Q&A with Ray Farmer, South Carolina’s new insurance director

Two weeks into his new job as the stateís top insurance regulator, Ray Farmer sat in a sunny corner of his office, a spectacular perch on the 10th floor of a skyscraper across the street from the Statehouse.

Farmer, 66, spent the past 33 years as a lobbyist with the American Insurance Association in Atlanta. He was poised to retire when Gov. Nikki Haley last month selected him as the new director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance.

The S.C. Senate still must confirm him, but Farmer already has begun educating himself about the departmentís challenges. The agencyís needs are many and its direction has been uncertain for more than a year, after its previous director, David Black, abruptly resigned.

Black, a former Liberty Life Insurance executive, gave no reason for his departure, leaving speculation that he had a falling out with Haley.

In an interview, Farmer described his previous work as a lobbyist, regulator and insurance adjuster. He talked about his plans to expand the agencyís hours and improve customer service. Questions and answers were condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: The mission of the insurance department is to balance the needs of consumers with the needs of insurance companies to stay solvent and financially strong. As a lobbyist, you represented one side of that scale, the insurance companies. How would you answer critics who say you canít properly balance the needs of consumers?

A: Itís pretty simple. I was a regulator, and Iím still a consumer. So I know exactly what a consumer is looking for and how to protect consumers. And I have a basic understanding of what it takes to keep a company interested in doing business in this state. ... I think I provide a unique perspective.

Q: Are you surprised that people might be critical (of your past experience as a lobbyist)?

A: No, Iím not surprised that someone who doesnít know my entire background would say that.

Q How did you get into the insurance business?

A: I went as an undergrad to the University of Southern Mississippi, and I majored in insurance. They called it finance with an emphasis on insurance then, and I had been leaning that way, toward insurance, anyway. I had a mentor in high school who was an insurance guy and a friend of my parents. We had a lot of career discussions then, and so after college I went to work with an independent adjusting company called Crawford & Company for three years.

There I learned about the basics of policies and how law applies to insurance, but I learned a lot more about human nature. As an adjuster, as soon as you met people, you knew they were under some level of stress. And if you were able to solve that problem and restore them back to the way they were, you had a good day.

I eventually started law school at night. I wanted to try do something else. (He described then how he joined the Georgia Department of Insurance, where he handled bankrupt insurance companies, liquidations and companies in receivership.) And this eventually grew into a larger position as deputy of enforcement. ... Our job was protecting the public from companies that were violating the law. I enjoyed that job. From the Georgia Department of Insurance, I went to AIA (the American Insurance Association).

Q: What did you do at the AIA?

A: I was a vice president. Itís a trade association of property and casualty companies that write every line of property and casualty insurance in every state. I had responsibility over the Southeast. It was more of a government-affairs job, but as a service to our members we also did an annual report where we looked at every state and made comments on different areas, a snapshot that (companies) could use to decide whether they want to do business in a state and how much.

Q: So how did South Carolina compare?

A: It has always been a business-friendly state. In the mid-1990s, auto insurance lines wouldnít write in this state because of the residual market and the way the laws were. At that time, when a policyholder got a bill, the premium had a surcharge on it, so whether you were a good driver or not, you had to pay a percentage. In that case, the consumers spoke to their legislators, and the legislators responded to their constituents.

Q: Now the auto insurance side is seen as a success story, right?

A: It brought in more companies and they started competing among themselves. I think competition is the bottom line and the driver of any effort to control costs or provide more service to the policyholder.

Q: But home insurance rates are among the highest in the nation and especially on the coast. Are they too high?

A: We havenít had an outcry. Pick any kind of a product. As a consumer Iím going to say that Iím paying too much for a product. But the question is whether Iím getting value for what Iím paying, and I think the answer is yes.

Q: How did you end up getting this job?

A: It came out of the blue. I was well on the way to retirement, and I got a call from someone in the governorís office wanting to know if I had an interest. I never had given it one minute of thought. My wife and I talked about it, and I decided to pursue it. ... Iím not ready to retire.

Q: What are your goals?

A: I have two instructions from the governor, and theyíre pretty clear. One is customer service and the second is to grow the industry. (Farmer described how beginning Jan. 2, the agency will stay open until 7 p.m. to take consumer complaints and inquiries. The agency also will open its one-person office in Charleston to consumers. Previously, the Charleston office handled only industry issues.)

Q: How satisfied are you with customer service right now?

A: Weíre good, but with anything else, we can always do better. Thatís why weíre going to expand the hours.

Q: How many people focus on consumer affairs at the agency now?

A: In the agency overall we have about 85 people, and pretty close to 10 in the consumer affairs section for the entire state. They are extremely busy. Last year they handled 60,000 contacts, inquiries and complaints.

Q: So thatís about 220 complaints and calls a day. Insurance is very complex. Can you really expect good service from just 10 people?

A: I was talking to the supervisor this morning, and there was an instance last week where a lady had concerns about an annuity. It was two companies and involved about $100,000 apiece, and once we got involved, we were able to solve the issue. And the lady now has both payments from the annuity for $200,000. Thatís a success story and there are a whole lot of them.

Q: The department collects a vast amount of information that, if organized properly, could be a huge help to consumers, especially when they shop for insurance. But the departmentís website is pretty horrible and far behind other states.

A: I agree with you. Iíve looked at the website. Iíve got a lot of high priorities, and thatís right up there. ... We will improve the website.

Q. Are you moving to Columbia?

A. Yes I am. Iím at a good point in life. Our kids are grown and weíre moving to Columbia. This is a great opportunity for us to serve citizens of this state.

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