Press Release

Winfield Group makes itself insurance expert for ambulettes, snowmobiles, retail shops

Premium content from The Business Review - by Barbara Pinckney

Date: Sunday, November 26, 2006, 7:00pm EST - Last Modified: Wednesday, November 22, 2006, 8:31am EST

This January, The Winfield Group will become part owner of a captive insurance carrier for ambulette companies.

The plan, which has been in the works for 18 months, is intended to make insurance for ambulettes--non-emergency, wheelchair-accessible vehicles--more stable and affordable.

A captive is owned by a company or companies and writes insurance only for them. They are similar to self-insurance groups, but, like traditional carriers, can cover claims with reinsurance.

Winfield Group, a Clifton Park insurance agency, is helping form the captive and will own a piece of it, to help an industry that is responsible for the biggest chunk of its premiums. The firm has made itself an expert in the ambulette business and the complicated regulatory world in which ambulettes operate. It even joined the New York Ambulette Coalition and helped it get a lobbyist to push for higher rates.

Medical transportation is Winfield's largest niche business, but not its only one. The agency works with the Retail Council of New York State to provide coverage for stores, and has a large business in insuring snowmobiles.

John Tomassi, president of Winfield, said these markets contribute about 55 percent of the firm's premiums, or $12 million of $21.5 million collected in 2005.

"That is a good balance, a balance we'd like to keep as we grow," he said.

He said the firm is studying other industries and talking to trade groups to identify opportunities for new niche markets. As Tomassi sees it, having expertise in an industry and a relationship with a third party like an association, makes business easier to get and maintain in the highly-competitive property-casualty insurance market.

The captive will complete a year of growth for Winfield that also included the opening of a Long Island office and the firm's first acquisition.

Helping ambulettes

Tomassi formed Winfield in 1994 after leaving The Lawrence Group, a now-defunct family of insurance carriers and agencies. He hired two people and "started knocking on doors."

"Up until that time, I had never really sold insurance," he said. "I was on the carrier side at Lawrence. But I knew enough about it, so I thought I'd give it a try."

He had been in business about eight months when he got a call from another agent who needed help finding coverage for an ambulette company. A little research told him there were not many agents or carriers writing this business.

"It seemed underserved and a good industry to target," he said. "It was attractive because it is a unique industry with unique issues."

Guy Murray, owner of Tri-City Ambulette in Clifton Park, said the industry is growing as the aging population increases demand for ambulette services. The vehicles primarily transport seniors to dialysis and other medical appointments, as well as to adult day care. But it is not an easy business.

"It is challenging in the sense that the majority of what we do is with Medicaid patients," Murray said. "It's a constantly changing atmosphere."

He said Tomassi understands the industry well, and has "saved us some money."

The companies Winfield serves range in size from one vehicle to 500. About 70 percent of the business is downstate because of New York City's large Medicaid population. Because premiums are high--up to $11,000 a vehicle--Tomassi started a premium finance company. Premium finance companies advance money to policyholders to help them cover their payments.

Stores and snowmobiles

The connection with the Retail Council also began early in Winfield's history. Tomassi knew the people at the Albany-based trade association because Lawrence Group had handled the council's insurance for years.

"When he started his own agency, the relationship just continued," said James Sherin, president of the Retail Council.

The trade group operates a workers' compensation safety group through the State Insurance Fund, but some retailers do not meet the strict criteria for membership. Sherin will direct those retailers to Winfield. The same is true when retailers seek advice regarding general business insurance.

"We tell them, talk to John first," Sherin said.

He said the relationship has lasted 11 years because Tomassi is "professional, accessible [and] knowledgeable" and spends a lot of time on the road himself, meeting retailers face to face rather than always sending this agents. Plus, "he really seems to understand the retail industry."

Winfield got a corner on the snowmobile insurance market in 2000 when it opened an office in Old Forge, Herkimer County. The state does not require insurance to drive a snowmobile, but Old Forge does. People seeking a permit from the town often are sent to Winfield--which is open on weekends--for coverage.

"Old Forge is the snowmobile capital of the Northeast," Tomassi said. "At any given time, there are probably 5,000 snowmobilers there. We sell a lot of snowmobile insurance."

Expansion mode

The past year has been a period of growth for Winfield. In May, the firm opened a sales office in Hauppauge.

"We entered Long Island for two reasons," Tomassi said. "One, we found good producers who were looking for a firm to join. Two, Long Island is just packed with business. There is three times as much business per square mile and the premiums are twice as high."

All servicing takes place in Clifton Park, although clients calling Hauppauge never know the difference. The phone rings in Clifton Park, and a push of the button sends it to one of three Long Island salespeople. Questions about service are answered locally. That saves Tomassi about $10,000 a year in labor costs.

"If we can get the downstate business and do the servicing with the upstate cost structure in a way that is not noticeable to the client, it's the best of both worlds," he said.

Last month, Winfield balanced out its book of business by buying Today's Insurance, a small Clifton Park agency. The purchase added about 2,000 personal lines clients to Winfield's customer base, which had been 98 percent commercial.

Tomassi, who handled acquisitions for Lawrence, said this may be just the first of many purchases for Winfield.