If one were to assess the field of Internet insurance marketplace sites that have cropped up over the last couple years, one central theme would prevail: Most consist of Internet-only entities that primarily leveraged their Internet technologies to insurance.In late October, Simi Valley, Calif.-based Countrywide Insurance Services Inc. joined the online insurance marketplace arena with a different twist: Countrywide is taking three decades worth of bricks-and-mortar insurance experience and expanding it to the Web.

Located at www.cwinsurance.com, the site enables consumers to obtain homeowners and home protection plans, auto policies, life insurance and other products from multiple carriers. Designed as an e-agency, Countrywide's online marketplace consists of insurance products from 50 carrier-partners with which Countrywide has formed alliances over the years.

Countrywide has about 450 service-level employees, 150 of which are licensed independent agents, while the remainder are customer service representatives located at four contact centers in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

"With cwinsurance.com, we're empowering consumers," says Steve Phillips, president of Countrywide Insurance. "They can receive assistance to help them make informed decisions, and obtain insurance coverage that offers the best value for their money."

Work in progress

Countrywide's online marketplace has gradually taken shape. The company launched a Web site in 1997 that enabled consumers to receive quotes strictly for homeowners insurance.

Deciding it needed to raise the stakes of its online fortunes, Countrywide beefed up the site with additional services, including the introduction of life and auto coverage. It improved the aesthetics and navigational flow of the site, and then connected its legacy systems, which housed the policy and customer data of all its carrier partners, to the Web.

The objective of the marketplace, says Phillips, will be to promote a "clicks to bricks" dynamic where the core focus is on "value, choice and the presence of a trusted advisor." Using agent locator technology, customers can contact an e-agent for a quote in their state or region, either via phone or e-mail, and then later bind a policy offline.

Countrywide's model has several characteristics that have piqued the curiosity of industry analysts, several of whom insist that, as the online marketplace concept reaches saturation, program distinction will be the order of the day.

"It looks like Countrywide is effectively leveraging off the competencies of its parent company-Countrywide Credit Industries," says James Luscombe, an analyst with New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers, who specializes in agency automation. "This will enable the insurance marketplace to significantly increase its distribution. Customers who visit Countrywide Credit to obtain a mortgage loan can link directly to cwinsurance.com to obtain a homeowners' policy. It's a smart implementation of the 'life event' phenomenon."

The company also revealed that consumers can now use wireless technology to access the site from remote locations. A consumer using a wireless phone-with or without an Internet connection-can choose a menu item known as "Call CIS." The wireless phone will automatically connect toll-free with that consumer's designated insurance expert.

Competitive juices

All these features are sure to catch the attention of Countrywide's prime competitors, one of which is San Francisco-based Esurance Inc.

Esurance has assumed a lead position in the market by leveraging off its technology, Luscombe says. "But we're now beginning to see carriers like Countrywide catch up on the technology side. Countrywide is also clearly using the 'life event' concept to its advantage.

Esurance was recently acquired by New York-based reinsurer Folksamerica Holding Company Inc., and the new parent may be poised to pump capital into its new entity. With the emergence of Countrywide's online marketplace, this may accelerate that process.

"A provider like Esurance may have to find additional leverage to match the Countrywide experience," Luscombe says. "To compete, this might mean teaming up with an insurance provider who has expertise in life-event marketing, and then taking it to the Web."

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