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Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. (AJG) Q4 2018 Earnings Conference Call Transcript

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Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. (NYSE: AJG)

Q4 2018 Earnings Conference Call

Jan. 31, 2019 5:15 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good afternoon, and welcome to Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.'s fourth-quarter 2018 earnings conference call . [Operator instructions] Today's call is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

Some of the comments made during this conference call, including answers given in response to questions, may constitute forward-looking statements within the meaning of the security laws. These forward-looking statements are subject to risks and uncertainties discussed on this call or described in the company's reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Actual results may differ materially from those discussed today, and the company undertakes no obligation to update these statements. In addition, for reconciliation of the non-GAAP measures discussed on this call, as well as other information regarding these measures, please refer to the most recen t earnings release and the other materials in the investor relations section of the company's website.

It is now my pleasure to introduce J. Patrick Gallagher, chairman, president and CEO of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Mr.

Gallagher, you may begin.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Thank you, Devon. Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us for our fourth-quarter and full-year 2018 earnings conference call. With me today is Doug Howell, our chief financial officer, as well as the heads of our operating divisions. As I do each quarter, today I'm going to touch on the four key components of our strategy to drive shareholder value: No.

1 is organic growth. No. 2 is growing through mergers and acquisitions. No.

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3 is improving our productivity and quality and No. 4 is maintaining our unique culture. The team once again executed on all four, resulting in another great quarter and a fantastic year. Let me start with some financial highlights for the quarter.

Our core brokerage and risk management segments combined to deliver 11% growth in revenue, 5.8% all-in organic growth, adjusted EBITDAC margin expansion of 45 basis points and we completed 19 tuck-in mergers during the quarter, representing about $90 million of annualized revenue. And let's not forget about clean energy, $22 million of after-tax earnings in the quarter, bringing the full-year total to almost $119 million. Just a great performance by the team. Now for some more detail on our results, starting with the brokerage segment, organic.

Fourth-quarter organic growth was 5.6% all in, reflecting strong base commission and fee growth of 5.9%. Combined, supplemental and contingent commission growth was 1.7%, light by about $2.5 million in the quarter mostly related to catastrophe loss experience. This shortfall didn't move the organic needle much, but it did pull our brokerage margin expansion down from 65 to 70 basis points to 46 basis points. Regardless, a really strong result by the brokerage team in the face of a tough comparison from last year's fourth quarter.

Let me break down our fourth-quarter organic growth around the world. First, our domestic property/casualty operations had a really great quarter with base organic of over 6%. Our domestic retail benefits operation was closer to 2%, which is good performance, given that the unit was up against the tough comparable of nearly 8% in the fourth-quarter 2017. Outside the U.S., our U.K.

operations posted 8% organic, Canada was up 6% and Australia and New Zealand grew around 9%. Property casualty rates and exposure combined are trending higher across all major geographies and continued to be a modest tailwind to our organic growth. Similar to last quarter, these two factors add a little over a point to organic. Let me give you some rate sound bites during the quarter, focusing on a few noteworthy lines of business.

In our retail PC business, commercial auto and property lines are up about 5%, and workers' compensation is down a little less than a point. In our domestic wholesale operations, property and commercial auto lines are up 4%; casualty lines, up 3%; and workers' compensation, down over 3%. U.K. retail is flat or modestly positive across almost all lines with the exception of professional liability, which we see up over 5%.

In Canada, property is up more than 4% while commercial auto and casualty lines are up less than 4%. And finally, Australia and New Zealand continue to show the strongest impact. Casualty and specialty lines are up over 5%, and property is up around 9%. Overall, the PC market remains stable, similar to past quarters, but we do see it trending just a little higher than, say, we saw in the fall of 2018.

Regardless, it's a market that is good for brokers, it's good for carriers and, most importantly, it's good for our clients. Looking forward, 2019 brokerage organic growth feels like it will be around 5%. Next, let me talk about brokerage merger and acquisition growth. 2018 was an outstanding merger and acquisition year.

We completed 44 mergers, representing about $318 million of annualized revenues. I would like to thank all of our new partners for joining us, and I extend a very warm welcome to our growing Gallagher family of professionals. Looking toward 2019, our merger and acquisition momentum continues. So far this year, we have announced seven mergers, representing about $130 million of annualized revenue.

In addition, our internal M&A pipeline report shows around $350 million of revenues associated with about 50 term sheets either agreed upon or being prepared. While not all of these will close, the continued strength in our pipeline shows our ability to attract tuck-in merger partners at fair prices who are excited about our capabilities and believe in our unique culture and realize that we can be more successful together. Moving to productivity and quality. As I mentioned earlier, lower contingent commissions tempered brokerage margin expansion by about 20 basis points in the quarter.

