American Family reports record storm claims, but posts profit

Damage claims from severe weather battered American Family Insurance Group’s coffers at a record-high level last year, but the Madison-based insurer still pulled out a profit in 2017 thanks to investment gains and new policy purchasers.American Family reported net income of $155.6 million for 2017, just under half of its earnings of $325.6 million in 2016.“It was a busy year for American Family,” said Jack Salzwedel, chairman and CEO.Storm losses hit an all-time high of $1.5 billion for American Family in 2017, up from $883 million in 2016.“We plan for storm claims, but we exceeded that number by about $400 million or so,” chief financial officer Dan Kelly said.A storm last June that hit parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota with strong winds and hail resulted in $362 million in damage claims — the largest single weather-connected loss in 2017.American Family Mutual Insurance — which writes 80 percent of the group’s premiums and serves customers in 19 states — did not face claims from the devastating hurricanes of 2017, the second most destructive hurricane year on record, with an estimated $200 billion in damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.But two of its subsidiary insurance companies — Homesite, a direct homeowners insurance business based in Boston, and The General, a direct non-standard auto insurance provider based in Nashville — did have hurricane-related claims totaling $20 million.Homesite was affected even more by the wildfires in California, resulting in $60 million worth of claims for damage there.Part of the weather-related claims was offset by $391 million American Family expected to recover through reinsurance — insurance policies that American Family buys that kick in when claim levels soar.Auto claims — including those damaged in storms — also hit a record of $3.1 billion, up from $2.6 billion in 2016. For every dollar earned in Continue Reading

American Family Insurance joins list of companies giving bonuses to employees after tax cut

American Family Insurance said Friday it will give 11,000 workers a one-time bonus of $1,000, becoming the latest U.S. company to pass some of the savings from federal tax reform to employees.The Madison-based insurer said the reduction in the corporate income tax rate also would help fuel permanent changes to its employee benefits program, such as expanded tuition reimbursement, help paying student loans and scholarships for workers who pursue a post-high school degree.In addition, American Family said its family leave program now will provide employees with paid leave to care for an ill child of any age or for a spouse or domestic partner.“Our success rests with our people who are dedicated to helping our customers,” Bill Westrate, American Family Insurance president, said in a statement. “These changes demonstrate our commitment to our people, today and into the future, with expanded benefits and educational support, and to the communities where we do business.”American Family said Friday the company will contribute $10 million to its Dreams Foundation, which supports programs and provides grants to nonprofits. This year, American Family said, the foundation will provide a one-time, two-to-one match for employee and agent donations to qualifying charities, a boost from the one-to-one match in place since the Dreams Foundation was established in 2016.American Family was the second Wisconsin-based company this week to announce publicly that tax reform would have a positive financial impact on its staff. On Wednesday, Hartland-based Town Bank said it was boosting the minimum hourly wage for employees to $15.Among other Wisconsin companies reacting to the reduced tax rate, Racine's Johnson Bank, the second-largest bank based in the state, recently committed to a minimum $15 hourly pay rate for employees.On Dec. 21, Green Bay's Associated Bank, the largest bank headquartered in the state, became the first major Continue Reading

Florida Georgia Line headlines Summerfest’s American Family Insurance Amphitheater June 30

