Elephant Insurance starts small with light mood, cost cutting

System engineer Jarrod Bridger uses a scooter to get around the office of Elephant Auto Insurance in Glen Allen.

You've got to watch your step in the offices of Virginia's newest auto insurer. You might be run over by a claims rep on a scooter, or get caught in the crossfire if IT folks start getting a little wild with their Nerf guns.

The atmosphere at Elephant Insurance Co. is not what most people would expect of a British insurance giant's first venture into the U.S.

Not even President and CEO Andrew Rose gets an office.

He camps out in a corner in the bullpen, with a view of the printer -- looking up on the rare occasions when the noisy clunker cranks up, since, to discourage waste, people who make printouts at Elephant owe the boss a push-up.

Saving money is part of the corporate culture.

The Henrico County-based auto insurance company is now in week two of its "soft launch" into the U.S. market, and Rose is feeling pretty good about getting all the kinks worked out.

The company's 45 employees have asked friends and family to try out its Web site or call center for an insurance quote. Next week, the marketing effort goes live.

By the end of next year, Elephant hopes to hire an additional 100 people.

Elephant is starting off selling insurance only in Virginia, but it is expecting to be a big player in the state before eventually expanding nationwide.

Its parent, Admiral Group PLC, Britain's third-largest car insurer, has invested more than $10 million as capital for the new venture -- basically, money it is parking in bank accounts and ultra-safe investments to back its promise to pay claims on millions of dollars of insurance coverage.

Admiral picked the state after Rose, a Virginia Tech graduate, spent months looking into the ins and outs of America's top 15 car insurance markets.

The reason: regulatory flexibility to change rates quickly.

In California, the fastest a rate change can go into effect is 63 days. In some states, the process can take months.

In Virginia, regulators use the same basic guidelines as other states to decide whether a rate is fair. But the Bureau of Insurance doesn't have the elaborate rules for getting to that point that many states use.

In theory, Rose said, he could file a rate change every day -- or even more often than that.

That nailed the deal for Virginia.

Rose likes the ability to change rates quickly because fine-tuning prices for particular groups of drivers is critical to Elephant's strategy.

So is being cheap.

He has a pink piggybank on his desk, the company's monthly cheapskate award that he received for insisting the lease start Jan. 5 rather than Jan. 1. Doing so saved $200.

A colleague won one after booking two IT staff members into a single hotel room for which they had to bring their own towels.

Overhead at Admiral, Elephant's British parent, is less than two-thirds its competitors. Those are the kinds of savings Rose plans to emulate and to reflect in rates.

Admiral's expenses for handling claims in Britain average one-quarter the cost of most U.S. insurers here.

Rose wants to take some of the automated processes used in Britain, such as using digital cameras and having direct communication with body shops. That way, the company can cut at the cost of sending claims adjusters on the road to inspect damage and wrangle with car owners and body shops over the cost.

"What people want is to get their car back fast," he said. "We want that, too."

Contact David Ress at (804) 649-6051 or dress@timesdispatch.com.

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