But even with the shortfall in contingents, adjusted EBITDAC margin was up 46 basis points in the quarter, a really nice result. The brokerage team continues to work hard to find efficiencies across the organization and further leverage our scale, helping us become better, faster and deliver higher-quality service to our clients. Next let me move to our risk management segment, which is primarily Gallagher Bassett. Fourth-quarter organic growth was a really strong 6.7%, domestic organic was 6% and international posted 11%.

In the U.S., workers' compensation and general liability claim counts are moving higher and finished the year up around 3%. Our insurance carrier business once again grew nicely during the quarter as more and more insurance carriers realize that we can customize and handle claims more efficiently. Outside the U.S., growth was excellent in Australia and the U.K., which reflects our ability to deliver superior claim outcomes for our clients anywhere around the globe. As we look forward, 2019 risk management segment organic growth feels like it will be in the 6% to 7% range.

Moving to mergers and acquisitions. Gallagher Bassett completed two mergers in the quarter, an Australian-based provider of worker risk management services and a U.K.-based provider of property repair services. These are two excellent examples of the type of specialized partners we're attracting to Gallagher Bassett. In terms of margin, the risk management segment fourth-quarter adjusted EBITDAC margin was -- it increased by 17 basis points.

This brought our full-year adjusted EBITDAC margin to 17.4%, within our 17% to 17.5% expectation. Looking forward, we see margins in the similar range next year as the team leverages its scale through shared services, increases its utilization of our offshore and domestic service centers and invest in technology and analytics. And finally, I'll touch on what truly distinguishes our franchise, and that's our culture. It is a culture that values teamwork, ethics, client service and a dedication to the communities we operate in.

The core tenets of our culture, which have been part of this company for generations, are memorialized in the Gallagher way, penned by my uncle in 1984. Every day, our colleagues get up and work diligently to maintain our culture, to promote our culture and deliver our culture. It is a culture that has also been recognized externally. This past year, we were the only insurance broker to be recognized by Forbes Magazine as the World's Best Employer.

And for seven straight years, we have been named The World's Most Ethical Company by The Ethisphere Institute. Awards and recognitions aren't everything. But I believe these continue to show that even as we grow and become more global, our unique Gallagher culture resonates with all of our offices. OK, an excellent quarter and a tremendous year in all measures.

I'll stop now and turn it over to Doug. Doug?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Pat, and good afternoon, everyone. Today, I'll highlight a couple of things in the earnings release and then move to the CFO Commentary document we posted on our website. But first, as Pat said, a great quarter to wrap up a fantastic year deserves special mention. I'd like to thank all of our worldwide professionals for such a strong finish.

OK, to the earnings release. Pat hit the highlights of the brokerage and risk management segments, so let's turn to Page 9, to the corporate segment shortcut table. That's a little noisy, so let me break that down. First, you'll see that we had a terrific quarter for clean energy.

Due to favorable December weather conditions, our clean energy earnings came through to post an additional $3 million of after-tax net earnings than we had forecasted during our December 11 Investor Day. That completely offset the slight shortfall in contingents that Pat mentioned earlier, in effect, a nice weather hedge for our total corporate earnings. I know it isn't technically a hedge, but it certainly worked that way this quarter. Second, you'll see that we had two favorable items that we have adjusted out.

So looking at the last line, in the fourth-quarter table that's at the top of Page 9, that's the adjusted line, you'll see that our corporate segment came in about $5 million better than the midpoint estimates we provided during our December IR Day. The first adjustment is the favorable impact of reorganizing our legal entity structure, a $22 million benefit from releasing the tax valuation allowance. It's not really a cash item this quarter, but it does help reduce our ongoing administrative cost. And it will reduce cash taxes paid over the next 10 years, equates to a couple million dollars a year of cash savings going forward.

The second adjustment is an $8.9 million favorable impact from clarifying guidance issued last month related to the Tax Reform Act passed in December 2017. It clarifies how U.S. taxes -- how the U.S. taxes earnings of our foreign subsidiaries.

I'll come back to the other corporate segment line items in a few minutes when we get to the CFO Commentary. Next, flip to Page 10 of the earnings release, the third item from the bottom called other. We did sell a small brokerage unit in January. We thought the product and customer service offering fit better with the buyer's underwriting business, so it ended up being a nice win-win for both of us.

