The Markel Annual Meeting
So a group of us Fools made it down to Richmond yesterday for the Markel annual meeting and I thought I would post an account of how things went. The meeting was held in the Grand Ballroom at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, VA. All in all a very nice setting and a pretty good setup for the meeting with screens on each side for the presentation. The first thing displayed on the screens is the Markel Style. The company has a commitment to success and their creed is “honesty and fairness in all our dealings.”
Alan Kirshner, CEO stepped up to the mic and welcomed everyone. He presented Steve Markel with his 30 year anniversary pin. He talked briefly of the initiative “One Markel” (more on that shortly) and stated that they have been successful in the endeavor; they are a “new company, same values.”
Steve Markel, Vice Chairman spoke about a few changes in the leadership roles people serve and then introduced the CFO Richie Whitt to go over the financial review. Results for 2009 were good, especially considering the turmoil the markets have witnessed and the tough underwriting market. In underwriting the company achieved a combined ratio of 95% for 2009. The company did have some exposure to the Chilean quakes, though it was relatively modest and they will continue to do business in Chile. An interesting point was that Markel’s combined ratio has outperformed the industry for each of the past seven years. Investments also performed well with 13.2% return for 2009. In regard to the book value, while underwriting has been the greater contributor over the short-term (5 years), investments have been the greater contributor over the longer-term (10 years). At the end of 1Q2010 the company witnessed their all-time record high book value of $296 per share.
Mike Crowley, President of Markel Specialty then came up and spoke a bit about the first year of the “One Markel” initiative. In line with “One Markel”, the company’s goal is to stay aggressive in getting good business, attract new talent and become more efficient.
John Latham was next to speak about “One Markel” and what it means. Before, the company felt that there was some overlap in their business, and that their agents did not have access to all of their products. What’s more, their products were lacking the consistency they desired. “One Markel” has taken the company in a more productive direction they feel, offering all products to all agents in all regions. Points for the company to continue to focus on: improve service levels; be creative, solve problems; enhance existing products; finish the Atlas project (improving company internal processes); identify true partners and then add maximum value for them.
Crowley came back up to introduce new associates with the company and then bring out William Stovin, President and COO of Markel International. Stovin went over the goals (both short- and long-term) for Markel International and their main divisions: London wholesale, retail offices and international operations. In particular he mentioned markets Markel continues to develop including Spain, Sweden and Singapore. They also have their sights set on opening operations in Beijing by the end of the year. From there, the company wants to assess the possibility of entering India, however this requires more research and consideration. The one advantage that is already in place in India is a legal system and this could prove pivotal in making entry into this market possible.
Tom Gayner, Chief Investment Officer was next to speak and this was a treat. He first and foremost thanked the underwriting operations, praising them as the reason the company exists in the first place. Without their success, he would not have a job and he is very thankful for the opportunity. Gayner focused on three points: investment activities, Markel Ventures and their secret weapon. Without going into too much detail, as mentioned before the company witnessed a successful year with their investments and continues to seek out only the highest quality debt and securities. Markel Ventures is an exciting new operation for the company where they are actually seeking and buying outright small businesses. The stipulations are pretty simple: they must be profitable with high returns on equity, offer exceptional management, offer growth and discipline at a fair price. One example he spoke of in their portfolio is AMF Bakery which continues to grow and perform. For the feelgood portion of the meeting, Gayner spoke of the company’s secret weapon. Quite simply, it is love. In every aspect and every facet of the business. From the associates’ love of their work to their love for each other and their love for the company and Markel culture, one can tell that this is something that they know and believe. Not so tricky as far as a word goes, love. But as he stated, you gotta have it. Their culture is not for everyone, but for those who find it a perfect fit, Markel can offer a lifetime of wonderful opportunities as employees and/or investors.
At this point Steve Markel came back up and opened the floor for questions. There were a few asked, mainly from shareholders just looking for some clarification or extra information here or there. Nothing of any real consequence. They then invited everyone to a lovely cocktail party after with quite a spread. Excellent food and libations for everyone!
The meeting was a great experience and one that I enjoyed fully. As a shareholder I walked away feeling quite happy that I could participate in the Markel culture for even just a little while. Seeing that I will probably own my shares for many years to come, I think I will go ahead and make plans to go next year’s meeting.
TMFJMo (long MKL)