The Summerfest announcements keep on coming.Summerfest officials have revealed a third American Family Insurance Amphitheater show for the third day in a row, announcing Wednesday that pop country duo Florida Georgia Line will headline June 30. Florida Georgia Line is a regular booking for the Big Gig, and was predicted by the Journal Sentinel to headline the 2018 edition. RELATED: 11 Summerfest headliner predictions for 2018 Before Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley were country A-listers, they played an afternoon slot at Summerfest's Johnson Controls World Sound Stage in 2012. The following year, they opened for Luke Bryan at what was then called the Marcus Amphitheater for a capacity crowd on the heels of Florida Georgia Line's breakout hit "Cruise." Florida Georgia Line made a surprise cameo appearance at Bryan's Summerfest set in 2014, then headlined the festival for the first time in 2015. The Summerfest show will be the band's first following the 2016 release of its third album "Dig Your Roots," which generated three No. 1 singles on Billboard's U.S. Country Airplay Chart: "H.O.L.Y.;" "May We All;" and "God, Your Mama, and Me." An opening act has yet to be announced.Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Jan. 20 at the Summerfest box office (200 N. Harbor Drive); Ticketmaster retail outlets; select Walmart stores in the Milwaukee area; by calling (800) 745-3000 or (866) 448-7849; or visiting Prices have yet to be announced, but tickets will include admission to Summerfest's other stages on June 30. Following an atypically quiet fall from fest officials, it's been a busy week of amphitheater announcements.On Monday came news that Halsey and Logic would co-headline the amphitheater June 29. Fest officials announced Tuesday that James Taylor, with Bonnie Raitt opening, will play the amphitheater June 28.  RELATED: James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt playing Summerfest's Continue Reading

American Family Insurance buys Chicago software firm

American Family Insurance has purchased Networked Insights, a Chicago data analytics software firm that scrapes social media to find out what people are saying online in their blogs, tweets and reviews and uses the data to advise companies on marketing strategy and product innovation. Madison-based American Family has “significantly invested” in technology platforms and analytics in the past three years, CEO and chairman Jack Salzwedel said, and the purchase of Networked Insights will strengthen its use of data, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence. The transaction was finalized Thursday; terms of the deal were not disclosed. Networked Insights started in Madison in 2006 and moved its headquarters to Chicago about five years ago. The company has 74 employees, with 60 in Chicago, seven in Madison and seven in New York. CEO and co-founder Dan Neely said it’s too soon to tell if the acquisition will lead to adding employees at the Madison office. Neely said his company began working closely with American Family about three years ago. He said one product of the collaboration was the decision to name professional football player J.J. Watt and pro basketball star Kevin Durant as brand ambassadors for the insurance company. Those choices “may have come out of left field for some,” Neely said, but they were based on data collected by Networked Insights that showed a lot of interest in the two athletes. American Family chief business development officer Peter Gunder said the software company’s analytics will “give agents more insight about our business more quickly” and will help the company “identify and meet customers’ needs in new ways.” The data may also help the insurance company “understand indicators of fraud,” said Networked Insights’ president and chief operating officer, Gerry Komlofske. Last January, Networked Insights raised $30 million, bringing total funding from Continue Reading

American Family Insurance acquires software firm Networked Insights

American Family Insurance on Thursday acquired a Chicago-based data and analytics software company, a move the insurer said would enhance its digital capabilities.Financial terms of the deal that brought Networked Insights to American Family weren't disclosed.American Family said all 74 employees of the software firm will be retained. Networked Insights has offices in Madison, where American Family is headquartered, and New York City, in addition to Chicago.The acquisition will help American Family further build its digital know-how, including the use of data, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence, the company said."We have significantly invested in our technology platforms and data and analytics in the past three years,” Jack Salzwedel, American Family chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This acquisition and others strengthen our best-in-class agency distribution by bringing best-in-class digital and data capabilities, providing our customers with both expertise and convenience.”American Family, which is the top insurer of homes and automobiles in Wisconsin, is a Networked Insights client and has been a minority investor in the company since 2013. American Family now is its sole owner.“The analytics capabilities we gain with Networked Insights will strengthen our ability to provide proactive protection to customers and to quickly identify and meet customer needs in new ways," said Peter Gunder, American Family Insurance chief business development officer.Networked Insights will operate as a stand-alone subsidiary. In addition to serving its customers, Networked Insights employees will collaborate with American Family data scientists on projects using advanced analytic capabilities to improve customer interactions and business value, the company said.Networked Insights founder and CEO Dan Neely and Gerry Komlofske, president and chief operating Continue Reading

Ratings and Review: The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica sets new standards for shuttling American families