Let's go now to the CFO Commentary document, to Page 2. We've now provided our first look at items for 2019. Two modeling notes: first, amortization expense. Please take a quick look at your brokerage segment amortization packs.

We're forecasting $74 million in the first quarter. And as the footnote says, you'll need to tick that up a couple million a quarter for M&A that we could do for the rest of the year, and that will get you close. Second, the earnings from noncontrolling interest line. Our first quarter is when our brokerage segment has the largest impact from earnings from noncontrolling interest.

Please double check your models as this has caused some modeling noise in the past. Let's now turn to Page 3, to the corporate segment. Let me walk you through that page. First, the blue section is just a reprint of the corporate shortcut tables from our earnings release this year.

Next, we've added the yellow adjusted section to remove the favorable tax items I discussed with you a minute or so ago. We believe the yellow adjusted numbers are more helpful when comparing to both the gray section, and that's just a reprint of our estimates given last month during our December IR day, and in comparison to the pinkish section, which is our first estimates for 2019. Let me take each line in that table. Interest and banking.

Our fourth quarter came in better than our December estimates, call it, a million dollars after-tax. Stronger cash flows in the fourth quarter kept us out of our line of credit. Our borrowings are a little bit lower. As for 2019, again in the pink column, you'll see that our estimates for interest expense are going up to reflect our additional $600 million of borrowings, as noted in Footnote 1 on that page and also in the 8-K we filed with our earnings release this afternoon.

We'll use all of that for M&A, which I'll touch on later in my comments. Moving down to the M&A expense line. M&A expenses ran a little hot in the fourth quarter, coming in about $4 million more than our estimates. It's simply more external legal and due diligence costs related to two international deals that we've recently announced and one larger domestic deal that we pulled the plug on in December.

Looking forward, we see 2019 more like the first three quarters of 2018 than we do the fourth quarter of '18. The corporate line, adjusted fourth quarter came in about $3 million better than our December IR Day forecast. Looking forward, we again see 2019 being more consistent with adjusted 2018. So let's go next to the impact of tax reform line.

While the guidance gave us a benefit in 2018, unfortunately, other guidance takes away a different benefit in 2019. So you'll see that 2019 is more in line with the adjusted amounts in the yellow column. But again, it's very important to remind you that this line is mostly a book expense, not cash, because the additional taxes are nearly all offset by the use of our credits. In the end, tax reform has been a home run for Gallagher.

Finally, to clean energy. As I mentioned earlier, fourth quarter came in about $3 million better than we forecasted due to a cold last half of December. When you look at our full-year 2018, we estimate that ideal weather patterns contributed about $8 million to our full-year net earnings of $119 million. So now as we and our utility partners look out over 2019, we're not expecting increased production levels from another ideal weather year, rather, something closer to production levels we saw back in 2017.

It's fantastic that we're still forecasting another year of over $100 million in net earnings, but we just don't see it as being amazing as it was in 2018. OK, let's flip to Page 5 of the CFO Commentary. You'll see that we've updated our roll-in revenue estimates for mergers that we have announced thus far this year. Here's why our first quarter was a little slow, but it's certainly not the case this year.

For full-year 2019, let's say we can do about $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion of M&A with free cash and debt. That consists of $300 million of cash on hand, will generate another $700 million after our dividend here in 2019 plus another $600 million borrowing that I mentioned earlier. Of that, we use or will use about $500 million for mergers we have already announced and have included in our roll-in revenues in the table, meaning that we still have about $1 billion to fund additional M&A in 2019. In 2018, our weighted average multiple was around 8.3x, and it equates to much lower than 8x when you factor in our tax credits, showing that we can execute our tuck-in merger strategy at fair pricing, which gives us a nice arbitrage to our trading multiple.

OK, those are my comments. An excellent quarter to close out an understanding year, and we're in a really terrific position to continue our success here in 2019. Back to you, Pat.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Thanks, Doug. Devon, I think we can go to question and answers now.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator instructions] Our first question comes from the line of Elyse Greenspan with Wells Fargo. Please proceed with your question.

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Hi, good evening. My first question, going back to some of your comments, Pat, when you kicked off the call. You described the market as stable, but you did say it's a little bit better than the fall of '18. Was just good to hear but that also you got -- you said organic growth, probably around 5%.

