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A Conversation With NJM’s Mike Van Wagner

Service, Integrity & Financial Stewardship

The Meadowlands Regional Chamber has members of all sizes—from one-person operations to large companies. We took a few minutes to talk with NJM Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Van Wagner to ask about his background, how his company works, its major priorities and the outlook for the property/casualty insurance market in New Jersey.

Tell us about your role at NJM:

As Vice President of Public Affairs, I oversee Corporate Communications, Marketing, Corporate Giving, and Legislative Affairs. I began my career with NJM as a claims representative in 1982 and have served in various positions throughout the company over the past 32 years.

You also spent time working with the Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno on economic development. Can you tell us something about that?

From May 2012 through October 2013, I had the pleasure of serving as executive director of the state’s Business Action Center (BAC) on a loaned executive basis. The BAC is part of New Jersey’s economic development Partnership for Action, led by the Lieutenant Governor. The other partners are the Economic Development Agency (EDA), Choose New Jersey and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.

This was such a rewarding experience personally and professionally. With the Partnership for Action, we have a very strong economic development model and team in place that is really making a difference in retaining and attracting business and jobs for New Jersey. I am very proud to have been a part of that effort.

Tell us about NJM:

NJM is the largest property/casualty insurer in New Jersey, and its origins go back to the passage of workers’ compensation legislation in 1911. Two years after that law was enacted, a group of safety-conscious factory owners who were members of the Manufacturers Association of New Jersey, later to become the NJBIA, formed NJM to more effectively and efficiently provide workers’ compensation insurance for employees injured on the job.

Over the years, the company expanded its insurance writings to include commercial automobile as well as automobile, homeowners and personal umbrella coverages for employees of member companies or the State of New Jersey. Through these various lines of insurance, we estimate that we are providing coverage for more than 1 million New Jerseyans.

NJM wrote approximately $1.8 billion in premium across all lines in 2014, of which 98 percent is New Jersey business—the balance being from Pennsylvania.

We have about 2,500 employees serving policyholders in three offices in West Trenton, Parsippany and Hammonton.

What sets NJM apart from other insurance companies? 

NJM was founded with one purpose: to serve our policyholders. That’s not a slogan—that’s our mission. While a lot has changed over the past 100 years, our policyholder focus has not. We firmly believe that our foundational principles of service, integrity and financial stewardship are as important today as when we were first established.

Can you talk about some specific ways that NJM fulfills this mission?

  • Service: To us, insurance is not a commodity. It is a promise and a commitment to be there for our policyholders, whether it’s at the time of a claim—when they need us the most—or for the thousands of transactional calls we receive daily from our customers.
  • For example, the morning after Superstorm Sandy devastated our state, NJM had more than 300 people on the telephone taking claims calls for our policyholders. On a typical day, we would have 20 people taking these calls. We ended up over the two days following the storm taking on average 1,000 claim calls an hour. All told, our claims team has handled more than 57,000 Sandy-related claims, with a total payout of nearly $300 million.
  • To meet daily policy service needs, NJM maintains a state-of-the-art call center, staffed by more than 400 highly trained customer service representatives who annually handle more than 1.6 million calls.
  • Dividends: Perhaps nothing demonstrates NJM’s mutual approach more than our dividend policy. In every year since 1918—uninterrupted by the Great Depression, Superstorm Sandy or the recent Great Recession—we have paid dividends to our policyholders that now total in excess of $5.6 billion. In 2014 alone, we returned $148.8 million to policyholders across all lines of business, including $53 million in special dividend checks to personal auto customers in November and December.
  • Market presence, market knowledge and product expertise: New Jersey is our home, and we have very deep roots here. As noted earlier, almost all our business is written here and all of our employees are based here in the Garden State. We take great pride in being subject-matter experts in our lines of business and understanding of the legal, regulatory/political and larger business environment in the state. We know the issues facing our policyholders, because as New Jersey residents and employees ourselves, we face those same issues, too.
  • Financial strength: NJM is rated A++ (Superior) by A.M. Best Company, the nation’s leading insurance credit rating agency. This is the highest possible rating, and only a very small percentage of insurers nationwide share this distinction. Financial strength matters—particularly in the case of catastrophic events, like Superstorm Sandy.

How do you measure the quality of your service?

