Introducing Newfront’s ‘Secret Weapon:’ Construction Loss Control Practice Leader Kyle Duke
Published August 9, 2023
Kyle Duke hasn’t lost a bit of his thick Texas accent. “I’m originally from Northeast Texas and now I live between Dallas and Houston out in the middle of nowhere. I've got about 55 acres,” he says, grinning. “I work in every major city, but I won't live in one.”
Part of a strategic string of hires bolstering Newfront’s National Construction practice, Newfront’s newly appointed Construction Loss Control Practice Leader has worked all over the country during his 35-year career—taking his accent, along with his rare skill set, on job sites across the country, in cities large and small. Kyle has done hard labor on construction sites, helped advise around the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules on tunneling, spent two decades as a risk manager, sat in boardrooms, graduated law school, and, for the last 12 years, worked on the broker side of construction insurance.
He’s bald now, with salt and pepper in his goatee, and his wry sense of humor reflects his hard-won understanding of the construction business. “I understand that there's a reason why things happen. Nobody's trying to do anything wrong,” he says. “But I've been in every position: good, bad, ugly, and indifferent.”
A maverick—on the mound and onsite
Kyle never thought he’d be an insurance broker—definitely not one at a high-tech firm like Newfront that’s reinventing the industry. Kyle’s first love was baseball; he was drafted in the 4th round by the Seattle Mariners in 1989 but couldn’t sign until they promised to pay for his college at the University of Texas (his mother’s one condition). He played minor league ball for six years before hanging up his spikes. “Baseball is everything,” he says. “I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if it weren't for baseball.”
But he was 24 and needed a job, so he started working construction: “I worked in the design phase of retention systems, anywhere from deep underground tunneling all the way up to bridge building.” At the time, the technology being used was pretty new, so though OSHA was there, they “didn't know squat about it,” according to Kyle. That meant he and the team had to engineer the entire process. “When I got into it, we were actually writing a lot of the underground initiatives for OSHA, because they didn't have any information on it,” he says. “It was a maverick scenario. But that thrust me over into the insurance and loss control side. I became a risk manager.”
Lefty with a law degree
Kyle started at SJ Louis Construction of Texas and then moved to Willis North America. He worked closely with builders, beginning at the ground level to create safer onsite conditions and eventually graduating to a role where he dealt directly with executives.
His onsite experience was an immediate difference maker. “I was speaking with an owner and he asked me, ‘How many safety guys do you need?’ I said, ‘Well, how many employees do we have?’ And he goes, ‘We got about 867,’” Kyle remembers. “They had 10 safety coordinators at the time, and I told him, ‘Well, give me 857 more guys.’ Obviously, he couldn’t afford that, but he got the point. The key to creating safe workplaces is having buy-in at every level, starting with management.”
While at SJ Louis, Kyle got his legal degree at West Virginia University. What sent the former left-handed pitcher down that path? He’d been on a build where two workers had lost their lives. OSHA cleared the company of any wrongdoing, but the 18-month process of dealing with lawyers who “thought they were the smartest guys in the room” was enough to send Kyle to law school. He knew he wouldn’t make it in a courtroom, but right when he graduated, Willis called and he saw the value of his new skill set.
“The degree changed my mindset. If we're doing insurance, which is coverage, I get it. But if the companies aren't doing what they need to do to protect that portfolio, then none of it matters,” he says. “In the boardroom and executive suites, you could talk about workers’ comp, builders’ risk, and general liability. But if you're not framing it as, ‘I've got a premium, how do I protect that premium and decrease it,’ then you're really just waiting for disaster to happen.”
Instead, he pitched a proactive approach that incorporated onsite safety programs paired with insurance. From there, with his diverse skill set in place, it was a clear path to the broker side.
Safety and savings
Kyle recently worked with a builder who focused on high-rises and commercial buildings. They had a history of injuries, which was escalating not only premiums, but workers’ comp and general liability costs as well. Kyle sat down with the risk manager, the CFO, and the president with data in tow. “The national average, on that side of construction, is about 30 cents per work hour,” he says. “We did an analysis and showed them that they were more than double that.”
So, Kyle laid out a two-year plan to increase on-site safety and loss control strategies. After two years, the company had lowered its costs to 17 cents per work hour. “The CFO looked at me and said, ‘I can't go to a bank and get a return on investment like this,’” Kyle says. “They have used that program to this day and they hover about 17 to 20 cents. It's phenomenal.”
That program has followed him across his career and served as a kind of “pilot program” that Kyle and the Newfront Construction team now offer to every client. Each time, the premium has gone down. And with Newfront, they can also offer a level of automation and technology that’s rare in the construction insurance space.
“When combined with our existing talent and with Newfront’s advanced technology, Kyle’s unmatched knowledge in every aspect of the construction business has had an immediate impact on our results,” said Matt Summers, Newfront’s Construction Practice Leader. Summers joined Newfront in February 2023 as the company expanded its construction focus nationally, and he added that the team plans to continue its expansion in the coming months.
Newfront Construction’s secret weapon
Kyle’s Texas drawl and years on job sites let him translate the plan to workers; his law degree and years in executive suites let him communicate the fiscal rewards to decision-makers. “I was lucky to be able to sit on the board of directors of two companies, which means I understand the most important piece for owners is the cost per work hour. I recently even used Newfront’s tools to show them the cost per yard of concrete,” Kyle says. “The CEO, CFO, and risk managers understand the financial piece; I figured out a way to quantify the financials into the safety outcomes.”
It’s that ability to speak every language and understand every angle that’s led Summers to dub Kyle “our secret weapon.”
Newfront is a modern brokerage transforming the risk management, business insurance, total rewards, and retirement services space through the combination of elite expertise and cutting-edge technology. Specializing in more than 20 industries and headquartered in San Francisco, Newfront has offices nationwide and is home to more than 800 employees serving organizations across the United State and globally. For more information, visit newfront.com and follow us on LinkedIn.
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