I know you guys have been talking about '19 being about the same as '18. So you came in at just 5.6% this year. So is there any reason -- I know it's only a 0.5 point slowdown, but how you're kind of coming to that 5% of cost next year to drop a little bit from where 2018 was.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I think, Elyse, that item, Pat and I were looking at it, I think it was just a little more conservative than we are seeing here in this year. There are -- we'll see how our contingents and supplementals come out next year. We'll see all the -- if there's any slowdown at all in the economy. We're not seeing it now, but I think a 5% pick feels more -- it's more like 5% than it is 6%, that's for sure.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Plus, I think, Elyse, when rates go up a little bit, what we really had a hard time tracking is the opt-out. So for instance, someone may take a higher retention, bringing that premium back down. Someone may drop limits. Instead of buying $100 million, drop it down to $50 million.

It's really hard to track that stuff. So as rates go up, they don't just flow through, which is why when you see us talking about rates up here at 5% and somewhere, they're at 3% and in Australia and New Zealand, 9%, but the impact to the company from rate and from exposure units is only about 1%.

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

And you would expect it to continue to be about 1% in 2019 as well.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Yes.

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

OK. And then another question, you guys are going to be issuing some interest expense. It sounds like the M&A pipeline is very robust. So obviously, we update our models to factor in higher corporate expenses due to the interest expense here, but then the offset should really be that it sounds like there's going to be a lot more revenue falling through this year.

So can you just give us a sense -- I mean, obviously, decent uptick in corporate expenses. But is the offset that as you guys kind of model this through internally, you see earnings going up because it's the firepower that gets you to finance future transactions?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I think, Elyse, I think it's important that you look at Page 5 of the CFO Commentary. For just acquisitions that we closed and we have announced thus far this year, the roll-in impact is $92 million in the first quarter, $80 million in the second. But then there'll be new acquisitions that come on there, too. So yes, if you push up your interest expense in your models, you need to make sure that you put in the roll-in impact of the acquisitions that we're using that debt for.

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

OK, that makes sense. And then so you guys did $318 million of annualized revenue in 2018, already $130 million so far this year. So I guess, based on the strong start to the year and the pipeline that you alluded to earlier, both of you guys, you would expect, I guess, the acquired revenue on that metric to -- on deals that you announce for all of '19 to be higher than '18, I would assume.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, probably 40% higher, 30% to 40% higher.

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

OK. That's great. And then you guys didn't call out -- just one last margin question. I know there were some acquisitions that were dilutive to your margins in the third quarter.

And the thinking was that for the full year, on an annualized basis, they would be margin kind of neutral. Did you see a benefit in the fourth quarter? Or is that something that we think about more benefiting the first half of '19 margins?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, it's about 7 basis points in the fourth quarter of margin lift, so next to nothing on that. Maybe I think for the whole -- in the third quarter, it's 40 basis points, if I remember it right, so maybe it's 10 basis points of positive in the first, second and a little bit here in the fourth. So year-to-date, not much.

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

OK, that's helpful. Thank you very much. I appreciate the color.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Kai Pan with Morgan Stanley. Please proceed with your question.

Kai Pan -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Thank you and good evening. So my first question is on margin. So if you look at past three years, mentally, what -- I'm drawing two lines. You look at organic growth: 2016, 3%; 2017, 4%; and 2018 is almost 6%.

So the organic growth is accelerating. Then the other line is margin expansion year over year: about 80 basis points, 2016; 50 basis points, '17; and 40 basis points, 2018. So why are these two lines diverging? And can you help us to see, is that wage inflation investment you need to make? Or -- and would try to figure out, in 2019, was the pace of margin expansion better than the 40 basis points you've seen in 2018?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

First, I see '19 very similar to '18, so that will help you on that one. In terms of why, I think it really comes down to the fundamental investment layer that's going on inside of the business. We're investing heavily in data analytics, sales support tools, branding, sales support on the marketing side. So there's an investment layer there, Kai, that's happening underneath.

As for actual wage inflation, as you know, we feel like we have a little bit of a safety valve on that with our offshore centers of excellence where we can continue to move work to lower-cost labor locations. So the real cost that's -- any additional cost that we're spending are primarily going to things that we believe should help us grow better in the future.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Including producer hires.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, that's right.

Kai Pan -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

OK. That's great. And then my second question, on the acquisition. It looks like you have very strong pipeline, and I saw like a press release every day.

So the -- in January, the seven deals seems particularly large, on average, about $18 million each, much larger than your normal deal where we're talking about $3 million, $5 million, $7 million. Is there -- is the trend that you're getting more larger deals? And also, what do you pay for them? Is that -- the larger deals tend to command a higher multiple.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I think the one that's inflating the first-quarter numbers in terms of the revenue per acquisition is we announced Stackhouse Poland in the U.K. We think that's a terrific addition to our growing retail operations there. The multiple on that was above 10x, but I think our portfolio for the year this year was 8.3x. And then, again, for anything we do in the U.S., our tax credits bring that number down.

