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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / DeForest Spencer, president and owner of Spencer Benefits, says he is the third generation in his family in the insurance industry.

When it comes to the coronavirus and insurance coverage, officials at Chattanooga area brokerage firms say 2020 has rewritten the playbooks.

"It has been an amazing year of transformation," says John Sorrow, who is regional agency executive for McGriff Insurance in Chattanooga. "I see that continuing. We have continued emerging risks."

DeForest Spencer, president and owner of Spencer Benefits in the city, says COVID-19 has "absolutely changed the dialogue on both ends."

"We need to make sure [businesses] are aware of their sick pay plan, and make sure they have a sick plan that's in order," he says. "In addition to the core benefits lineup of medical, dental and vision, we're starting to see more companies consider life and disability benefits, even voluntary benefits like hospital and critical care."

Insurance brokerage firms are intermediaries between companies or individuals and insurers. They provide industry expertise, and can save time and money in tracking down the right coverages.

Sorrow, a longtime Chattanooga insurance executive, joined seven years ago what was then BB&T Huffaker and has since become McGriff Insurance with the union of BB&T and SunTrust into Truist.

McGriff has become the fifth largest broker in the United States, Sorrow says. Chattanooga is McGriff's biggest office in Tennessee, and with $28 million in annual revenue, it's the largest firm in the city, Sorrow says.

"We've had an awful lot of change," he adds. "That's what comes with the simplicity and power" of becoming among the top five largest brokers in the country, he says.

Sorrow cites McGriff's breadth of product. A lot of firms here may offer brokerage for employee benefits, property or casualty or personal lines, but McGriff has departments for all of them, he says, noting the company has 66 employees just in Chattanooga.

Spencer says he's the third generation of his family to be in the insurance sector, having worked for what was Chattanooga-based Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co., now Unum Group, for six years before going into personal production in 1986 and then starting his business a few years ago.

He has gravitated toward working in the business market, such as employee and executive benefit plans and with individual life insurance. In addition to core benefits, Spencer says, businesses tell him what they want in regards to benefits packages to recruit or retain employees.

"They may need to expand outside the core benefits and get into other types of benefit plans that would be more suitable for key employees," he says. "It's not a one-size-fits-all thing for many companies."

Sorrow says there has been "a huge change" in the emerging risks clients are facing these days. The first part of March, he says, clients in Nashville and Cookeville, Tennessee, were hit by tornados and then the coronavirus, and many of those businesses closed. Then the Chattanooga area was ravaged by the same troubles.

Sorrow sees emerging risks for companies such as in product liability, or in helping those in the hotel or restaurant industries to ensure they're taking measures to keep their customers and their employees safe.

"If you're a human resources director, what's the best approach financially and competitively — do I furlough or lay off? What kind of impact will that have on my business financially?" he asks. "How will federal legislation change that mix? Unemployment benefits, as those change, how will that impact the decisions employers make?"

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / John Sorrow, regional agency executive for McGriff Insurance in Chattanooga.

In this time of COVID-19, no one has ever been through such a pandemic before, Sorrow says. Federal officials, the judiciary, companies and employees are making decisions for the first time, he says.

"The most information and resources, and the robust information we provide" will help its clients best, he says. Sorrow says he doesn't see the need changing in the future.

"We'll be living with this virus for a while," he says. "As time goes by, we anticipate there will additional risks that will emerge. How do we help our clients stay in front of emerging risks in addition to those that occurred?"

Spencer says there are technology concerns as well in the current environment, such as making sure companies can handle virtual benefit enrollments and virtual benefit meetings. A lot of employees are working from home and there are risks related to personal interaction, he says.

"I suspect the coronavirus has made companies aware of some shortcomings that might not have been normally addressed," Spencer says. "I expect plans will be part of a package going forward even after a vaccine comes into play."

He says he's seeing a lot of interest in the area of executive benefits amid the pandemic.

"The need to attract and retain key people is even more important," Spencer says.

Sorrow says it's "a very dynamic time in our business."

"We're directly connected to clients," he says. "Running a business right now, there's a lot of sleepless nights. There's no training programs for this."

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