ROBERT SHAW, PRESIDENT and founding partner of Skillings Shaw & Associates in Lewiston, Maine, has a passion for teaching others about the surety bond business; he’s been an instructor at the NASBP William J. Angell Surety School for almost 30 years. Shaw himself has learned a lot about the industry since he interviewed for a job with Maine Bonding and Casualty Company (Fidelity & Deposit of Maryland) back in 1978. When David Fossett, the company president, asked him if he’d like to work in the bond department, Shaw’s response was “savings bonds?”
Fortunately for him, and for the surety industry, Shaw got the job anyway. Now, after a 40-year career, Shaw is serving as NASBP President for 2018-2019.
After graduating from the University of Southern Maine, Shaw spent almost a decade learning about the company side of the business, first with Fidelity & Deposit in Maine, San Diego, and Boston and then back in San Diego with Industrial Indemnity.
In 1985 he joined the Robert F. Driver Company and began working with Jack Warnock as a surety account executive. “That was my entry into the agency business,” Shaw said. “I got great experience there. It was a straight commission job, and I learned a lot about sales, about customer service, and about life.
“I loved it,” he added. “It was so exciting. The surety industry is great anyway, because each account is unique and every day is different. Being on the agency side is really the front line. You have to go out and develop your reputation, you have to go out and prospect and beat the bushes and find opportunities. You never find easy opportunities; you always find challenges, which you get to make into an opportunity.” Helping a contractor resolve problems can be the beginning of a longterm relationship that benefits the producer, the contractor, and the surety.
Shaw returned to Maine in 1987 to take a job with the Dunlap Agency in Auburn. He worked with David Skillings, the agency’s Vice President of Surety, for several years before the pair founded their own agency in 1994. Skillings, a former NASBP President, retired in 2002.
Today Skillings Shaw & Associates handles every type of bond, including contract, commercial, fidelity, and licensing. He has clients throughout New England and some national accounts as well.
“In a small market economy like northern New England, you have to be able to adapt, so you have to sometimes be creative,” he said. “I handle small, medium, and large-sized accounts, specialty accounts, and distressed accounts. We also do brokerage business where we handle some surety accounts for agents who either don’t have the expertise in surety or the markets.” The good relationships he’s formed with independent insurance agents have given him a fairly broad penetration into that market.
Like all small business owners, Shaw was conscious of a need for continuity of his business. In 2012 he sold the company to Woodrow W. Cross Agency. He retains the title of Company President and runs the agency with the same dedicated team just as he had previously. “It’s worked out really well. Royce Cross has been a solid partner, and we’ve continued to grow every year; we even had to move to a larger building.”
NASBP Aids Growth
Shaw said his greatest professional accomplishment has been founding Skilling Shaw & Associates and making it a success. He’s proud that he’s created a reputation as a well-run and solid agency among contractors and the surety marketplace in New England. He values the long-term relationships he’s formed with customers; some started working with him in the late 1980s and have remained with him to this day, through generation and ownership changes.
“It’s been very rewarding to be part of their business growth,” Shaw said. “At the same time, I’ve had employees who have been with me for 10 or 15 years. I’ve been able to provide a stable workplace so they’ve been able to finish their college education, buy houses, get married, and put their kids through college.”
NASBP has been a big factor in his success. “NASBP has allowed me to have access to resources beyond a small Maine insurance agency, to be able to network with other members around the country and around the world,” he said. “I’ve been able to help some of my customers when they’ve had questions or had needs outside of my territory. I’ve been able to work with members, like myself, who have been more than happy to countersign a bond or provide me information.
“Being part of NASBP is an important part of my relationship with my companies,” he added. “They view NASBP members as best-in-class, and as part of that they want to partner with you.”