As a matter of fact, it ends up being a multiple of about 7x -- 6.9 to 7x on U.S. acquisitions. So the little bit larger one that we're doing here in the first quarter is what's in -- what you're seeing there.

Kai Pan -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

OK. That's very helpful. Last one, if I may, on the -- sort of your leverage level. With the $600 million additional debt, what's your leverage level? Are we going to see like further sort of leverage as you grow your business doing more acquisitions? Or the leverage level, you're going to just go up with the sort of EBITDA growth.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

I would -- it's more the latter of what you're saying. We -- this is not a levering up of our balance sheet. We think this is a safe level, consistent with what we've done in the past. Our cash flows at the end of 2018 were particularly strong.

So our debt ratio dropped down maybe 0.2 turns of EBITDA, and we'll reset that number 0.2, but it's not going to be -- you're not going to see us running 3x or something like that.

Kai Pan -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Perfect. Thank you, so much, and good luck, to you in '19.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Yaron Kinar of Goldman Sachs. Please proceed with your question.

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Hi, good morning. Good afternoon, sir. I had a question on the risk management margins. I think you called out a nonrecurring favorable settlement in Business Insurance.

So could you maybe quantify what margin impact that had?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

In the quarter, I -- maybe it's -- I'm just doing the math in my head here, maybe it's 20 basis points, something like that, 10 basis points.

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

OK. OK, so not very significant.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, right.

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

And as we keep hearing these -- or seeing these headlines about a potential recession at some point, the end of this year or maybe next year, can you maybe remind us or talk through some of the expense structure? Basically, what component of that would be variable? And what actions could you take to manage expenses, should organic start flowing?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I think that there's two things. First of all, we're not seeing a recession and anything in our clients at this point. We're seeing our clients continuing to grow. We're considering -- so we're not seeing that yet.

But what would happen if they did? I'm going to talk about a slight recession not a great recession. But usually, what we do is we just tighten our hiring a little bit. We typically have not been one to go to large layoffs. We don't cut benefits back.

We don't really cut back on those things that are building our franchise going forward. But rather, what we'll do is we'll be just a little bit slower to hire. And when you're having 10% of your workforce turn over every year, you can tighten your belt a little bit and reallocate work. And that tends to be what you can do in a recession.

So the model is highly flexible to respond in a recession. And usually it's just a little tightening of the belt that allows us to get through just a modest recession.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Two things I'd add to that, this is Pat. No. 1, Doug started off saying we're not seeing that. And we've checked with our field people, and our clients' businesses are strong.

So what's going on right now is clearly not a recession. The other thing I'd point out is, I tell our people this all the time, we're in the luckiest spot in the world of commerce. I don't care what happens to the economy, you're going to buy your insurance.

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Right. And clear -- look, I'm not, in any way, suggesting there's a recession. I take the fact that you're actually -- it sounds like you've actually increased your organic growth estimates here because I think only a month ago, you were talking about 5% organic for '19, off of a lower base. And so clearly, the organic numbers are very strong.

I did not in any way...

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, we're still seeing 5%. Our best guess for next year is 5%.

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

OK. Well, I'd tell you, you said 5% for brokerage and 6% to 7% for risk management.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Fair enough. Yes, you're right.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

You're correct.

Operator

Our next question comes from Mike Zaremski with Credit Suisse. Please proceed with your question.

Mike Zaremski -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Hey, good evening. On the risk management segment, I guess was just a little bit surprised about your guidance for no margin improvements, given the healthy revenue trend and outlook. Maybe you can just quickly -- and I think in the past, you've also talked about you could -- you can squeeze some margin improvement out as long as organic's above -- you can correct me if I'm wrong, above four or five-ish, so if you can kind of talk to the rationale on the guidance there.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, I think that we've been saying between 17% and 17.5% on the risk management segment for a number of years now. Would we like to see this 17.6% or 17.7%? That might happen. But right now, we're pretty comfortable at that 17.5% margin range. In that business, it's not quite as levered as the brokerage business is.

That's still heavy labor. So you really need -- if you go back and listen to it, you really need margin expansion above 3% in the brokerage space, and you really need organic growth of at least 3% or more to expand in the brokerage space, and you need at least 5% in the risk management space just because it's not heavily as leveraged or geared business. We'll see what happens when we come through the year this year, we'll see what -- there are some pretty exciting things that we're doing with some of our domestic service center work. But '18 -- 2020 might be a year to see more of a step-up.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Mike, let me make a comment, too, this is Pat. When you write claim business, you better put the people on because the bags of claims are coming. You better have them on, you better have them trained and you better have them ready. You can't wait till the claims start flowing in to go recruit people.

