It's a steamy Saturday in Houston, a day so piping hot that one would gladly consider diving into a vat of Texas chili for relief. But chili is a messy business, so instead, half the population seems to have taken refuge in their air-conditioned cars, choking Houston's freeways as a result. For Kristen Botello, all those cars mean just one thing: lots of accidents.
She's not rooting for wrecks. But she knows from experience that accidents happen. And when they do, she wants to be on the scene immediately -- before the police arrive, before a wrecker tows away the cars. Why all the urgency? Because Botello, 28, settles claims for Progressive Corp., an auto-insurance maverick that has built a prosperous, fast-growing company around speed, service, and software.
Around lunchtime, Botello's two-way radio crackles with a message. "Kristen, we've got a scene," says the dispatcher. She heads for the freeway in a Ford Explorer with the label "PROGRESSIVE" emblazoned on both sides. Accidents are like mysteries, she says. And like any good detective, Botello doesn't want the scene disturbed. Sometimes she shows up so quickly that all the clues are still in place: the skid marks, the witnesses, the cars resting in post-collision chaos. Botello inspects the vehicles, assesses the damage, does her analysis, whips out her laptop, downloads a claim file, and cuts a check on the spot. Case closed.
Wait a minute. A claims adjuster who works weekends? Who rushes to the scene of an accident? Who settles a claim in minutes rather than months? Do not adjust your monitor. These are just some of the day-to-day realities of life at Progressive. "We're leading a wave of change," declares Peter Lewis, 64, CEO of the 15,000-person operation based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. "Before, you had 300 companies marching in a straight line. Everybody -- State Farm, Allstate, Nationwide -- did business the same way. Then Progressive broke out of the line and started doing things differently. After a while, everybody looked over and said, 'They're making wider margins than we are! They're growing faster than we are! What are they doing?' "
What they're doing is running circles around the competition. The auto-insurance industry is so notorious for high prices, bloated bureaucracies, and poor service that it has sparked state-level political revolts across the country. The industry as a whole has run at an underwriting loss over the past five years. (In other words, companies have collected less in premiums than they've paid out in claims and expenses.) Progressive, by contrast, has generated healthy underwriting margins of 8% over the same period of time. Last year, its annual revenues exceeded $4.6 billion -- up by more than 36% from the previous year (a growth rate that is six times the industry average). Lately Progressive shares have traded for as high as $156, up from $42 as recently as 1996. The result: Progressive -- which, in Lewis's words, used to be dismissed as "a piddling little outfit in Ohio that does oddball things" -- is now the fifth-largest U.S. auto insurer.
Lewis's company has been an innovator on several fronts -- from strategy to pricing to technology. But at the heart of its breakthrough business performance is Immediate Response, its ultra-fast claims service. Before Immediate Response, Progressive handled claims as everybody else did -- inefficiently. A claim would be assigned to an adjuster, who alone was responsible for interviewing the parties involved, inspecting the vehicles, and settling the dispute. Because adjusters handled so many claims at once, and because they worked a conventional 9-to-5 day, claims would languish in an in-basket. Rather than providing great customer service, adjusters were shuffling mountains of paper.
"Customers expected us to deliver what they were paying for -- to get their cars fixed and to cover their medical expenses," says Willy Graves, 42, claims-process leader. "But we were spending our time putting paper into stacks. We realized that we had to treat an accident like what it is: an emergency."
Today Progressive has representatives available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They arrive at an accident with powerful laptops, intelligent software, and the power to make on-the-spot decisions. The result is faster, less expensive -- and more profitable -- service. Progressive staffers like to boast that they settle claims before other companies even know that there's even been an accident. "We used to measure a claims settlement in days," says Leslie Kolleda, 36, PR manager at Progressive. "Now we measure it in hours." In fact, in most cases, the company conducts its inspection within nine hours of when an accident is reported.
Today, in Houston, Kristen Botello is on the case long before her nine hours are up. When she reaches the accident scene, southeast of downtown, she finds a routine fender bender. The driver of an Acura Integra, who is insured with Progressive, was leaving a beauty salon when she backed into a Mitsubishi Eclipse parked across the street. There's no mystery here, just everyday drama -- and no injuries, other than a bruised ego.
