A walk on the wild side

by Insurance Business Wholesale04 Nov 2015
You might say Rupert Hall has seen it all. As the second-generation CEO  and  president of M.J. Hall and  Company,  he  heads  up  a 42-year-old wholesale property/casualty brokerage firm  headquartered in Stockton, Calif., that  thrives in the hospitality sector by seeking out risks that don’t fit into typical underwriting guidelines – from nudist colonies to gentlemen’s clubs.

Hall also heads Golden Bear Insurance Company, a carrier founded by his father that specializes in commercial primary and excess liability business, for which M. J. Hall is the parent company.

It can all get a little chaotic at times.

“The two compete against each other, but we have done our best to keep them separate,” Hall  says. “I’m trying to get the lowest price on the brokerage side, while on the company side, I’m trying to get the best terms for the insurance company and our broker partners.”

Born into the business

Hall is no stranger to the insurance business. His father, Michael Hall, is a British expat who made his name writing aviation insurance and once insured the outsized  risks of the world’s richest man  – filmmaker and aviation magnate Howard Hughes – to the tune of about $300 million.

Hall was raised on stories  about  his father’s biggest client. At the time, Hughes was heavily invested in Las Vegas real estate and casinos. M.J. Hall & Co. came along for the ride, writing the liability for all of Hughes’ casinos for years – including Harvey’s Resort Hotel, the infamous casino in Stateline, Nev., that was blown up in 1980 by a cleverly built and virtually tamper-proof bomb, hidden inside a Xerox machine and rolled into the casino lobby by three men working for a disgruntled Hungarian millionaire gambler.

The hotel was evacuated in advance of the explosion, so “luckily no one was hurt, and we didn’t have the property insurance,” Hall says. “Our responsibility did not amount to an awful lot.”

Hall also remembers the day his dad came home and announced he was having to force Circus Circus (owned by Hughes at the time) to put nets under its trapeze acts. “They didn’t want to do it, but they wouldn’t get their insurance if they didn’t place the nets,” Hall says.

M. J. Hall & Co. also placed the coverage when Evel Knievel attempted to jump over the water fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and broke every bone in his body.
 
“It was a lot of excitement in the Hall  household – we were young kids, and all we could talk about was Evel Knievel,” Hall says. In the accident’s aftermath, claims rolled in from horrified bystanders who said they had suffered psychological damage from witnessing the wreck. It was a lesson learned the hard way. “We didn’t have those exclusions on policies back then,” Hall says.

Always something new

Now that his father has retired (to become, as he jokingly puts it, “chairman of the bored”), Rupert Hall carries on the family legacy. And it’s far from boring, juggling risks that run the gamut from a bar for would-be cowboys, complete with mechanical bulls and barber chairs for doing shots, to the world’s biggest chunk of crystalline gold, which weighs 44 troy pounds and sits in a vault at a Northern California winery under 24-hour surveillance.
 
M.J. Hall & Co. still does plenty of casino business, too, but these days, the brokerage focuses more on small to mid-market resorts that are religious- or outdoor/wildlife-based, such as Zen Buddhist retreats, hunting lodges, hot springs resorts and nudist colonies, which would be nonstandard for most underwriters.
 
Through Golden Bear, they underwrite a broad spectrum of hospitality accounts, including leisure risks that have heavy injury potential, such as ziplines, trampoline parks, amusement rides and special events involving pyrotechnics.
 
And it looks like Golden Bear Insurance Company and M.J. Hall & Co. will stay in the family fold for a good long while. Hall’s sister operates the company’s Napa office and runs a winery on the side. His two oldest sons, meanwhile, have already interned at the branch office in San Francisco. This summer they each got their California brokers licenses – at 18 and 19 years old.
 
As for Hall, he still loves the challenge and variety of what he does: “Like the Navy SEALs say, ‘The only easy day was yesterday.”