An Interview with Art Meadows

Chairman of Panhandle Farmers Insurance Company

August 3, 2020

Panhandle Farmers’ Mutual has faced challenges that will be familiar to many insurance companies. In the early 2000s, they found themselves burdened by inefficient processes and buried in paperwork. The company sought opportunities to innovate and modernize by utilizing emerging technology. In 2004, Panhandle hired Art Meadows as CEO, and under his visionary leadership, they have seen impressive growth.

Additionally, they were well-positioned to pivot strategically when COVID-19 caused significant interruptions to the business environment. Meadows shares his insights on technological solutions for disaster preparedness, business continuity, and remote work. 

How are things going right now?

We’ve been very fortunate. Work has continued as usual - well, maybe a little bit different, but we haven’t had any hiccups as a result of remote work. I did a survey of our employees 6 weeks into the remote working, and they reported they were more productive or at the very least on the same level as in the office. Our claims service did not diminish in any way, our application count is up compared to the same period last year, and we maintained our service to our independent agents without any interruptions.

That’s wonderful! What do you attribute the smooth transition to?

We’ve made a lot of changes over the past few years that made it easier for us to weather COVID-19 better than a lot of companies. About three years ago, we created a disaster recovery plan intended to be used for storm-related issues, fire loss to our building, that kind of thing. We never thought we’d use it as a result of a pandemic, but I’m happy to say it worked flawlessly.

What kind of changes did you put in place?

We implemented a cloud-based core platform from BriteCore a number of years ago. Using a cloud-based solution and storage really opened the door for us in moving forward with our disaster recovery plan. We started adding other cloud solutions like Quickbooks. One of the last pieces to the disaster recovery puzzle was the adoption of MassPrinting to outsource our daily print jobs. This provided us the freedom to process our printing from anywhere we could obtain an internet connection, and we tested it many times by processing our print jobs from airports, foreign countries, home, etc.

How has remote work been going for you and your staff?

Well, we aren’t new to it - we’ve tested our remote working many times already due to the weather. Anyone who’s visited our office in Moundsville, West Virginia knows how difficult it would be to access during a snowstorm. We’ve been fully remote for two months and were able to switch right away. Recently, we’ve started bringing partial staff back on an alternating basis two days a week and working remotely the rest of the time. The great thing for me is that remote working saves me three hours of round-trip commute.

What does it take for a small company to survive a pandemic?

I’m not sure there’s an insurance company in existence that had planned for what occurred during the pandemic - but we were extremely pleased to discover that our disaster recovery plan was effective, no matter what the disaster might be.

That’s the key for small companies. Although a plan of this nature doesn’t occur overnight, it’s imperative that companies be prepared for whatever might come our way. Without the proper preparedness, it will be a challenge to carry on business as usual - which we, for the most part, have been able to do.

What do you think we can expect for the rest of 2020?

I can’t even begin to fathom what it’ll look like six months from now. This pandemic will not only change 2020. I feel it will also change our future - how we conduct business and the services we offer to clients, with more companies going to cloud-based systems and being better prepared. For instance, we implemented a mobile app 18 months ago, which is almost unheard of for a company our size. Clients can use the app for self-service functions such as making payments, updating their information, filing claims, viewing bills and other documents, communicating with our company or their agent, and receiving their documents via e-delivery. Personally, I feel this type of service will be in more demand as a result of the pandemic.

What can other companies learn from Panhandle’s example?

Innovation, remote work, cloud computing - they’re not just for the big companies! I have a soft spot for small companies. I’d want the small companies out there to know you can do this. We’re proof of that. We’re not extraordinary or anything.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned over the years?

It’s got to be the value of building relationships with people and organizations. Take reinsurers. Often, in our industry, you don’t consider them a partner. But in reality, we’re all in this together. They should be treated as a branch of the company, because when bad things happen, a good reinsurance partner will be there to support you. For the past several years, we’ve invited our reinsurance partners SCOR, Farmers Mutual Hail, and Shelter Re to our office for two days, and we always incorporate something fun during their visit. We’ve had a wine tasting, gone zip-lining, and toured the local sights, like the Palace of Gold and the old federal prison that’s now a museum. I truly believe they look forward to this every year. Building relationships like this is key.

I’ve made a point over the years to help a lot of other insurance companies by offering my services and insights when I can. How much I’ve helped other carriers over the years - that’s the legacy I’d choose for myself.

What kind of help have you been able to provide?

I created the mentoring program at BriteCore to help get small companies off the ground with cloud-based core systems. I was their first line of support on all things BriteCore, but I found myself doing a lot more for these companies. I ended up doing a lot of consulting with them on insurance products, reinsurance coverage, efficiency, office procedures, all of that. At its peak, we had sixteen different companies in the mentoring program. I feel the mentoring has been directly responsible for advancing these companies years beyond their expectations. It’s allowed them to utilize a level of technology that previously would not have been available to a company their size. All of the mentoring clients have been successful at what they’ve done.

I’ve been involved in BriteCore since the very beginning. Panhandle and five other smaller mutuals from three states helped BriteCore get off the ground eleven years ago. We were actually the very first customer to go live on the BriteCore platform.

My opinion is that cloud-based operations are the wave of the future. I think the remote work situation during the pandemic pretty much proves that point.

This interview was originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of PAMIC Pulse. 

Image Credit: 6381380 iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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