Inside Risk: William Fortenberry
Jefferson Parish's Director of Risk Management shares how he puts his mechanical engineering background and multiline knowledge to work.
By Eric Gilkey
With an annual 1,800 general liability claims, 125 auto liability claims, 400 workers’ compensation claims, and a dozen or so public official liability claims, CLM Fellow William Fortenberry sets a fast pace for resolution in the parish that serves as a suburb of New Orleans.
Q. How did risk management become a career for you?
A. The state of Louisiana’s office of risk management needed someone with a mechanical engineering background who knew machinery and boilers for handling boiler and machinery claims. They figured it was easier to teach someone insurance than it was to teach them the mechanical side. I was encouraged to take a multiline approach to claims handling by a manager, so I later learned auto liability, general liability, workers’ compensation, and a little medical malpractice and false arrest claims. After a few years working on the insurance side, the president of Jefferson Parish reached out to me to help fix a program that was facing millions of dollars in outstanding liabilities—more than we had in the bank to pay for those potential losses. I’ve been here ever since.
Q. How valuable was that exposure to different lines of business?
A. It’s been invaluable. It gives me a broad base of knowledge from the standpoint of making decisions and assisting my departments in setting up programs to reduce risk. It’s also valuable when negotiating with underwriters for an insurance policy. It’s tough to “buffalo” someone who has intimate knowledge of many lines of business.
Q. Do you recommend new adjusters to take a multiline approach?
A. Multiline adjusters are almost extinct. Personally, I would encourage it. For some reason, though, the industry puts more emphasis on specialization. I think every line of insurance that you learn gives you a unique perspective. For example, the medical information that you gain in handling bodily injury can be very useful in in evaluating workers’ compensation claims.
Q. How is your department set up?
A. Being a government entity, I developed an opinion very early on—especially in liability situations—that if you’re using a staff adjuster who is a government employee, there is an appearance of partiality and an assumption that the adjuster will side with the employer. Therefore, we utilize a third party administrator who handles our workers’ compensation, auto liability, general liability, and public official liability claims, and it works extremely well. We currently have five adjusters and two supervisors, and they are embedded in our operation so we can keep track of everything going on.
Q. Is there a difference between handling claims for a public entity versus a private company?
A. The claims are handled identically. The unique challenge of being a governmental entity comes into play when claimants aren’t happy with the way a claim has been adjusted. They are prone to contact their elected officials, and that can be a challenge sometimes. Over my career, however, that hasn’t occurred very often.
Q. What kinds of risks do you face?
A. They’re quite diverse. It includes $1.6 billion worth of property sitting on the Gulf Coast, which, unlike a company that has risks spread throughout a geographically diverse area, is located in one small zone that is prone to natural catastrophes. It rains in Louisiana, too, so there are flood risks. Every drop of rain that falls in Jefferson Parish is mechanically pumped out since we are physically below sea level. That means we have huge pump stations—and a big exposure to go with it. Hurricanes continuously weigh on my mind; I dread the period between mid-August to mid-October. Due to these risks, we have a master policy with 15 different carriers carrying varying levels of risk. When you are located where we are, you can’t just go to the local insurance agency and say, “Give me a property policy.”
Q. Have you ever turned a risk into an opportunity?
A. Every time you change TPAs, there are data conversion issues. It was hard to keep our data accurate from one TPA to another because it wasn’t a priority for the outgoing TPA—even if it was in the contract. I made the decision 10 years ago that we would go with our own Internet-based claim management information system. That way, all I have to do is switch out the adjusters; the data stays on my system. We’ve never been able to collect better data than we can right now