"I thought I had it under control when I came down the driveway," says Mary, the Acura owner, standing with her hands on her hips. "I didn't hit her hard at all." Mary isn't happy about the wreck, but she's impressed by the efficiency of the representative from her insurance company. Botello, a former social worker, is a team leader on the weekend unit. She arrived a half hour after the accident happened. Twenty minutes later, she's worked up a $201 estimate on the Integra and a $540 estimate on the Eclipse. Mary pokes her head into the back of Botello's Explorer. "How about that," Mary jokes. "Have printer, will travel."
The other driver, a young woman named Clarisse, is worried about how the news will go over when she gets home. "Give this to your father," Botello says, handing her a check for $540. "He probably won't be so mad after he sees that."
Birth, Crisis, Reinvention
When Progressive employees describe how their company approaches the auto-insurance business -- and business in general -- they use words like "intense," "aggressive," and "unconventional." Those words also describe Peter Lewis, the company's resident trailblazer and firestarter -- and its CEO for the past 33 years. Lewis is 64 going on 24, with longish white hair and a smile that suggests irreverence, mischief, and candor. He has the rakish charm of Peter O'Toole and the zaniness of Christopher Lee. He will say anything. About his wealth: "I'm as rich as Croesus." (Which is true: His shares in Progressive -- nearly 10 % of the total -- are valued at about $650 million.) About how "stupid" his competition is: "All these other companies are trying to follow us. Meanwhile, we're getting better." About how reckless he was behind the wheel before he hired a driver: "I was a serious accident waiting to happen." About how 20 years of therapy helped him accept that other people tend to consider him eccentric. When Lewis tells you he's "done it all," you can't be certain what he is referring to -- but you don't doubt for a second that it's interesting.
Lewis's office overlooks the Progressive campus and several large sculptures, which are part of the company's renowned collection of modern art. Directly across from his metal-and-glass desk are 10 Andy Warhol prints of Mao Tse-tung. His trademark black Stetson hat rests on a nearby table, as if it were another work of art. Last year, because of severe circulatory problems, Lewis underwent a below-the-knee amputation on his left leg. So, until he gets a prosthesis later this fall, he must maneuver around the office in a wheelchair. He does so nimbly, like a crafty wizard tinkering in his workshop.
Peter Lewis gets deeply emotional about insurance, in part because running Progressive is all that he's ever wanted to do. His father cofounded the company in 1937, when Peter was 3 years old. As a young boy, he accompanied his father to work and played on the office furniture. At age 12, he stuffed envelopes to earn his first paycheck. As a thirtysomething CEO, he worked 90 hours a week. Decades later, he's still behind the wheel.
Joe Lewis started Progressive with a buddy, Jack Green. They were young lawyers trying to make it in Cleveland during the Depression. The state of Ohio hired them to investigate salesmen who were pitching a dubious auto-service contract. After busting up the scam, the two lawyers started an auto-insurance business of their own. They charged $25 a policy and offered such innovations as drive-in claims service. (The company was headquartered in a garage.) But for the coming of World War II, Progressive might have gone out of business. People on the home front had money to buy policies, but gas rationing severely limited their driving -- which meant that there were few accidents. During the war years, Progressive received so few claims that it emerged from the period with about $400,000 in capital.
By the time Peter Lewis graduated from Princeton University, in 1955, his father had died and Green was in charge. Peter took a job at Progressive, and although his duties were limited to sales, he attended the company's daily management meetings, where the head underwriter complained about independent agents who tried to persuade him to cover "nonstandard" customers -- high-risk drivers who had been turned down by other insurers. One day, Lewis spoke up: "They're bringing us potential business. Can't we find a way to write these people?"
It was, he likes to say, his first great idea at Progressive. In 1957, the company wrote just $86,000 worth of policies for nonstandard motorists. But over the next decade, the market took off. Lewis watched his company's premiums balloon. He had identified a niche around which he could build a big company -- and add to his father's legacy. "My entire life has been intertwined with the life of this company," he says.
Peter Lewis gets emotional about auto insurance for another reason. In 1952, his older brother, Jon, who was 16, was driving to Canada for a fishing trip. After 12 hours behind the wheel, Jon collided with an oncoming truck. His brother's death, Lewis says, "makes every car accident an emotional experience for me. I can't take them lightly. We're not in the business of auto insurance. We're in the business of reducing the human trauma and economic costs of automobile accidents -- in effective and profitable ways."
