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Close-up: John Crawford

Alliant mitigates risk, provides personal touch for small businesses

Starting a small business can prove to be a challenge -- and running one is often an even bigger hurdle. Making educated insurance decisions can contribute a great deal not only to the ease of managing business operations, but to peace of mind as well.

"A lot of businesses look for resources that can help them -- but many don't do it until they get into a pinch," said John Crawford, employee benefits broker and vice president for Alliant Insurance Services Inc.

Crawford has been in the insurance industry for about 20 years and advises his clients to take time to think about the difficult questions upfront. He started his insurance career with Aetna in 1988, and then joined Robert F. Driver Co. in 1992, an insurance brokerage company that had been founded in San Diego in 1925. That company merged with Alliant Resources Group in 2001, in turn became Driver Alliant Insurance, and is now known as Alliant Insurance Services.

The firm provides property and casualty, workers' compensation, surety products, employee benefits and various financial services. Despite the fact that it's one of the nation's largest insurance brokerages, it has thrived via a focus on niche programs and specialization, both in its employees' expertise and within its overall business model.

John Crawford

"Our CEO's vision is to become a key player in the middle market in working with programs and niches," Crawford said. "The philosophy is that instead of being all things to all people, he's created a number of specialized programs within the company with proprietary information and products that may not be available everywhere. On that evolution, I've always tended to work in employee benefits for small businesses."

That employee benefits function now falls under Alliant's Select Business Solutions (SBS), a unit of the company that serves a broad entrepreneurial market. The division's goal is to provide smaller companies with all forms of coverage to meet insurance needs. This includes business insurance, employee benefits and financial services. Additionally, clients can take advantage of added Human Resource benefits such as webinars and access to guidelines, termination information and record-keeping forms. This can be especially beneficial to smaller companies that may not have HR personnel on staff.

"When you have your own small company, you are chief, cook and bottle washer," Crawford said. "You are doing lots of things: employee benefits, administration, worker's comp. So our online tool gives sample policies, forms and answers to FAQs. The HR toolbox even sends members e-mails on laws and regulations or best practices."

Because it takes on the smaller accounts that some firms walk away from, Alliant tends to maintain a higher staff ratio relative to the number of accounts. And the company continues to stay true to its former small-business roots and provides clients with personal assistance and advice.

"For smaller accounts I can do some business over the phone or Internet," said Crawford. "But one thing you'll find is that we offer old-fashioned service. With our toll-free number, you can reach us very easily -- without voice prompts. We dedicate the resources to give people a personal touch."

That access to a broker, Crawford said, remains necessary, even as many of the company's functions are heading online. The intricacies of insurance can be confusing for those who aren't familiar with its constantly changing language and considerations -- and who are busy trying to run their own business.

"I think that there's always a need for advisers in these roles, people to consult with on your risk and exposure," he said. "In certain areas you can have online shopping and taking out coverage, but in others you need the human element. Because the complexities of running a business are still there -- and you want someone to specialize like an accountant or attorney would."

The economic outlook and factors like rising health care costs make Crawford's job more challenging. Clients begin to downgrade to cut costs, so he has to help them make tough choices as the cost of premiums goes up.

"This is not an industry where you can just sell the product and put it on the shelf," he said. "It takes a little bit of hand-holding and helping clients look at the universe out there to make sure it's the right deal for them. With these economic times, you really have to help people come up with solutions that will fit their budget."

Even as more employers think about dropping coverage versus providing it, the number of individual insurance plans has been growing. Crawford attributes this in part to more people venturing out on their own to become sole proprietors. This ebb and flow is indicative of the commercial insurance industry, where the one constant is change. From products to needs to pricing, things are constantly in flux. This variation is one of the factors that keeps Crawford in the industry.

"I like this business a lot. I think it's very entrepreneurial and allows for creativity," he said. "You are always refining the ways to do things and looking at opportunities to improve. It's something that offers lot of variables, and it's not same old thing every day."

The other draw for Crawford is making a real impact on clients' businesses.

"I like the feeling like I'm helping people," he said. "I know it's an intangible product, but you know people are using it, since health insurance is one type that people really do use. And it validates you -- when you keep someone as client, it must be working.

Blackford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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