two years ago because her grandmother was neighbors with an underwriter's mother-in-law. (The company is full of stories like that.) Sure, her department is tightly staffed, but it's worth it. She goes to the gym at lunch — the company picks up the tab. She ticks off the company gatherings: a Christmas celebration at the InterContinental Tampa; a Thanksgiving potluck where Auer says a blessing and carves the turkey; spring training games with food and free drinks; a gathering at Auer's house to mark the end of hurricane season. Company-paid annual trips alternate between adventure outings and cruises to Cozumel. Her first year it was white-water rafting in Colorado.
"When you're there, you have to row together!" she says.
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Employees describe the benefits as generous. But they also help the company pinch pennies. One of the benefits is annual profit-sharing — so the pennies they save are their own.
Jen Kowalski, director of national accounts for ASI Underwriters, holds up her steno pad. She writes on both sides of the paper. She points out a sign above the copier. It reminds people that color copies cost 10 times more.
Florida's a tough property insurance market, with very, very small margins. Keeping expenses in check is key.
Once a month on Friday, the company comes in early for a standup meeting. For each department that hits its goals, every ASI employee leaves with $40. If everyone's on the ball, it adds up to a tidy cash bonus of $240. Many of the goals are customer-focused: Did claims reps return all calls the same day?
Rewarding everyone for individual successes reinforces good-natured collaboration, employees say.
No one resents pitching in when it boosts the bottom line, in cash rewards and in year-end profits. (And no one wants to fail when it keeps friends from earning a bonus.)
Michael Sanchez, a flood claims manager who joined the company the day Hurricane Charley hit, says colleagues share a vested interest in one another.
"We're all trying to help each other — that common goal," he says.
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Auer builds that goodwill for a precise reason: He wants his employees to treat independent agents and policyholders the same way.
Insurance is a people business, he says. It's a relationship business.
Want independent agents to send you their best, lowest-risk customers? Make it fun to call ASI.
The company mails smoke alarm batteries to its policyholders; it sends handwritten notes to agents on special occasions. For an agency council meeting at its St. Petersburg headquarters for agents in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arizona and Colorado, every department picked a state theme and hammed it up.
Darcie Toteva and Janice George, in finance, picked Starke for their Florida theme and turned the department into a prison, with hanging crepe paper bars. A fake electric chair, they agree, was over the top. But they had a reputation to live up to. After all, finance had won the Halloween theme contest three years in a row.
The company goodwill helps in another way. When long hours hit, there's little complaining. This time of year, Toteva and George are slammed. Year-end statements. Yellow books for every state. It means long hours, weekends.
"We work hard, but we balance it," Toteva said. "They let us do fun stuff."
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This is what Toteva and George remember about 2004. Toteva had just joined the company; George had been there a year and a half. Hurricane Charley was the company's chance for a strong first impression with policyholders.
"It was very important that we answered the phone, and boy, did we," Toteva says. She's an accounts payable manager, but everyone did everything. "It really did merge all the departments together."
Toteva cried with customers who shared devastating stories. Homes battered, pets missing.
Auer gave pep talks and brought in masseuses.
"They took care of us," George said.
Reach Becky Bowers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8859. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.