Full Car Details More Reviews Minivans are perfect for parents raising children. No other type of vehicle makes life easier quite like a minivan does, thanks to the handy sliding side doors, the roomy seating, and cargo carrying capabilities that not just rival but eclipse even the largest of SUVs. The problem is that minivans typically supply as much style as the box on wheels that they are, and when you’re run ragged by kids, commutes, and crazy schedules, you just don’t want to drive something that looks the way you feel. Drab. Exhausted. A shell of your former vibrant and effervescent self. Fear not, fellow mommies and daddies. Chrysler understands, and given that it created the minivan back in the early 1980s, it ought to. Granted, during the past decade Chrysler did little to change perceptions of the boring, soulless minivan, foisting upon us the uncompetitive snoozefest that was the Town & Country. But now, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica has arrived, and it is terrific. With family visiting from out of town, I figured the time was right to put the Pacifica to the test. For most of hundreds of miles spent covering ground from San Diego to Santa Barbara, I had people placed into each of the three rows of seats. There were runs to the beach. Runs to the airport. Runs to college campus tours. Runs to California theme parks and museums. And the new Pacifica took it all in stride, making a hectic week so much easier. Design: 8.7 rating Kia’s Sedona remains my favorite minivan from a design standpoint, both inside and out, but the Chrysler Pacifica is a close second. It has genuine style, especially when loaded up in Limited trim like my test vehicle ($47,280 as tested, including the $995 destination charge). While sitting at the local car wash, getting the Pacifica spruced up for a photo shoot, a Toyota Sienna Limited painted a nearly identical color was Continue Reading

Hamill: Decades-old Brooklyn family business becomes victim of red tape

This is a story about how a state bureaucracy killed a vital Brooklyn factory. “It’s the wrong way to die,” says Darrell Caneiro, president of Statewide Fireproof Door Co. in Carroll Gardens. “Since last year the New York State Compensation Rating Board raised my workman comp insurance rates 380% for my six workers in a small family business. It has killed us. We will shut the door of Statewide Door for the last time, after 49 years, in 10 days.” Who pays the compensation to a neighborhood when one of its only manufacturing plants, an honest to goodness factory that makes real stuff — residential and commercial fire doors that you see on boiler rooms, movie theater fire exits, hospitals, schools and apartment houses all over Brooklyn — has been killed by a bloodless bureaucracy that literally pounced like a vampire and sucked the blood out of its neck? “This started last year when my broker for an insurance company I won’t name at this juncture told me that my comp insurance rate was too high,” says Caneiro, as the business that was founded by his Spanish immigrant grandfather, Manuel, and father, Joe, in 1965 disappeared around him like another lost piece of a vanished working-class Brooklyn. “My broker said we had a 3076 state comp rating and that we should be a 3066,” says Caneiro, who knows the right screws needed to install doors but not the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic machine. “He said we’d save $800 to $1,000 if we applied for the proper rating.” Caneiro’s father and grandfather are deceased and so his mother, who owns the lion’s share of the business, wrote a letter to the State Compensation Insurance Rating Board asking for a reclassification. “A couple of months passed but we didn’t hear back,” says Caneiro. “But I know bureaucracy can be slow. So I didn’t pay it much Continue Reading

Census Bureau: Number of Americans without health insurance rises to 46.3 million

The number of Americans without health insurance rose to 46.3 million last year as people began losing jobs and coverage in the current recession. The poverty rate hit 13.2 percent, an 11-year high. The Census Bureau's annual report released Thursday offers a snapshot of the economic well-being of American households for 2008, the first full year of the recession. It comes as Congress engages in its high-stakes debate over health care overhaul, following a renewed plea Wednesday night by President Barack Obama to pass sweeping legislation. The numbers for 2008 do not capture the economic impact in the first half of 2009 as hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs and likely their health insurance. Speaking at the White House, Obama acknowledged that the number of those without coverage may be higher than the Census figures. "The situation's grown worse over the last 12 months," he said. "Its estimated that the ranks of the uninsured have swelled by at least 6 million." The figures show about 46.3 million people were uninsured last year. That's higher than the 45.7 million in 2007, due to the steady erosion of employer-provided health insurance. Still, the level remained just below the peak of 47 million who were uninsured in 2006, because of the growth of government insurance programs such as Medicaid for the poor. The percentage of Americans without health coverage rose to 15.4 percent, which is not statistically different from 15.3 percent in 2007. The nation's poverty rate increased to 13.2 percent, up from the 12.5 percent in 2007. That meant there were 39.8 million, or nearly 1 in 7 people, living in poverty in 2008, an increase of about 2.5 million from the previous year. It was the highest level since 1997, when the rate stood at 13.3 percent. The official poverty level is now $22,025 for a family of four, based on a calculation that includes only cash income before deductions for taxes. It excludes capital gains or accumulated Continue Reading

