From Phoenicia to the Seven Seas: sixth-generation Floridian helps right cargo calamities across Caribbean waters

Seven Seas Insurance President Mike Culpepper: ‘The real question is, can you afford not to have cargo insurance coverage?’

By Hilary Reeves

Mike Culpepper, a sixth-generation Floridian, was named President of Seven Seas Insurance Co. in 2006. In 1966, at the age of 10, he was on the Town of Jupiter’s payroll.

“At the time, Jupiter was a small town on the Atlantic, about 20 miles north of West Palm Beach where I was born,” he said. “The Loxahatchee River empties into the ocean at the Jupiter Inlet, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home directly on the Loxahatchee.”

Built in 1911, Culpepper’s childhood home was located on the same street as Jupiter’s Town Hall and a park. At 10, he was paid $1.15 per hour to mow the grass surrounding the municipal building and park.

“I would accumulate hours, and when I had accumulated about eight or 10, I would submit a handwritten timesheet on a piece of notebook paper, which I placed in an envelope and slid through the mail slot in the door to Town Hall. The town Clerk only worked one day per week.”

One night, Culpepper was attending a town Council meeting when a former Councilmember told him that he should be receiving the minimum wage of $1.25 for his mowing efforts.

“I’d never heard of minimum wage, but I relayed to town officials what he’d told me, and viola: I received a 9 percent pay increase almost immediately.”

When Culpepper’s mowing duties were through, he often sought the waters of the Loxahatchee. He was gifted his first boat – a 12-foot fiberglass beauty with an engine that only had a forward gear, but would rotate 360 degrees.

“If you wanted to reverse, you just spun around 180 degrees,” he laughed. “That little boat lasted me all through my teenage years. There was a lot of history in and around the Loxahatchee River and Jupiter area, and it was a great place for a curious kid to grow up. I was always intrigued by the Native Americans, who had flourished in the area for hundreds of years, and their lifestyle – in college, I thought about how interesting it would be to become an archeologist. However, having learned about minimum wage from an early age, and knowing the pay-scale of the three open archeologist positions in the State of Florida barely rose above it, I would have had to be like Indiana Jones and exchange any artifacts I found for currency.”

 

A likely stevedore

In first grade, when Culpepper attended what’s now known as the “Historic Schoolhouse,” Jupiter was a town of 1,000, and all its students went to school in a single building. He became friends with a fellow first-grader, and 16 years later, in 1978, Culpepper was home from college, and was offered a job at his friend’s father’s stevedoring company at the Port of Palm Beach until he could find something more permanent. He worked there for seven years before joining Tropical Shipping in 1985 in an administrative management position.

Culpepper soon left Tropical to work in a family business, managing agricultural interests and working as a consultant for property owners, builders, and developers on land-use changes, zoning petitions, and other governmental matters.

“When I returned to the shipping industry three years later, I thought it would be good to build on my experience and try something completely difference. Marine cargo insurance was just the ticket.”

Culpepper joined Seven Seas in 1989.

“There was an opportunity to accept a position as a claim adjustor, and I thought it’d be beneficial to gain some firsthand experience about the insurance side of the business, since it was an area I wasn’t familiar with.”

Culpepper said he enjoyed the forensic side of the adjustment process, and his knowledge of operations and stevedoring provided helpful insight into causes of loss.

“This led to opportunities that allowed him to contribute to measures for the prevention of losses, and encourage people to use common sense.”

Culpepper found a course on insurance that would qualify him to sit for the state exam and obtain a 220 Property and Casualty license, which would allow him to sell insurance and adjust claims. After securing his license, he became involved in the sales and underwriting side of the business. In 2006, he accepted the position of company president.

“Since Seven Seas is the actual insurance company, and not an agent or broker, we evaluate and underwrite the actual risk,” he explained. “This allows us the flexibility to evaluate all of the risk factors associated with certain commodities, destinations, trade lanes, etc. Probably what I like most about coming to work is the fact that, over the years, we have built a Seven Seas team that is second to none. Everyone knows their value to the company, and we all play an equally important role in the operation. I can say, without equivocation, the current Seven Seas team is the best group of people I have worked with in all my years in the industry.”

 

The difference

Culpepper said that perhaps the greatest testimonial for Seven Seas that he’s ever heard came as part of a conversation he overheard at a restaurant in the Caribbean.

“A group of diners were discussing business when one of them informed the others he had finally decided to obtain cargo insurance coverage,” said Culpepper. “When asked which company he selected, he told them Seven Seas. Another member of his party told him he should be glad, and went on to say that in their 20 years in the business and all the insurance companies used, Seven Seas was the best. Why? Because they pay the claims!”

Culpepper referenced another incident, where an Englishman and his wife had purchased a condo in the British West Indies. After an extensive shopping trip in Florida to buy new appliances, furniture, draperies, and other necessary items for the new house, the couple arranged for their new goods to be shipped, and went back to their island to await their arrival. Unfortunately, the vessel encountered “heavy weather,” and four containers were washed overboard. One of them belonged to the couple.

“I was alerted the same night the containers went overboard, and knew the vessel would be arriving at its destination the following day. I reached out to the Island Manager, and told him I thought it best if he contacted the customer and informed them of the incident prior to the ship’s arrival. After the Island Manager spoke to the consignee, he called me and said, ‘Mike, that was the worst phone call I’ve ever had to make.’ I told him it was not the worst phone call he would ever make; the next three phone calls would actually be the worst calls as these were the three customers whose containers were not insured with Seven Seas. Since “heavy weather” qualifies as an “Act of God,” those customers without Seven Seas coverage received nothing from the ocean carrier. Less than a week after the containers went overboard, the couple insured with Seven Seas had a check in-hand for $27,000. Cargo insurance has been around since the time of the Phoenicians, and as long as there is a risk, there will be a need for insurance.”

Culpepper said his and his team-members’ job is to put things into perspective for clients.

“The question isn’t really ‘can I afford the insurance premium?’ The premium typically ranges a little above one percent of the value of the goods. The real question in, ‘can I afford not to have cargo insurance coverage? Is it smart to save $75 and risk a $7,500 loss?’”

 

The Martin County Sheriff’s Posse 

Up until a few years ago, Culpepper’s family was in the cattle business, and he lived on and managed the family ranch. In addition to ranching, he was a member of the Martin County Sheriff’s Posse, composed of individuals involved in agriculture, primarily cattle and citrus, in Martin County, Florida. The bylaws of the organization required ownership of or access to a horse, horse trailer, ATV, or four-wheel drive vehicle, as most of the Posse’s activities were off-road and in the woods.

“Prior to the Sheriff’s Office acquiring a helicopter with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), the members of the Posse were often called out on manhunts to search for escaped prisoners, murders, and other ne’er do wells. The adrenaline rush of searching in the woods at night for an escaped prisoner is very similar to that of being in a 22-foot boat in 18-foot seas; that is, your senses are ‘quite active,’” Culpepper laughed.

He’s settled down a bit; Culpepper’s newest hobby is a 2017 Dodge Challenger Hellcat with 707 horsepower.

“Zero to 60 in 3.6 seconds is a lot more fun than hunting criminals in the woods in the dark, but you still get that same adrenaline rush. I would encourage people to expand their horizons, do different things, meet different people, go to new places – all of these things will lead you to where you will be tomorrow. And it’s always good to remember, like Yogi Berra said, ‘in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.’”