Shaw’s first experiences with NASBP came when he was at The Driver Company and began working with Surety Tech, NASBP’s underwriting program. When he joined the Dunlap Agency, both Steve Dunlap, the Company President, and David Skillings were active members of the association. They suggested that he develop a sales module for the NASBP Surety School. He taught that course in 1989 and has been a teacher at the William J. Angell Surety School and the Angell-Curtin Advanced Surety School for both Winter and Summer Sessions ever since. He teaches the underwriting basics, WIP and submissions, with Jim Lareau from Travelers Insurance.
“Every year, when I go out and teach at the School, I feel like I get so much more than I give. I interact with the other instructors—we like to bounce things off each other—and interact with the students. I learn something new every time,” he said. He always comes back from these sessions energized.
Shaw has also served on several other NASBP committees, including Membership, Ethics, Government Relations, State Government Affairs, and Industry Relations. He’s been a member of the Surety Industry Forms Working group as well.
In addition, Shaw is active in the Maine chapters of several construction industry associations: Associated General Contractors, Associated Builders and Contractors, Construction Financial Management Association, and Maine Better Transportation Association.
Year Ahead: Marketing and Networking
Shaw intends to continue a new initiative that was started by Howard Cowan during his 2017-2018 term as NASBP President.
It is a communications campaign that will provide tools and materials to members to assist them in marketing the importance of surety to construction businesses, private owners, and architects.
“There are always some disruptors in the marketplace, such as subcontractor default insurance, bank guarantees, or private owners not requiring a bond because they don’t understand the value that a bond adds and all that the product actually does,” said Shaw. “The campaign is a long-term commitment and a pretty big financial commitment, but we know it’s important to do this.”
Shaw also has planned an outreach to membership, the “NASBP Roadshow—Bonding with Bob.”
“NASBP has been a phenomenal experience for me; the meetings are fantastic and the networking opportunities are key,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to have more people enjoy that kind of experience, but the time and the travel and the cost can be prohibitive. Agencies and companies can only send so many people.”
So this year the association will try to reach many more people with six small meetings around the country:
July 17, 2018 – Villanova University Conference Center, Villanova, PA
July 19, 2018 – The Lyceum, Hartford, CT
November 2018 – Des Moines, IA & Kansas City, MO (locations and dates TBD)
February 2019 – Southern California & Denver, CO (locations and dates TBD)
For more information, go to: http://www.nasbp.org/2018-2019roadshow/home.
The half-day event will start with lunch, followed by a NASBP update. Then come the “Bob Talks.”
“They will be a surety version of Ted Talks; we’ll have three or four people give 10- to 15-minute pieces about an industry related topic,” Shaw explained. After a break, participants will hear a final speaker or panel discussion. An hour-long networking/social session will end the program around 4 p.m. in the afternoon.
Shaw hopes that both agencies and companies within a three- to four-hour travel circle will bring not just the principal or key people to these meetings but also support staff like surety and administrative assistants. That will give them the opportunity to gain additional knowledge and to network with their peers.
“I would like for new people to have the NASBP experience through the road show and to develop some NASBP friendships and relationships on a moving-forward basis,” he added. “That will be good for all of us.”
A Great Choice of Career
Shaw says his wife, Kelly, has been key to his successful career. She supported his decisions to become a commission-only agent and to start his own agency and has served as Skillings Shaw & Associates’ CFO from its early days.
“We’ve been married since 1980, and she’s been a true partner all my life,” he says.
They have two sons. Benjamin, the older, has worked with his father for three years, and Cameron has worked in the entertainment industry (he’s a writer) and is also involved in property management.
Shaw and his wife live on a 100-acre property on a small lake in Auburn, ME. They enjoy outdoor activities like snowshoeing, paddle boarding, and hiking with their dogs, Gus and Emmett. “A tired dog is a good dog,” Shaw said.
He feels very fortunate that he accepted that first job in the surety business. “When I get together with my NASBP friends, we look at each other and say, ‘Can you believe we get paid to do this?’ I’ve had so many different experiences that I had no inkling were possible when I was young and idealistic and going to school.”