There are a number of different ways to measure this, but to us the most meaningful is our customer retention rate, which for all lines of business exceeds 92 percent, and for our largest lines of business—

workers’ compensation and personal auto—exceeds 95 percent. This helps to explain why “word of mouth” advocacy from satisfied policyholders has always been our biggest source of new business.

In terms of outside recognition, we are very proud to rank consistently among the highest performers in the nation through independent surveys by leading consumer and global market research organizations. Further, year in and year out, we have performed exceptionally well in the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance’s annual Auto Insurance Consumer Information Report.

As a leading auto and workers’ compensation insurer, talk about NJM’s efforts to improve safety in our workplaces and on our roadways:

Improving workplace safety was an important concern of NJM’s founders back in the early days of the 20th century. As a result, we have always had a very active loss control and engineering team that works directly with policyholders to maintain a safer workplace, reducing the incidence of injuries.

In recent years, NJM has also taken a leading role in promoting and enhancing teen driver safety. This includes our Consumer Safety Department, which features retired police officers who visit New Jersey high schools to conduct teen driver safety programs. Since the program’s inception, the officers have visited over 175 high schools and presented before more than 28,000 students.

We are also a founding sponsor of the Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey’s “U GOT BRAINS” Champion Schools event. Under this program, high school students compete to develop compelling projects to emphasize the need for safe driving among their peers, with the top finishers earning state-of-the art driving simulators. In honor of NJM’s centennial, we surprised all the schools by awarding simulators. Through this competition, NJM has been active in donating full-cab driving simulators to New Jersey high schools. Since inception of this program, NJM has donated more than 60 of these devices.

During 2013, NJM launched a “DNT TXT N DRV” pledge campaign, encouraging motorists from around the state to put down the phone, forget the text and keep their eyes on the road. We reached our goal of obtaining pledges from 50,000 New Jersey drivers not to text while behind the wheel.

How does NJM approach corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

NJM has always embraced its role as a corporate citizen by supporting the many communities in which our employees and policyholders live and work. Through our corporate giving efforts, we have provided financial support to hundreds of charitable organizations—large and small—throughout the state. NJM employees also volunteer their time for a variety of organizations, most notably the American Heart Association, Junior Achievement and Special Olympics.

Further, NJM staff serves on a number of nonprofit boards, including my own participation on the Advisory Board of the Rutgers Institute for Ethical Leadership and the Board of Trustees for Lead New Jersey.

And I should add that we are very involved and engaged in efforts to help grow New Jersey’s economy and create new jobs in the state. We maintain a close legacy partnership with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA), and engagement with chambers of commerce across the state, including the Meadowlands Regional Chamber. We also are a founding member of Choose New Jersey.

What is the property/casualty insurance industry outlook in New Jersey for 2015?

New Jersey enjoys a very stable property/casualty insurance market, with robust competition among carriers and abundant choice for consumers—both personal and commercial. All indications are that this will remain the case throughout 2015.

In this highly competitive atmosphere, keeping pace with product and technology innovations to meet the changing service expectations of consumers will continue to be a critical area of focus for all carriers.

For those of us who are active in workers’ compensation and personal auto, which both include significant medical components for injuries, the ongoing developments in management of health care costs will continue to be an area of focus.

At NJM, 2015 promises to be an exciting year with the implementation of a number of key initiatives, including the recent rollout of a new policy administration system for our personal auto policies. This streamlines access and the ability to make policy changes and also allows new customers not only to secure auto insurance quotes but to purchase and activate their policies as well, in one easy process.

The platforms may change and the technology may evolve, but our focus will be where it has always been: providing our policyholders with extraordinary value.

In the end it is all really about focusing on delivering the best service we can, which our policyholders have grown to expect.

Michael J. Van Wagner is the Vice President of Public Affairs for NJM Insurance Group, the largest property/casualty insurer in New Jersey, and a company recognized throughout the region for its outstanding service to policyholders. NJM is one of the State’s leading writers of personal auto and homeowners insurance and the largest writer of workers’ compensation insurance.

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Meadowlands USA

Meadowlands USA

Meadowlands USA is a North Jersey regional publication that reaches people who live and work in and around the Meadowlands (including the Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Passaic County corridor), as well as visitors to our region. The blog edition is updated regularly and the print edition is released six times a year.

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