If it was a personal crisis that engendered Lewis's emotional commitment to Progressive, it was a political crisis that convinced him to reinvent the company. In 1988, California voters passed Proposition 103, a referendum designed to regulate auto-insurance companies and to roll back escalating rates. The law was a near-fatal blow to Progressive, which had done 20% of its business in California. Lewis's company coughed up $60 million in refunds -- and eventually reduced its workforce by 19%. Lewis calls Prop 103 "the most frustrating experience" of his career; to this day, it gets his blood boiling. He also calls it "the best thing that ever happened to this company." How so? Because the very legislation that threatened to put Progressive out of business also inspired its dramatic makeover. Prop 103 made Progressive what it is today.
"Remember the line from the movie Network?" Lewis asks. " 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore.' That's what voters were saying. It was a wake-up call. I decided that from then on, anything we did had to be good for the consumer -- or we weren't going to do it."
Lewis turned to longtime friend and Princeton classmate Ralph Nader, an outspoken supporter of the California referendum, to help him understand the animosity that consumers felt toward insurers. Nader suggested that Lewis come to Washington and meet with the heads of two dozen state-level consumer groups.
"What's wrong with auto insurance?" Lewis asked them.
"It's not competitive," someone in the audience said.
"Wait a minute," he replied. "There are more than 300 companies in the business. If we move our price one percentage point up or down, we get 10% more or 10% fewer applications. That's competitive." The advocates were unappeased. They insisted that Lewis worked in a noncompetitive industry.
That's when Lewis began to understand the extent of the industry's credibility gap. That's also when he decided to embrace what Progressive calls "information transparency" -- a policy of sharing with customers information about prices, costs, and service. The company's "1 800 AUTO PRO" service, for example, quotes Progressive's rates to potential customers -- along with the rates of competitors, even if those rates are cheaper. "Time and again, people don't believe we do this," says Alan Bauer, 46, the company's Internet-process leader. "They think it's a gimmick. But it's part of information transparency. We are exposing our data to the customer."
Progressive has also changed the way it sells. Most companies either sell policies direct -- over the phone or through local offices -- or sell through "captive agents" who represent the company. Progressive, which for years had relied exclusively on a nationwide network of independent agents to sell its policies, decided to create multiple distribution channels. Now customers who want to purchase a policy can do so in a number of ways: They can contact one of Progressive's more than 30,000 independent agents, call 1 800 AUTO PRO, or visit Progressive on the Web. Indeed, in 1995, Progressive became one of the first auto-insurance companies to launch a Web service to sell its product, and it is now approved to sell policies over the Web in 15 states, including California, New York, and Texas. "We want to provide the information that customers need -- and to provide it on their terms," says Bauer. "We don't care if it's in person, over the phone, or online."
Using multiple distribution channels has been a tremendous success, but it was Immediate Response that really reinvented the company. Progressive launched the service less than two years after Prop 103. It was Lewis's second great idea -- as powerful as it was simple. The majority of auto accidents happen before or after business hours, and on weekends and holidays, the CEO reasoned. So why shouldn't Progressive stay open around the clock? "For three years, people said, 'It's crazy, it's too expensive, nobody will do it,' " Lewis remarks. "And for the same three years, I sat here and said, 'We're going to do it, no matter how much it costs and no matter how much you don't like it.' Other businesses go the extra mile. Why not an auto-insurance company?"
New Strategies, New Tools
"Progressive claims, this is Tina. How may I help you?"
Progressive receives about 25,000 phone calls per day. Calls about existing claims are routed to the appropriate local office. New loss-report calls are routed to one of the company's five call centers. The largest center, in Cleveland, is a maze of terminals operated by young claims representatives in baseball caps, ponytails, and jeans. These reps interview customers who have had accidents, enter data into Progressive's mainframe, and initiate Immediate Response -- all in a matter of minutes.
The Cleveland office employs 210 claims representatives. One of them, Tina McDuffee, is taking a claim. A 26-year-old with long brown hair, freckles, and a scrunchie on her wrist, McDuffee sits at a computer terminal with an intense, faraway look in her eyes: She's trying to picture an accident.
