Plymouth Rock Assurance, a Massachusetts automobile insurer, marks its 30th year in business in 2014. Chief executive Chris Olie spoke to Globe reporter Deirdre Fernandes about his move to the Boston area five years ago and how a less-regulated auto insurance industry in Massachusetts has transformed the company. Here’s what she found out:
1Olie is a bit of a paradox: a car insurance guy who doesn’t drive a car. He ditched his wheels when he moved from the Ohio suburbs to a downtown Boston condo just minutes from Plymouth Rock’s offices near South Station.
“We’re empty-nesters,” he said. “The kids are out of the house. So, it’s like, let’s check this urban living out. I have one of the world’s greatest commutes, a quarter-mile, five-minute walk each day right down Atlantic Avenue.”
2Olie’s move to Boston allowed him to indulge his passion for golf. He has played at The Country Club in Brookline, where both the US Open tournament and Ryder Cup matches have been held, as well as several other courses in the area. Among the photos and files in Olie’s office is a small desk pendulum of a golfer that belonged to his father, also an avid player.
“There are a lot of old, historic golf courses that I’ve had the fortune to play,” Olie said, t hough he still wants to check out the TPC Boston in Norton, the home of the PGA’s Deutsche Bank Championship.
3Plymouth Rock is not based in Plymouth, but in Boston. The company was founded by a former Massachusetts insurance commissioner, but now nearly twice as many of its employees are based in New Jersey as in all of New England.
“We wanted a brand that would resonate with Massachusetts folks.”
4Olie didn’t start out as an insurance man. He sold replacement parts for cars and trucks and then worked as a marketing manager for a tank truck company. But his future wife had a good job in northeast Ohio and he needed to find employment there, so he answered an ad for a company called Progressive Insurance. It’s now the country’s fourth-largest auto insurer, with a recognizable marketing campaign and dominant presence online, where consumers increasingly go to buy insurance.
“They didn’t have a brand, they only wrote in certain states and high-risk drivers only. If you weren’t a problem driver, you probably never heard of these folks.”
5Olie spent more than 20 years at Progressive before he was recruited by Plymouth Rock as Massachusetts moved to a less-regulated car insurance market. Instead of state officials setting car insurance rates, companies now determine prices based on their assessments of risk — and the competition. That has required Plymouth Rock and other insurers to become more aggressive in terms of using data to set prices.
“We now literally have eight PhDs on staff, people with advanced statistical degrees, people whose job it is to mine all this data and find the good drivers, versus the not-so-good drivers and design a rate plan that handles that accordingly.”
6Much of that data that insurers use come from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. During vehicle inspections, for example, the number of miles a driver puts on a car is recorded. That information tells insurers how frequently somebody is on the road (the more miles, the greater likelihood of an accident, and a higher premium). That number is combined with other data points, such as whether the driver lives in the city or suburbs, drive premiums.
“You can’t use credit score to rate or underwrite. You can’t use marital status. You can’t use gender. You can’t use socioeconomic variables like education and occupation. A lot of things that you can do in other states you can’t do here. There’s [still] plenty of data to be used.’’
7In Massachusetts, drivers have traditionally bought car insurance though agents, instead of going directly to the company or doing it online. Olie said Plymouth Rock is still committed to independent agents, but is trying a model that uses both people and technology.
“We’re starting to figure out this hybrid distribution model. [Customers] start online, shop online, close with an agent.”