Right-wingers are scapegoating hardworking American families

Conservative activists are busy concocting an utterly revisionist history of how America got into the current economic crisis. Predictably, the talking points issued by right-wing bloggers, talk-show hosts and columnists lay blame on their favorite targets: Democrats, liberals, big government, neighborhood organizations - and above all, those irresponsible poor people who kept foolishly trying to snag a bit of the American Dream by becoming homeowners. The starting point of the attacks  is the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, a splendid and important piece of legislation requiring federally insured banks and thrifts to negotiate with local communities about providing financial services fairly throughout their entire service area. Back when I worked as an activist in central Brooklyn, it was CRA that required bankers to bargain with churches, block associations and other groups about keeping branches open, depositing bank funds in community credit unions, donating bank furniture to neighborhood groups and so on. I spent so much time arranging reinvestment deals that the state Banking Department - under Republican Gov. George Pataki - offered me a job monitoring bank compliance with the law. (I declined.) The law was - and remains - an important corrective to decades of red-lining, in which banks would take in millions in savings and bank deposits in low-income areas but refuse to lend any of it to even the most creditworthy families and businesses in those neighborhoods. It isn't a mandate with hard-and-fast penalties and loads of onerous regulations. Banks are only required to try to serve all parts of their business area - and the penalty for noncompliance is maybe getting denied permission to merge or expand operations in the future, an exceedingly rare occurrence. Nor has the law ever been exclusively about extending mortgage loans: Banks can also open branches in underserved areas, offer low-cost checking accounts, sponsor financial seminars Continue Reading

Custom grille covers a family business

The products Anthony Giumenta Sr.'s Brooklyn factory turns out might go unnoticed, but his client roster is filled with household names - from movie stars to Disney and the federal government. For more than 20 years, Architectural Grille has manufactured custom-made grilles that cover heating and air conditioning vents. Americans might not think about them much, but "everybody needs a heating grille," said Giumenta, 67, who co-owns the Gowanus company with his two sons. The Defense Department needed hundreds for the Pentagon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Architectural Grille supplied steel models with a gray, baked-enamel finish. Disney's Hong Kong theme park is a big customer, as is the W Hotel on Lexington Ave. in midtown. They've been used on the sets of "Law & Order" and the movie "Meet Joe Black." They're also in numerous actors' and actresses' Manhattan apartments, and movie and music moguls' Hamptons homes. (Giumenta prefers to keep his client list private.) When Architectural Grille branched into custom-made grilles, the company installed computerized machinery to produce them fast and flawlessly. "One grille would take me three or four hours to make by hand. Now, in a matter of seconds, it's done," he said. Machines that shoot high-pressure streams of water and garnet granules through needles can cut wood, marble or even granite, if that's what customers want. The minimum charge for a custom-made grille is $75; the most elaborate costs up to $1,500. The Giumentas' skill and speed in turning out custom designs has won them repeat business from architects and contractors. "Grilles are like artwork," said Craig Rietmann, an owner of Hamptons heating and air conditioning contractor Weber & Grahn. "They need to blend in with the moldings and cabinetry work." Architectural Grille, which has 52 employees, brought in $4.5 million in sales last year. The company spends heavily on new machinery, building upkeep and employee wages Continue Reading