On the line, Sandra in Sacramento is describing what just happened to her 1995 Geo Prism. "I told the property manager that I was parked in the alley behind our townhouse. He comes out a half hour later and backs his truck right into me! He must have forgotten that I was there. I can't believe it. I'd just told him! I've never been in an accident before. I don't know what to do."
"That's okay," McDuffee reassures her, as she walks Sandra through the process -- verifying names, addresses, and phone numbers; the model, make, and year of the vehicles; the time and date of the accident; and Sandra's collision coverage with Progressive. Next she puts Sandra on hold and calls the Progressive office in Sacramento. She reaches a dispatcher named Anne, electronically transmits the claim file to her, and then transfers her to Sandra.
"That was a snap," McDuffee says.
The first stage of Immediate Response is designed to be quick and seamless, with "an unbroken flow of information" between the customer, Progressive's central database, and the local claims operation, Graves explains. When Anne in Sacramento dispatches a rep to Sandra's home, she'll also radio or page the corresponding claim number to him so that he can download Sandra's file onto his laptop. This sort of nifty handoff wasn't possible until Progressive's information-systems department developed the software to do it. Early on, reps relied on cell-phones to execute Immediate Response. They had to call dispatchers repeatedly to relay data or to retrieve coverage information from the mainframe. If reps didn't return to the office right away to update a file with their estimate, the job wouldn't get done until the end of the day or the following morning.
Claims Workbench, an object-oriented software application that Progressive spent four years developing, eliminated those kinks. With the help of a wireless modem and a Pentium laptop, the program allows reps to perform up to 20 separate transactions in the field -- everything from entering police-report information to downloading another rep's estimate from across town. Mark Smith, 41, head of claims for IS, is reluctant to reveal too much about the software, because he believes that it gives Progressive a major marketplace advantage. He knows of no other insurance company that can instantly move information back and forth between a laptop and a mainframe and keep claims moving toward resolution. That's the beauty of Claims Workbench: It provides what the company calls "concurrent information flow."
Progressive rolled out Claims Workbench in September 1997. Within three months, the company trained 2,500 reps in 200 offices nationwide to use the software. As a result, Immediate Response became much more immediate. In 1990, claims reps inspected vehicles within nine hours of the accident report only 15% of the time. Last year, the figure rose to 57%. Progressive also tracks the number of claims that are settled within seven days: That number is now at 50% -- a big increase from a few years earlier. "We're giving our reps the tools and information they need to do real-time decision making," says Smith. "They're empowered to settle claims in the field."
That's what Kristen Botello does. In a dusty storage lot in a run-down part of Houston, she examines a 1996 Chevy Cavalier that was broadsided earlier that morning. As if conducting an autopsy, she peels back a sheet of plastic covering the shattered rear window and studies the wreckage. The left rear door is caved in; the left front door won't budge. Although the trunk appears unharmed, she notices that the seam is uneven: The metal buckled on impact. The right rear wheel is slightly askew, a sign that the suspension is damaged. "This is a good hit," she says.
Back in her Immediate Response Vehicle (IRV) Botello works up an estimate. She opens Claims Workbench and downloads a file from the corporate mainframe. Then she launches Pathways, an application that provides an encyclopedic listing of parts for nearly every car on the road. (Reps used to rely on several boxes of "crash guides" to do their estimating, but the voluminous books weren't always up to date.) Botello scrolls through a database that lists parts, prices, and labor-hour estimates. The rear door? Replace. The bumper? Repair. The driver's door? Well, that presents a problem. Botello can't find a shop that has the parts she needs at the price she wants, so she radios a rep familiar with the neighborhood and finds parts "of like kind and quality" at a nearby shop.
Claims are assigned according to their complexity. Newer reps handle single-car accidents and fender benders; more experienced reps get multi-car accidents, which often involve totaled vehicles and injuries. A two-car accident might involve damage to both cars and one injured motorist -- for three total "features." One rep "owns" the claim, and other team members assist with various features. That arrangement is more efficient than having one rep do everything. At Progressive's Greenway office, in Houston, where Botello works, each team has "five in and five out," says Nik Cheairs, 37, weekend claims manager. In other words, five team members work in the office, answering phones, dispatching agents, and resolving long-term claims, while five claims reps work the field, doing Immediate Response.