Mike Zaremski -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

OK, understood. My other question is on, Pat, you mentioned in the prepared remarks that workers' comp and general liability claim counts are up a few percent year over year. Just I think -- does that figure include exposure growth? Or is that a frequency statistic?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

That's a frequency measure.

Mike Zaremski -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

OK. I asked because we sometimes use that as a readthrough for the carriers. OK.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

And I also would say that -- it also gives you an idea of kind of what's going on in the economy a little bit. When claim count start to rise, it's usually because there's more work being done by our clients.

Mike Zaremski -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

OK, got it. And I guess as a final one, this -- and I don't know if this is a big deal or not, but does your 1Q guidance for clean coal take into account the lovely weather we're experiencing in January in the Midwest and parts of the Northeast?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

I don't have those production levels today, but it's pretty darn cold here, and we have a lot of plants in Iowa. Actually, it's interesting. It's electricity use in the South that drives it more than it is necessarily the cold weather in the Midwest because there's so much natural gas in homes in the Midwest and the North. When you get in the South, it's much more baseboard heat, etc., so you really need the cold weather.

In South Carolina, it's happening a little bit now. But yes, we'll see a little bit better first-quarter results as a result of this week's weather.

Mike Zaremski -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

OK. Stay warm and good luck in 2019. Thanks.

Operator

[Operator instructions] Our next question comes from the line of Ryan Tunis with Autonomous Research. Please proceed with the question.

Ryan Tunis -- Autonomous Research --Analyst

Good evening. To follow up on Kai's question, like thinking about the wage inflation aspect of things. Doug, if you had -- it's probably just a guess at this point, but what are you saying inflation did in 2018? What impact did that have do you think on just the expense growth component? Was it 1%, 2%, 3%? Just the wage inflation aspect of things.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Right. There's two components in that. There's the actual raise, increase, and that probably was about a 1% pool this year and just in terms of wage inflation. And then when you take a look at the replacement cost, this year, our average replacement was running about 8% more than what our termination rate was -- level was.

So that's also a little bit that we're hiring perhaps more technical folks in the data -- the analytics area, but we're continuing to become more efficient in some of the middle-paid layers as we implement technology and use our offshore centers of excellence. But by and large, as a percentage of revenue, we're seeing wage and replacement inflation somewhere around, as a percentage of revenue, 1.2%.

Ryan Tunis -- Autonomous Research --Analyst

Got it. That's helpful. If I could as you, what percentage of your workforce are, in the normal years, new employee?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

We typically replace about 12% of our workforce just through natural attrition.

Ryan Tunis -- Autonomous Research --Analyst

And Doug, in '19, that 1.2%, is there a marquee on that? Or is that...

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

No, I think that's a pretty good number right now. I feel like that 2019, we can operate it at that level.

Ryan Tunis -- Autonomous Research --Analyst

Got you. Then the other thing I wanted to ask about was, again, I want to use the recession word, but back in '08, you guys had much smaller employee benefits. And trying to get a feel -- that's obviously been pretty big growth area for you guys and competitors as well. But what's really been driving that? Has that been more health? Has that been talent? And how much of that is tied to -- how much of that revenue growth is tied to essentially payroll versus just project and hours and that type of thing?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

This is Pat, Ryan. You got two things that are influencing that. As we've grown through acquisitions, we brought on more product offerings for our clients. We're much bigger now in the retirement field.

We're much bigger in HR consulting and all the other services that are folded in and around health and welfare. Health and welfare still remains our biggest. And that is, of course -- that attach is based on headcount and population. But the rest is a mix of project work, mostly HR stuff would be project work and ongoing, what you might call, annuity revenue from things like retirement.

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

And realize, too, that right now, even if we have an uptick of a point in unemployment, right now, employers' No. 1 issue is the war for talent, and that's exactly where our benefits folks play in that, it's how do they create a better workforce to attract more talent because even if employment goes from 3.5 back to 4.5 or to 5, there's still going to be a war for talent out there. We are not seeing a great recession before us. So this isn't like payroll numbers are going to be dropping dramatically 10%, 12% something like that.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Adam Klauber with William Blair. Please proceed with your question.

