Would it surprise you to learn that Citizens Property Insurance Corporation has consistently received favorable audit opinions from independent external auditors and was recently found by the Office of Insurance Regulation to provide customer service that is among the best in the state?
Did you know that Citizens has the fourth lowest rate of claims-related complaints among Florida insurers, according to the Auditor General?
Have you heard that the company has received an A+ from Weiss Ratings for its financial strength, making it one of only four Florida homeowners insurers to earn a "Recommended" rating from the highly respected 41-year-old rating firm?
You probably haven't heard these facts, which are a testament to Citizens' financial strength and sound internal governance because, as a company that does not seek to attract customers from the private market, Citizens does not go out of its way to advertise its many successes. Instead, we prove our worth to our policyholders by providing quality customer service and claims handling, and by taking the steps necessary to ensure that when the next major hurricane hits Florida, we are prepared and ready to pay their claims accurately and quickly.
So, you may ask, why am I pointing out these achievements now?
I recently read with dismay and regret as yet another article from my hometown paper seeks to tear down and undermine the efforts of hardworking staff at an organization that provides an important and valuable service to over 1.2 million home and business owners with nowhere else to turn for their insurance needs. And while I would be the first to say that there are many things Citizens can and is doing to tighten its belt and improve, I cannot help but be disappointed by the lack of context provided in what should be objective news articles about employee compensation at Citizens.
For instance, as reported in several major papers this weekend, it is true that a few top employees received raises in late 2012. What was not reported, however, was the fact that the raises were due, in part, to those employees taking on significant increases in their responsibilities following the total elimination of a key leadership position. Additionally, the raises followed three straight years of companywide freezes on merit raises and were accompanied by a decrease to benefits in the form of increased health insurance premiums and higher co-pays.
The article also fails to mention that, even with these raises, a pay parity study conducted by Towers Perrin, which was provided to my hometown paper's reporter, found that the salaries of Citizens' leadership rank in the bottom 25 percent of comparable private companies. This is why Citizens has lost three of its top people in the past three months alone. The institutional expertise and knowledge that these former employees had is hard to replace and the cost of recruiting, hiring and training their replacements will far outweigh the cost of having provided modest raises on a regular basis.
The hard fact is that although Citizens may function as a public entity, it has to compete for executive talent with private insurance carriers for a limited pool of qualified and proven professionals. The few professionals who have the high degree of technical expertise and training necessary to deliver proven results are highly sought after and competitively recruited with salaries, benefits packages and performance bonuses that Citizens could never come close to meeting.
While a certain level of salary discrepancy is appropriate given Citizens' public mission, we must draw the line at the point where we are no longer able to attract and retain the competent professionals necessary to successfully run Florida's largest single homeowners insurer and manage its nearly $418 billion in exposure. Remember, it will be Florida's taxpayers who will ultimately pay the price via assessments if Citizens doesn't have the expertise necessary to prepare for and properly administer claims following the next major hurricane.
Citizens customers pay insurance premiums just like everyone else in Florida. In return, they deserve and demand the same quality of service. To provide that, Citizens must attract and retain leaders and employees who are at the top of their fields, are willing to work for far less than their counterparts in the private sector and can function under a public microscope in which every action is examined and scrutinized.
The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons taught all Floridians that it costs far more to be under-skilled and under-staffed than it does to pay a fair salary to professionals who are at the top of their fields. Citizens responded to that lesson by hiring superb leaders to dramatically improve our operations. Although I hope that we never get hit by a hurricane, I know that when we do, Citizens will be ready to carry out its mission because we have invested in top quality leaders and employees with the expertise and training necessary to get the job done.
Citizens also is making many changes and improvements aimed at providing a higher quality service and better value to our policyholders and Florida's taxpayers. At the top of this list is the aggressive pursuit of depopulation agreements that will free Citizens policyholders from the specter of 45 percent assessments by helping them acquire quality insurance in the private market.
In addition, we have responded to concerns about our expenses by adopting travel guidelines that more closely mirror state rules and tightening our procurement procedures to better align with state purchasing requirements. Finally we are completing a companywide review to ensure that we are operating at top efficiency and revising our complaint and disciplinary procedures to ensure that our employees are held to the highest level of ethical conduct.
Carlos A. Lacasa is chairman of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Board of Governors.