May 9, 2017 / 6:19 PM / 2 months ago

Buffett's fledgling biBERK pursues online insurance 'experiment'

FILE PHOTO: Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett waits to play table tennis during the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting weekend in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. May 7, 2017.Rick Wilking/File Photo

OMAHA, Neb. (Reuters) - It has been decades since anyone thought of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N), or even its insurance operations, as "very, very small."

But that's how a senior executive describes biBERK, a unit that lets owners of small businesses shop online for commercial vehicle, general liability, property, workers' compensation and eventually professional liability insurance.

The biBERK chief operating officer, Rakesh Gupta, said the year-old operation, known as "Cover Your Business" until a March name change that could benefit from Berkshire's cachet, was the brainchild of Ajit Jain, Berkshire's top insurance executive.

Jain wanted a hassle-free way for small business owners to bypass insurance agents, often getting quotes within five minutes after completing short questionnaires.

"Amazon.com can deliver something to you in four hours," Gupta, who grew up in New Delhi and specialized in "big data" before joining biBERK, said in a recent interview. "If people can buy paper towels on the internet, why not insurance?"

Sales data are confidential, but Gupta said biBERK, or Business Insurance Berkshire Hathaway, is signing up twice as many customers as a year ago.

The business reflects none of Omaha-based Berkshire's appetite for assuming huge insurance risks, such as major catastrophes or American International Group property and casualty claims, in exchange for upfront payments Buffett can invest.

Gupta said business insurance could follow the trajectory of auto insurance, where Berkshire's Geico unit, as well as rivals Progressive and USAA, won market share from State Farm and Allstate by driving underwriting costs, and premiums, down.

FILE PHOTO: Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in an overflow room watch the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on a TV screen in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. on May 6, 2017.Rick Wilking/File Photo

"If that happens, we want to be at the forefront," he said.

In workers' compensation, biBERK typically provides instant quotes to 60 percent of applicants, denies 20 percent, and asks 20 percent to speak with representatives.

Improvements to the sign-up process now permit 50 percent of customers to buy without human help, up from 10 percent a year ago.

Gupta said biBERK sometimes holds what it calls "hatchet" meetings to assess risks and red flags the questionnaires might not address.

Still, biBERK can afford the occasional mistake.

Its parent Berkshire Hathaway Direct Insurance Co has $118 million of surplus capital, plus reinsurance support from Berkshire's National Indemnity Co unit.

Gupta said insurers have been slow to adopt online technology in part because of state regulatory burdens.

He hopes biBERK will attract more younger, more technology-savvy people going into business for themselves.

"It's still very, very small," he said. "In the scheme of Berkshire, it's an interesting experiment."

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Phil Berlowitz

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