Adam Klauber -- William Blair & Company -- Analyst

Thanks. Good afternoon guys. How did RPS do this year? Was it in line with overall organic or somewhat better or worse? And then on top of that, there has been some dislocation in the E&S markets, Lloyd's and AIG are pulling back. Is that a help? Or is that going to be a challenge for RPS next year?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Well, RPS was, basically, in line with the brokerage segment in terms of growth or what have you. They are seeing a little bit stronger tailwind in terms of some of the placements they're making in the E&S market. But to your point, you do have some pullback at Lloyd's and AIG, but I will tell you we're finding it no problem in particular with the U.S. domestic market gobbling those disruptions up.

Business will move from London back into the United States, D&O policy quoted by Chubb here versus Lloyd's there that that will move. So I think there's good growth in RPS, and there's a lot of quick cross-sell into the Gallagher organization by our brokers to RPS, and I see that continuing.

Adam Klauber -- William Blair & Company -- Analyst

OK. And then sorry if you said this, your U.K. business, what's -- I guess what's the general outlook in '19 versus '18 for the U.K., for your business?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

I think it's -- I'm really pleased with our U.K. business. I mean we -- that organic number that we mentioned earlier today is a real -- really good improvement. And the franchise, the retail franchise, throughout the U.K.

is -- up into Scotland as well is really strong and has just great opportunities to continue growing. And our specialty operation in London is second to none in that market, and it's growing in spite of what Lloyd's is doing.

Adam Klauber -- William Blair & Company -- Analyst

OK. And then as far as sort of same-store produce, I don't think you give out that number. But in general, has that -- did that grow last year? And do you expect it to grow this year?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, we're up this year considerably better than we were in 2017. We typically don't talk about specific numbers, but if '17, we're flat to up 2%, we'd probably triple that this year.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Well, Adam, you know us pretty well. This is sales machine. You're not going to be here if you're not growing your book.

Adam Klauber -- William Blair & Company -- Analyst

Right. Right. OK. Well, thank you for the answers, guys.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Mark Hughes with SunTrust. Please proceed with your question.

Mark Hughes -- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey -- Analyst

Yes, thank you. Good afternoon. Pat, you had mentioned maybe a little more tailwind in early 2019. I think you're talking about P&C pricing compared to the fall.

Care to expand on that a little bit? What might the magnitude of it be? What's driving it?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Well, I think part of it is you've got good economic activity. I'm trying to get to what my actual prepared comments were. But we're seeing rates in the U.S., commercial auto and property, up about 5%. And that's been driven a lot, Mark, by auto.

The transportation market is actually tough right now. And property lines, of course, you had the storms, and that's got to be spread out across the book. But at the same time workers' compensation is down about a point. So I think what you got is some recovery from the storms in the property market, and the transportation market is driving a bunch of the others.

Mark Hughes -- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey -- Analyst

But you feel like it's a little better in Q1 as opposed to the back half of 2018.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Yes. But Mark, don't adjust your model. It's up slightly. And remember, I talked about the fact that clients opt out.

So I might take a bigger retention depending -- if I'm a small piece of -- if I'm a small account, I don't have that opportunity. But any commercial middle-market account has leverage they can pull to reduce the rate impact.

Mark Hughes -- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey -- Analyst

Understood. On the domestic benefits, I think you were up 2, last quarter you were up 5. Anything going on there?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Just a tough comparable the last year. They had a dynamite fourth quarter last year.

Mark Hughes -- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey -- Analyst

And then finally on contingents. I don't know whether you said what drove that was just a timing issue or some sort of shift in the mix on payments. What's behind there?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Catastrophes took our loss ratios up, drove our payments down.

Mark Hughes -- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey -- Analyst

Understood. Thank you.

Operator

[Operator instructions] Our next question comes from the line of Meyer Shields with KBW. He's here with your question.

Meyer Shields -- KBW -- Analyst

Thanks. If I can just spring off of that last question. I guess I'm surprised that the travel time between catastrophe losses and the impact on contingents is as quick as it is. Does that mean that there won't be a continued impact from, let's say, California wildfires or Michael in 2019?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Well, remember, Meyer, that with new GAAP accounting, we must estimate our contingent commissions and -- rather than booking them when we receive them like we have done in the past. So it shows up faster because we have to estimate those today. And so that's the reason why that happens. And I've warned about that volatility since we started talking about new GAAP one and a half year ago that you're going to see a little bit earlier recognition of those things than you would have in the past.

And then also it's, admittedly, a little harder to estimate. But we took our best shot at it with the information we have at hand, and it cost us a couple million bucks this quarter.

