How Woodruff Sawyer uses AI and data in insurance brokerage

How Woodruff Sawyer uses AI and data in insurance brokerage

CIO Matt Kulangara takes us through the insurance journey at Woodruff Sawyer and explains how AI and data are safeguarding the future of insurance

Woodruff Sawyer is one of the largest independent insurance brokerages in the world. 

Matt Kulangara is partner, CIO and CISO at the company, where he has worked for five years, building Enterprise IT. Out of college, he started at Chubb, another insurance monolith. 

“First, I joined the help desk, then I had 15 years to build a deep skill set in insurance and tech,” he says. “The thing that I didn't have a whole lot of experience with was on the personal side, so they sent me to Harvard to get a Masters degree in Information Systems Management.”

Over the past 25 years, Kulangara has taken on every role in tech, from network engineering to application development and project management, all the way to Vice President of Global IT. This was followed by ACE Insurance, one of the largest carriers in the world.

When the opportunity arose to join Woodruff Sawyer, it was at a pivotal moment where they needed a CIO and where Kulangara could get an equity stake in the company as well. 

“Every step at Woodruff Sawyer has been informative and it's been a learning experience,” he says. “I learn something new about insurance and technology everyday - and I’ve been in the sector for years.”

As a risk management firm, Woodruff Sawyer has made itself known for its customer service.

“A lot of the large brokers that big clients work with, they don't provide the type of customer care that we provide,” explains Kulangara. “We're known for being a risk management firm that is also a brokerage which provides exceptional customer service.”

Woodruff Sawyer is specifically known by companies that are going to become IPOs. 

“I can't get into specific names, but any name that you would hear about in the Bay Area that's a tech company… there's a good chance we were involved in the IPO for that,” Matt 

Kulangara shares: “We have some of the best brokers in the world in that space, we really are the best in the world at Management Liability Insurance.”

Yet the company has largely evolved since Kulangara joined – especially seeing as he arrived right before COVID-19 struck. After getting familiar with the inner-workings of the company, Kulangara had to drop everything and reshape Woodruff Sawyer into a remote working company. 

“That was a big challenge in IT and we spent a year doing just that,” he recalls. 

At the same time, Kulangara wanted to help the company become more security aware and security focused. 

“As one of the leading brokerage firms in the world, we had to put security first in everything, even as we were going remote,” Kulangara says. 

Kulangara had strong support from his COO and CEO to be able to do this – they could see their teams spending all of their time hopping around 50 different systems, using most of their time context switching and doing clerical work, not doing what they do best, which is servicing clients. This is where the idea of Connect came from. 

“The core idea of Connect is, let's have one place for employees to do their work. A single place, instead of hopping around between emails and going to another platform to do something that's a third party system. This platform allows folk to reduce context switching, but also allows us to standardise workflows.”

During COVID-19, many businesses were given the opportunity to review the way they ran their operations and make improvements which have lasted long past lockdown. Amazon experienced an enormous surge in demand during COVID-19 and invested in automation technology to assist in social distancing. Microsoft quickly accelerated its cloud computing initiatives to support businesses transitioning to remote work, which are still in use in the age of hybrid work. In 2020, Woodruff Sawyer found that people were doing things differently, in different parts of the business. Connect became a way to standardise daily processes across the company.

“Since Connect arrived, the company has grown tremendously,” Kulangara adds. “That's not all my doing, but it's been an experience to watch us grow.”

How Woodruff Sawyer is becoming a catalyst for positive change

From the beginning, Woodruff Sawyer said it wanted to build a system that its clients could use and what it didn't want was to do what other companies had done. 

“Some of our peers had built portals with the idea that were going to reduce operating costs and drive all of their clients to the portal,” Matt continues. “You can reduce your head count and you can service it at a lower rate, right? From the beginning, our vision was not to do that. Our vision was to build a platform that allows our clients to connect more directly with people that are our risk managers.”

Yet, Connect is not the only force at Woodruff Sawyer advancing the company to becoming a catalyst for positive change. 

For Matt, the platform is about building that interconnectivity. 

“If I want to schedule a meeting with my agent, there's a calendar link there to allow them to do it. When I want to chat directly with an agent, there's an opportunity to do that.”

Kulangara is clear that Woodruff Sawyer will not dilute its value to clients until they understand what they feel about AI.

“When it comes to AI, our approach is ‘Caution first’. We build lots of Proof of Concepts (PoCs), but we're cautious about where we implement AI and what it means for the brand, what it means for our clients from a privacy perspective. We're cautious in how we're implementing it all,” he explains. 

