Business Monday

Fast-growing Miami insurer focuses sales efforts on neighborhoods often bypassed by large insurance companies

UniVista Insurance CEO Ivan A. Herrera, left, and COO Luis Castro talk in the conference room in the company’s corporate office on 528 NW Seventh Ave.
UniVista Insurance CEO Ivan A. Herrera, left, and COO Luis Castro talk in the conference room in the company’s corporate office on 528 NW Seventh Ave. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Ivan Herrera, the CEO and co-founder of UniVista Insurance, an independent, Miami-based agency that specializes in coverage for Hispanic communities, started the company here with his wife, Ania, in 2009. It had zero revenues and two employees — the founders.

By focusing sales efforts on Hispanic neighborhoods often bypassed by large insurance companies, Herrera and his wife were able to build UniVista into a firm with more than 1,100 employees, 122 offices in Florida, 107 franchises and revenues of $76 million in 2018.

“We expect about 25 percent growth in premiums this year,” Herrera said. “All our growth has been organic. We haven’t expanded by acquiring other companies.”

UniVista offers auto, home, life and health insurance to individuals, plus a range of commercial coverage to businesses. About 70 percent of its policies are in private auto coverage, and the rest homeowners, life and commercial policies. The company has clients from all ethnic and cultural groups, but most of its clientele is Hispanic.

Insurance Journal, a respected trade publication, ranked UniVista No. 33 in it top 100 U.S. property and casualty agencies in 2018.

The keys to UniVista’s success? “We concentrate on Hispanic communities, work hard to support our clients 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, and give them the coverage they need at affordable prices,” said Luis Castro, UniVista’s COO and a key player in achieving the company’s rapid growth and planning is expansion.

UniVista is an insurance agency that sells policies backed by insurance carriers like Infinity Auto Insurance, National General (formerly GMAC) and Windhaven Insurance. The carriers provide the coverage and pay legitimate claims to UniVista’s customers. Agencies like UniVista are critical to making sure customers receive the coverage they need and the service they deserve when they have an insurance claim.

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“Our goal is to reach Hispanic communities all over the United States,” said Ivan Herrera, co-founder and CEO of UniVista. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

The company says it can offer auto policies that sometimes cost up to 40 percent less than drivers are currently paying, and competes with low-cost auto insurers like GEICO and Progressive. The firm invests heavily in gathering data on potential clients who may by considered risky by other companies, Herrera said, so it can more precisely evaluate risk and negotiate better premium pricing from the insurance carriers it works with. While a large share of UniVista's individual client portfolio includes higher risk auto policies, the rest of its business involves standard risk individuals and businesses, especially for its commercial, life, healthcare, casualty and other lines.

In 1996, Herrera left Havana and arrived in Miami with his wife, his parents and a dog. At 23, the Cuban-born biologist initially found work in construction, making deliveries and other low-paying jobs to support his family.

Herrera saw an opportunity in insurance sales, studied for the state licensing exams, received his license and began selling health insurance policies in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

“I was knocking on doors in bad neighborhoods, and people were very interested in buying from someone who spoke their language and took the time to understand their needs and concerns,” Herrera said. The big insurance companies often ignored his clients, and didn’t bother working in their communities because they were classified as higher risks than more upscale neighborhoods, he said. Even when major insurers did provide coverage in low-income communities, their rates were higher than many people could afford.

By the mid-2000s, Herrera was earning over six figures a year as an individual insurance salesman working for a major carrier. “I wanted to find a way for people to come to me, to create a captive group of customers,” he said.

In 2009, the financial crisis was worsening, but Herrera knew that people and businesses still needed insurance, especially at rates they could afford. He and Ania decided to start their own agency.

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UniVista Insurance CEO Ivan A. Herrera, left, and COO Luis Castro inside UniVista’s corporate office on May 22, 2019. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

“We had about $40,000 in the bank, and no debt on our home, our cars, etc.,” he said. “We used the $40,000 to buy the UniVista name, which is easy to pronounce in Spanish and English, took out two credit cards and launched the company.”

Herrera hired employees and trained them to reach their core, Latino market and avoid fraud. He later set up franchise operations throughout the state.

UniVista ensures that its agents are selling policies to customers who are able to make their payments on time and are sound candidates for renewals. Agents are paid salaries and commissions based on quality control. Agents who sell too many bad policies – to people with traffic violations, at-fault accidents, non-payment of premiums - are not rewarded. The company currently has a policy renewal rate of 91 percent, which indicates a high degree of client loyalty and stability.

The company is expanding its operations to Hispanic communities in California and has plans to open offices in other states.

“Our goal is to reach Hispanic communities all over the United States,” Herrera said.

Company name: UniVista Insurance.

Leadership: Ivan A. Herrera, CEO and co-founder, and Luis Castro, COO.

Founded: In Miami in 2009 by Ivan Herrera and his wife, Ania F. Herrera.

Ownership: Ivan and Ania Herrera and Luis Castro.

Headquarters: 528 NW Seventh Ave., Miami (Overtown), with 122 offices in Florida, three in California and three call centers in Miami.

Employees: 1,114.

Clients: More than 300,000 individual and commercial customers in Florida, with most in Miami-Dade County. UniVista has a growing client base in California.

Financials: The company said its gross revenues were $76 million in 2018, up from $64 million the previous year. It expects 25 percent revenue growth in 2019.

Competitors: Principally the Progressive Group of Insurance Companies and GEICO.

The difference: UniVista focuses on reaching Hispanic communities and providing them with a wide range of products, lower rates than competitors, personalized, 24-hour service, a large network of offices, and 12-month auto policies instead of the six-month coverage typically offered by other insurance firms. The company also invests in developing data on its prospective clients to more accurately define risk and reduce potential fraud, allowing it to offer coverage to customers other large firms might consider risky.

Client view: Ventura De Paz, the founder, CEO and president of Doral-based Doctor’s Medical Centers (DMC), has been a client of UniVista since the agency was founded a decade ago. A network of 14 primary healthcare centers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, DMC buys several lines of insurance from UniVista – including commercial, malpractice, liability and auto. De Paz also purchases personal insurance from the firm. “I’ve known Ivan Herrera for many years and we’ve worked on a variety of projects,” said De Paz, who earned a medical degree in otolaryngology in Cuba before he emigrated to Miami. But De Paz and his company’s business with UniVista go beyond friendship. “They provide the types of coverage we require and offer us the highest quality service and quick responses whenever they’re needed,” De Paz said. “They are hard workers who meet their obligations to clients … not like some companies that don’t live up to their promises. And we save money working with them. This kind of service is why they’ve been able to grow their business.”

Business lesson: As the company expanded, senior management learned to pay close attention to quality control in terms of carefully evaluating client risk, avoiding customer fraud, and maximizing the number of renewals.

Outlook: UniVista believes that much of the Hispanic community in the U.S. is underserved in insurance services and is investing to expand its reach in Florida, California, Georgia and other states.

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com.

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