Meyer Shields -- KBW -- Analyst

OK. No, fair enough. I feel like I'm missing something here, but there's a footnote with regard to the commentary for brokerage segment amortization excluding Stackhouse Poland?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, the number, the $74 million, excludes Stackhouse Poland. And then my comments would say that we -- you need to tick it up a little bit. I don't know when we're going to close that for sure, whether it'll be here in this quarter or next quarter. So we just said that we would footnote it.

It's not in there. But you'll have to increase the amortization and the second, third and fourth quarters. Tick it up a couple million dollars, and you'll get close.

Meyer Shields -- KBW -- Analyst

OK. That's perfect. And then final question, with regard to risk management, is -- are the economics on carrier business any different from when clients are just retaining risks?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

No, not really.

Meyer Shields -- KBW -- Analyst

OK, great. Thanks so much.

Operator

[Operator instructions] Our next question comes from the line of Alison Jacobowitz with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Please proceed with your question.

Alison Jacobowitz -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

Hi, thanks. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more big picture about the acquisition environment. Maybe give some color on maybe the -- if you're -- the nature of the deals you're looking for has changed, if the nature -- I'm curious if the -- if you're seeing a change in the landscape of agents or targets approaching you to sell? And also, the competition that you're seeing for the companies you're looking at, has there been any change there, private equity versus other avenues?

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Yes, I would say the change is that over the last four, five years, there are significantly more competitors for deals, especially deals of size. And that's the private equity world that is very aggressive right now. So what I'm really proud of is that the people that have chosen us have chosen us to win that battle. And that's really what it comes down to.

Every one of these, you're fighting to win just like it was an account. And you're going to fight that battle on a bunch of themes, and one of those themes is culture. And if, in fact, what you want to do is sell to someone that says, "I'm not going to change anything about you. I'm not going to change your name.

I'm not going to change your marketing. I'm not going to change your systems. I just want you to send me the check every quarter and make sure you make as much of a margin as you can," that's not going to be someone's who's going to fit Gallagher. And so that's what we're doing every day, is trying to figure out who is going to fit.

And then the second thing that I think we're pretty good at that is really important, is the entrepreneur going to stay? Because they're the connection to their people, and the people that are excited about joining us, because they are going to get capabilities and they are at a place that is stable and is not for sale, are the ones that fit. So yes, there's plenty of product out there. This is an incredible business. There's -- the baby boomers are looking at monetizing their life's work, and we're not just out buying baby boomers.

And there are literally thousands of these agents and brokers that aren't even over $20 million of revenue. There's thousands of them. And so we offer, I think, a very, very stable home. I'm proud to be able to say to these people, as they come through my office, any account of any size located anywhere in the world, we can do it.

Isn't that cool if you're a little broker from, let's say, Cincinnati?

Alison Jacobowitz -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

Thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Yaron Kinar with Goldman Sachs. Please proceed with your question.

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Just one quick follow-up. Doug, I think you said that you were thinking of margin expansion in brokerage in '19 roughly in a similar range as the margin potential we saw in '18. Why wouldn't a rebound in contingent commissions actually drive margin expansion a little higher?

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Well, first of all, let's take a rebound for the full year, if we pick up an extra $3 million of contingent commissions next year versus this year, it's going to move it 8 basis points, something like that. So it's not a big number on a $3 billion to $4 billion number. It had little impact in this quarter, but we still posted 46 basis points of margin expansion. So yes, a rebound would certainly help in that.

But I said, if we post 5% organic growth, the next year, we should be showing a margin expansion similar to what we have this year.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes our question-and-answer session. I now would like to turn the floor back over to management for closing remarks.

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Thank you, Devon. Thank you again for being with us this afternoon. In closing, I'm extremely pleased with our 2018 performance, and I want to personally thank all of our 30,000 colleagues for their hard work and dedication. I believe our long-term strategy will continue to serve this company, our colleagues, our clients and our shareholders well.

2019 should be another great year for Gallagher. We look forward to speaking with you again at our March 12 IR Day in Rolling Meadows. Have a good evening, and thank you for being with us today.

Operator

[Operator signoff]

Duration: 49 minutes

Call Participants:

J. Patrick Gallagher -- Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President

Doug Howell -- Chief Financial Officer

Elyse Greenspan -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Kai Pan -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Yaron Kinar -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Mike Zaremski -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Ryan Tunis -- Autonomous Research --Analyst

Adam Klauber -- William Blair & Company -- Analyst

Mark Hughes -- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey -- Analyst

Meyer Shields -- KBW -- Analyst

Alison Jacobowitz -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

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