Vault, a St. Petersburg insurance company that caters to the affluent, is outpacing its own growth expectations.
When the company moved into the fourth floor of the building at 300 1st Ave. S. in October 2017, CEO Charles Williamson didn’t think Vault would need the entire 10,000-square-foot space it was offered, so the building owner put up a wall, and Vault took a little over half the space, about 5,500 square feet.
By early May, the wall had come down, because the company had filled its space completely. Most of Vault’s 66 employees work in an open-office environment designed to evoke a Silicon Valley culture more than that of a traditional insurance office.
“We want to be attractive to young, bright, creative people who are crazy passionate about service,” Williamson said. “In order to enable that, we want to create an environment where people want to be, where people are happy, where there’s openness. We’re all about transparency, so we want an open office where transparency is lived day to day.”
In a tight labor market, culture is key to attracting the best and brightest talent, said Stacy Warren, chief sales and customer experience officer.
The downtown St. Petersburg office is the headquarters and nerve center for underwriting, operations and claims at Vault.
The company officially launched in November 2017 to serve the unique insurance needs of high-net worth individuals.
“Successful individuals, as they like to be called, have different needs,” Williamson said. “They have different lifestyle needs, different property insurance needs. Their exposures are more complex. The mass market insurance product serves the average consumer quite well, but for the broadened coverage needs and expanded service requirements that our clients have based on their lifestyles and the complex way they own their assets, it just requires a specialized approach. We’re built around that.”
Vault provides coverage that middle-market insurers do not provide for high-net worth clients, Warren said.
“They need extensive liability coverage, and a middle-market carrier just does not provide that specialized insurance protection. They may have collectibles — art, jewelry and wine — and those are things they are very proud of and want to make sure they are insured properly,” she said.
Many wealthy families have homes in multiple states.
“The overwhelming majority of insurance companies operate in one or two states. Our client needs one provider and that’s what we do,” Williamson said.
Vault operates under two companies, Vault Reciprocal Exchange and Vault Excess and Surplus Lines, both branded as Vault. The combined footprint of the companies puts Vault in every state but California.
Vault is majority owned by Allied World, a global insurance and reinsurance firm, with some ownership by management and third-party investment. Vault is the engine that’s customer-facing and drives the underwriting, while Allied World provides technology, reinsurance, data security and human resources, “things that as a startup we could deal with but it’s nice not to have to worry about that,” Williamson said.
A handful of insurance companies specialize in serving high-net worth clients, including Chubb, American International Group, W.R. Berkley Corp. and Vault, according to Insurance Journal.
“We believe the universe of opportunity in the U.S. is $30 to $40 billion annually in premium. If you add up the specialist companies, you get to about $8 billion tops,” Williamson said. “For us that’s a compelling opportunity because it’s a big unmet need.”
The market also is growing.
“Like it or not, the rich are getting richer. That segment is growing more than twice as fast as the U.S. economy at large,” Williamson said.
Williamson, Warren and other Vault executives previously worked at insurance giant AIG.
“We had the benefit from our experience at AIG seeing how the big companies do it, and all the things they do well, and where there is opportunity to do better. We tried to take that experience and take advantage of brand new technology since we don’t have any legacy technology issues we have to worry about. All those things together made it a jumping off point we thought we had to take advantage of,” he said.
Vault currently has about 4,000 clients. It sells insurance through agents. It has about 250 agents now, and expects to have 600 by the end of the year.
The company built its technology by listening to those agents, Warren said. Agents can input just three or four pieces of information about a prospective client, then Vault’s system pulls data from a variety of sources, and provides a quote within 90 seconds.
The traditional insurance paper flow at Vault is all electronic, including signature documents, easy-to-understand invoices and one-click payments.
“None of these things are monumental, but add them all together and it’s a kind of service experience that’s unlike what’s going on in our space,” Williamson said. “It’s something much more akin to what a customer would get from Zappos or Amazon or an ecommerce company, as opposed to a traditional insurance company.”
On the claims side, Vault uses video to assess damages in a customers’ home.
“We can get on a video chat with them, immediately look at the damage, get experts on the line or deployed to the loss so we can immediately begin the recovery process,” Williamson said. “We use technology a lot to enable speed. We think this business is done best when it’s done fast and people’s lives are restored.”
St. Pete vibe
Vault chose to be in Florida in part because of the “halo effect.” When Florida insurance regulators approve a company, it has a positive impact on regulators in other states, Williamson said.
Florida also is a top market for Vault, with a vast amount of wealth in the state.
Warren lived in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, and didn’t think the company would end up here. She initially looked at sites in Tampa, Brandon and Riverview.
“I came to St. Pete last and I could not believe it. The vibe and the energy was exactly who we wanted to be as a company,” she said.
The vibe inside the company matches that of the city. The company is dog-friendly, and employees have decorated break rooms with names such as The Selfie Room, Zen Den and Pac Man Room.
The building is owned by the same group that owns the Wallace Welch & Willingham insurance brokerage. Wallace Welch & Willingham is a Vault agent, and with its own headquarters one floor above Vault’s office, Warren often consults with that company on technology and products.
Vault remains in growth mode, Williamson said.
“Our principle focus is getting our geographic footprint broadened out. Because we started the business here, we’re still heavily concentrated on Florida so we’re working hard to build our footprint in the greater New York area, in Texas, Georgia the Carolinas,” he said. “While we’ve got the licenses, we’ve got to operationalize it, grow those markets, build agency and customer relationships, and then make sure our infrastructure continues to scale up to support that growth.”