Progressive offices are sprouting up all over Houston, including seven in the past 10 years. "As we grow, we get closer to our customers, and our service gets better," says Mark Oppenheim, 41, regional manager for east Texas. There's a learning curve associated with doing business with Progressive. For Immediate Response to make a difference, customers have to do their part: The sooner they report an accident, the sooner the company can respond. In Houston, people are catching on. Maybe it's the barrage of TV and radio ads about how Progressive does business. Maybe it's the nearly three dozen IRVs that roam the city -- offering daily evidence of Progressive at work. But these days, in Houston, more than half of Progressive's loss calls are placed within 24 hours of the accident.
That kind of collaboration changes the economics of customer service. (See "Speed Rules".) It also changes the emotions of customer service, turning an inherently unpleasant, inconvenient, and even traumatic experience -- a car accident -- into something not so harrowing. "You'd be surprised how many people are nice to me after they've just had a wreck," says Botello. "They're happy to see me, because I'm there to help. And if they've never experienced Immediate Response before, they're surprised that I'm there at all. Some even apologize for taking up my time. I have to tell them, 'I'm supposed to be here. This is my job.' "
Big Claims, Clear Metrics
There's no doubt that unconventional services like Immediate Response and powerful tools like Claims Workbench have created an advantage for Progressive. But Peter Lewis traces his company's ascent to something simpler -- two no-nonsense operating principles: "hire the best" and "pay the most."
As far as Lewis is concerned, around-the-clock service and cutting-edge software aren't worth a thing without topflight talent. "We have the best people in the industry as measured by education, intelligence, initiative, work ethic, and work record," he asserts. "We find them and go after them. Then we put them through our crucible. This is a highly competitive, challenging place to work. We work harder than most companies, and that becomes sort of seductive. Many people wash out. The ones who remain are fantastic."
Lewis is something of a fanatic about creating clear, measurable objectives that employees understand and agree to meet. Those who fall short don't last long. "The other side of hiring good people is firing people who aren't good," he says. "We evaluate people against their objectives, which they negotiate with the company and then put in writing. If people aren't doing their job, it's good-bye. This is not a bloodthirsty place. It is a humane environment. But we do not suffer nonperformance."
Progressive maintains what its CEO calls "an aristocracy of performers." Those who perform well get paid well. And Lewis knows how well people perform, because Progressive tracks virtually every aspect of its business. "If you want to improve something, start measuring it," Lewis says. "Then attach rewards to positive measurements, or penalties to negative ones, and you'll get results."
Once Immediate Response got off the ground, for example, Glenn Renwick, 43, a technology-process leader, became eager for customers to report losses sooner. So he created a sophisticated metric called the Claims Reporting Index (CRI), a logarithmic scale that monitors how long it takes customers to report accidents.
On the CRI, a score of 100 means that every customer reports a loss within 24 hours of when it occurs. Early on, just as Renwick expected, the CRI was high (around 130) -- which meant that many accident victims were filing claims after the 24-hour mark. A score that high created an incentive for Progressive to experiment with ways to change customer behavior. The most effective innovation was the Progressive Gold Card. It looks like a premium credit card, except that it features the company's toll-free claims number and a space to write in a policy number. It also breaks in half -- to facilitate the exchange of information after an accident. The card grew out of Progressive's research on credit cards, from which the company concluded that the durability and prestige of a physical card were important to consumers. In the six years since Progressive introduced the Gold Card, the CRI has dropped from 130 into the 70s.
"It's like FedEx: Customers know that it delivers overnight," Renwick says. "More and more people know that we handle auto-insurance claims differently -- and quickly."
Now, after a lifetime of doing things differently, Peter Lewis finds his company in a position that he never imagined for it: competing with the biggest names in the business. "We're in the big leagues now, up there with State Farm and Allstate," he says. "The question is, Can we win the pennant? Today 4 out of 100 cars in the U.S. are insured with Progressive. People laugh when I talk about 100% market share. But if we can get better than everybody else in every aspect of the business, why would anybody buy from another company? Of course, I'd settle for 25%. People tell me that 25% can't be done either, but people have been telling me things like that my whole life."
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company contributing editor based in Baltimore. For more information on Progressive Corp., visit the Web (www.progressive.com).