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Building an open communication culture

Constructive Conversation with Gary Kaplan

By Gary S. Kaplan, President -North America Construction

Underwriting construction projects has changed over the years. Gary Kaplan, President, North America Construction, has seen a lot in his 39 year career. From the early days of BIM to the rise of drones, and now the use of artificial intelligence, the one thing that’s constant is constant change. With the rapid pace of change, it’s easy for organizations to become distracted and to lose focus on the things that matter most to customers. For Gary, it all starts and ends with building a strong team. From his perspective, when you do right by your team, your team will do right by your customers.

According to Gary, there’s no ‘secret sauce’ to building a strong team. But there’s one crucial ingredient that’s required – ongoing, open communication. This is what drives the team culture.

Since starting XL Catlin’s construction business unit in 2010, Gary’s kept an open door policy and open communication front and center throughout his growing organization. It’s all built into the team’s project-centric Leadership, Planning and Execution business model, which sets priorities based  on what matters the most.  And it’s been quite effective. In 2017, the multi-line construction insurance team reached a significant milestone achieving $2 billion in gross written insurance premium during its 7th year in operation. That’s an average growth rate of over 40% annually.

Whether it’s claims, underwriting, or risk engineering, Gary believes that everyone has a role to play in ensuring effective open communication with brokers and customers. Here’s why.

Why is open communication so important to you?

Kaplan: Early on in my career, I found that relying upon the chain of command organizational structure to carry out critical communications is flawed.  Important messages don’t always make it to the people that need to hear them the most.  This is incredibly frustrating and inefficient. Today we face even more communication challenges due to constant distractions we face. Talk to anyone and there’s a common complaint – information overload. I recently heard that the average professional receives over 100 emails a day, and checks his or her smartphone 80 times per a day. This means that too many things are competing for our attention. 

What do you do to ensure open communication throughout your team?

Kaplan: Several effective communication tools keep everyone focused. We use a monthly virtual conference call with well over 100 people that work in or support our business.  We’ve done this almost every month for 83 months in a row. We share our results using well-designed charts and graphs that outline trends.  We run these meetings like clockwork – each speaker has five minutes or less to cover their specific area. This meeting assures that everyone knows our vision, mission, and strategy and where we are at and where we need to go. We also use a lot of ‘common sense’ communication tools that everyone is expected to uphold. For instance, think about meetings.  Sometimes it seems that meetings can take over your work life.  We take measures to set meeting time defaults to 15, 30 or 45 minutes.  This leaves everyone with time to think between back to back meetings, and more importantly act on the output of each meeting.  We also demand an agenda for longer meetings. Simply put – time is precious and no one can afford to waste it.




Open communication keeps our entire team informed of the key priorities of the organization – what’s important, what’s new, and what’s coming next."


What does this open communication model mean for your brokers and customers?

Kaplan: Open communication keeps our entire team informed of the key priorities of the organization – what’s important, what’s new, and what’s coming next. Any member of our team can speak with brokers and customers in a unified voice about what XL Catlin brings to the table in addressing their specific construction insurance needs. This open communication model is also a 2-way mechanism for feedback. We’re continually asking our brokers and customers for feedback.  What are we doing right? Where do we need to do better? It’s all about listening and learning. We call this the "Voice of the Customer" and it how we build strong relationships,  drive  continuous improvement efforts and reinforce our open communication culture.

Can you share some specific examples on how open communication and customer feedback work together?

Kaplan: We’ve heard again and again from our customers about the need for a GL only policy for wrap-ups. Large contractors and select owners wanted a product that delivered more flexibility and cost savings. Last year,  we launched a new General Liability (GL) only wrap-up product – called GL Only Plus  – which delivers the flexibility and cost savings that customers were asking for. In addition, we’ve built a broker and customer feedback loop into our routine underwriting processes. When we bind a new account, we ask why they chose XL Catlin for their construction partner, including what were the most important factors in making their decision. This helps us to understand what brokers and customers value most in this major purchasing decision.

What about open communication in tough situations such as complex claims?

Kaplan: For us, when complex claims occur, that’s when proactive, open communication is most important.  These are the “make it or break it” moments for our customers. It’s where we have to prove how responsive we are. It’s where in-person meetings are required, not a nice-to-have. With claims, everyone needs to be heard, and setting up time to listen is essential to make this happen. No one likes to be surprised. So, as a standard process, our claims team will proactively contact our customers, explain the situation and work towards resolution in the most efficient way possible.  I’m so proud of how hard our claims team works and they’ve been recognized for it. Our very own Karen Rice, Head of Construction Claims, is a finalist in the 2018 CLM Professionals of the Year awards!

Looking ahead, where do you see communications’ role in the ever-changing construction industry?  

Kaplan: These are interesting times for the construction industry.  On the job site, technology is changing the way work is done.  Analytics are raising red flags on new safety issues. From start to finish, everything is expected to move faster and more efficiently. Communication plays a vital role in all of this. For instance, if day-to-day work is changing on the job site, how is this being communicated to the people impacted? What risks come from these changes? How do you make sure everyone is aware of the changes? What happens if you don’t? With analytics, it’s one thing to identify trends and/or issues on the job-site, it’s another to boil the data down to meaningful insights.  Consider a situation when you identify a major safety issue going on at three of your sites. How do you quickly respond to understand the root cause? How do you develop the action plan to fix it – and most importantly get this message out to all the people who need to know? On the flip side, what are risks and potential costs if you don’t communicate what you’ve learned?


Have a question for Gary? With nearly four decades in the industry, Gary Kaplan is passionate about the power of open communication, building strong teams, and driving cultural change. He'd love to hear your thoughts on these topics. Contact him at or 1-212-915-6646.


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