The IT department at Woodruff Sawyer has been lean from the beginning by design, with 45 employees including outsource contractors. Matt’s view was that in order to hire the best leaders that he could, all of them should come from an insurance background. In fact, not a single person in a management role that works for him doesn’t.

“We wanted to have people that can talk with the business and understand what the business wants and be able to understand requirements without having to go through endless loops of requirements gathering,” Kulangara says. 

Woodruff Sawyer is a multicloud which uses AWS and Azure. 

“In AWS, we have an application that Quadrant built for us, which is a directory app, but everything else resides in Azure,” he continues. “Our view on technology is that we will build where it makes sense from an IP perspective and where it's actually going to drive business value.”

Woodruff Sawyer uses Salesforce as a CRM, as well as Applied Epic, a standard product that close to 60% of brokerages use for insurance processing. In the Microsoft Stack, the company uses OneDrive for document storage.

When Woodruff Sawyer built Connect, the idea was that everything in the company should be driven through it. But this was such a large project, it was difficult to get the executive team on board as it was simply something that the company had never done. 

So, what Matt and his team did was split Connect into smaller parts. 

“It took us about two years to build the Connect system. We engaged from the beginning with a customer experience firm, Cake and Arrow, to help us design the system,” he says.

Cake and Arrow came with a deep insurance background, they sat down with clients to figure out what they wanted out of Woodruff Sawyer’s system.

“Woodruff Sawyer is one of the few brokers that actually provides claim services, whereas most brokerages will send customers to the carrier,” Kulangara says. “We have our own claims team, who help our customers, so that they have their own portal.”

Quadrant technology runs through the vital technology partners that will help provide the best in class services through this transformation.

“Quadrant has been with us from the beginning,” says Matt. “When I joined Woodruff, all of IT was outsourced. We had all of our code resident with a company offshore. We didn't even control the code.”

He knew he had a challenge that was to get back the code that they had from that company, so Quadrant was selected to do that. 

“What we liked about Quadrant, is there was scale fit. We were the right size to work with them and they were the right size for us. Usually, I don't have the ability to pick up the phone and call the CEO and say, ‘I've got a problem.’ Right? With Quadrant, we have that ability. That's made a big difference because when things go sideways, it's always good to be able to get a hold of the person that can actually solve the problem,” explains Kulangara. 

Woodruff Sawyer is using a range of technologies to improve the customer experience, such as allowing connectivity between the client and its risk management professionals. 

“With that idea, that it is truly about improving customer service, it is not about reducing our expenses,” Kulangara continues. “For us, really, we had the view from the beginning that Connect has to double down on our brand, not diminish from it.”

Using data and AI to improve client expectations

When it comes to data, Woodruff Sawyer has two varieties of data: operational data and the data their clients expect. 

Operational data covers where Woodruff Sawyer is growing in revenue, who are the most productive producers and the calculation of commissions.

“We have centralised the data architecture that allows us to get all of that in from trusted sources,” says Kulangara. “In the past, Woodruff Sawyer had untrustworthy data, all over the company.”

The idea was to improve this with data architecture and a VP of Data. Data architecture handles all the tools that Woodruff Sawyer uses, like Salesforce and Epic. 

“It flows through that architecture into a data warehouse where they can report against it, but it also handles our custom application so everything is in one place,” Kulangara continues. 

That is the internal operational data, the second part of data is data that is provided to Woodruff Sawyer’s clients. If a client wants to buy cyber insurance from Woodruff Sawyer, they likely want to know:

  • How much insurance should they be buying
  • What are the benchmarks for companies of their size

Because Woodruff Sawyer has a large volume of data, they can create benchmarks.

“With our client facing data, we can say, for example, ‘90% of the companies of your size are buying this much insurance’. So this helps our clients choose.”

After the launch of Connect, the next year will see staff across Woodruff Sawyer complete their training in how to use the new systems. 

“We have created training documentation, videos and special training sessions with our business for them to be able to use it,” he adds. 

Once claims are completed, Woodruff Sawyer will pivot to some of the larger lines, such as management liability. 

“We've got some choices to make, but it looks a lot like building out Connect and building out the team, we want to build our skillset. We've got our leaders in the team, but we've got to build out the next level. It's going to be a challenge to find the right people for the roles, but I'd rather Woodruff Sawyer grow slowly than grow incorrectly.”


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