A boy zooms down a large slide at a rodeo carnival.
A boy zooms down a large slide at a rodeo carnival. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

If insurance is the boring uncle of the financial services industry, then a San Antonio firm that’s celebrating its 100th birthday this year is that relative who always gets the party started.

In fact, many festivals, parades, carnivals, and other outdoor events across the country – including San Antonio’s very own Fiesta – wouldn’t want to sell a single admission ticket until Kaliff Insurance is on board.

Founded by Morris Kaliff in 1917 as a life insurance company, Kaliff is now known as the country’s oldest insurance and risk management company for the outdoor amusement industry. The family-owned company is led by Morris’ grandson, Mitchell Kaliff, and Bruce Smiley-Kaliff.

Kaliff Insurance CEO Mitchell Kaliff.
Kaliff Insurance CEO Mitchell Kaliff Credit: Courtesy / Kaliff Insurance

“We are not the largest, but our customers are the cream of the crop,” Kaliff said of events like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., and the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo, the nation’s largest. On a smaller scale, Kaliff also counts Luminaria as a client.

Kaliff underwrites carnival rides such as the Texas Star Ferris wheel ride at the Texas State Fair, some components at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and carousels across the country.

“Go anywhere to a public venue and look at the most outstanding thing you can see, and most likely Kaliff insures that,” said Smiley-Kaliff, executive vice president and senior underwriter.

There are also small-town festivals like the Blanco Lavender Festival, the Mosquito Fest in Louisiana, and even the Wasteland Weekend event and the Mary Mother of Suffering Fun & Food Fest, both in California.

It’s all fun and games, however, until someone gets hurt, or there’s a financial loss. So in the event of a rainout at a pride parade or a Tilt-A-Whirl ride accident at the local county fair, Kaliff’s provides all kinds of loss and liability coverage. Kaliff underwrites 9,000 events nationwide.

Last year, in public venues, there were 42 hospitalizations due to injuries from amusement rides in the United States, according to National Underwriter research Smiley-Kaliff cited. There were 79 hospitalizations as a result of forklift and equipment accidents, and 13,900 due to golf-cart crashes (nine were deaths). The risk factors constantly change in the industry, and lately have included more violent acts, such as assaults.

Kaliff said its officials are on call around the clock, especially during summer and fall when most outdoor events are happening. The majority are produced by nonprofits, churches, festival fair boards, 4-H groups, and people who raise money for scholarships.

Kaliff Insurance Executive Vice President Bruce Smiley-Kaliff.
Kaliff Insurance Executive Vice President Bruce Smiley-Kaliff Credit: Courtesy / Kaliff Insurance

“Lions, tigers, bears and Beyoncé. If it happens, we can do it — technically,” Smiley-Kaliff said. “That doesn’t mean we will.”

Exacting underwriting standards and a deep-rooted sense of concern for others are where things get serious for Kaliff.

It was in the early 1950s when Mitchell’s father, Mendel, a highly decorated World War II veteran, joined the company Morris had started as a Russian immigrant to Texas, and led it into the property and casualty insurance business. Mendel Kaliff considered that type of  insurance “the next big thing” and convinced his father to start offering insurance for office buildings and other commercial properties.

Introduced one day to the owner of a traveling carnival in downtown San Antonio, he soon realized another new opportunity. Again, he persuaded his father. He developed an insurance program with Lloyd’s of London to provide insurance to the often stigmatized and high-risk carnival business and other outdoor amusements, eventually earning the carnival name “Mighty Mendel.”

Like his father before him, Mendel invited his young son, known as the “Magnificent Mitchell,” along as he traveled the country, meeting clients and building the company.

“I had grown up in the business,” Kaliff said. “I got to know generations of the same family that we are insuring today.”

Although Kaliff moved away to attend Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and worked for Rep. Henry B. González when he chaired the House Banking and Currency Committee, he returned to San Antonio in the early 1980s. He then led a successful commercial real estate business of his own before his father convinced him to join the insurance company in 1990.

By that time, Kaliff Insurance was completely focused on the amusement industry. As president, Kaliff also heads up the carnival division — often the first step to landing other components of an event or the entire event itself, as Kaliff did in the case of Fiesta five years ago.

In 2009, Kaliff earned the prestigious designation as a Lloyd’s of London Direct Coverholder, which authorizes the company to issue policies on behalf of Lloyd’s.

“The way for me to expand, and be in charge of my own destiny, would be to have Lloyds’ backing and become a coverholder, which is an arduous and lengthy process,” Kaliff said. The designation means that Kaliff is solely responsible for Lloyd’s amusement industry insurance business in the U.S. and Canada, representing syndicates that underwrite the risk.

“Safety is the priority of the day, always,” Kaliff said. “And making certain the venue is a place you want to go to [in order] to have fun, to enjoy yourself and not be afraid, as well as making sure the venue itself is doing its best to look out for each and every patron as if they were their own family member.”

The company has insurance policy clauses “unique to its identity,” Kaliff said, and the company spends considerable resources on teaching organizations about how to manage risk. In addition, Kaliff serves on a number of state boards and committees advising on risk management.

Each year, the company conducts seminars for Fiesta Commission members, providing instruction on how to protect the safety of the public, Kaliff said. The company recently trained 7,200 workers at the Houston Rodeo on golf-cart safety awareness.

“The protection of the public isn’t just to keep the money flowing out of our pockets,” Smiley-Kaliff said. “We really believe a public venue event should be safe. We do not insure people who disregard the safety of their patrons.”

The company said it has a 61% declination rate (events or businesses they turn away) and retains 97% of its customers. So while the company may have strayed from its roots underwriting life insurance or property and casualty, those strategic moves have proven successful.

“Revenues are substantial and growing,” Smiley-Kaliff said, and the company has seen its profits grow every year since it started a century ago, although they wouldn’t disclose revenue or profit numbers.

A lean operation, the company employs just 12 in its San Antonio offices and relies on independent agents throughout the country.

As a member of his family’s youngest generation, Kaliff likes to tell the story of how in the 1940s his father took advantage of his grandfather’s absence while on vacation in Europe to invest in all-new electric typewriters, and how he did the same with an upgrade to computers in 1991 while his father was traveling.

Kaliff Insurance moved from the Frost Bank building on the northeast side into its Castle Hills space on Northwest Military Highway 3 1/2 years ago. Smiley-Kaliff is a former mayor of the incorporated City of Castle Hills. The company renovated an old art gallery into offices that would accommodate the business and the principals’ dogs, which are often in the office, and a tenant in the adjacent space.

“We have a low profile nationally because for many years we were known by word-of-mouth, but our name is very well known in the insurance industry on the amusement side,” Kaliff said in answer to why many in San Antonio may not have heard the Kaliff name. “Secondly, we did very little business in San Antonio and we weren’t competing with any other insurance agencies in San Antonio for the unique market share of fairs, festivals, and carnivals.”

But as the company approaches its 100th year, Kaliff feels a responsibility to get the word out as a way to honor the dedication of his predecessors. And have fun doing it, of course.

“What we do is a blast — because we insure fun, we really do,” Smiley-Kaliff said. “Yes, it’s the serious side and yes, there are challenges. But everything that people do that we insure is a celebration.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.