On Monday, I attended the 2010 Markel (NYSE: MKL) shareholders meeting in Richmond, Va. Here are my quick takes on the heels of the meeting:

1. FirstComp is a game changer
The acquisition of Aspen FirstComp could be a game changer for Markel. The most important takeaway is that it seems Markel is serious about utilizing technology to play offense. Over time, this should help the company decrease its 44% expense ratio to a more acceptable level. I cover some of the other reasons for shareholders to be excited about the marriage of FirstComp and Markel here.

2. Gayner is energized
Tom Gayner, the venerable and often entertaining chief investment officer and now tri-president (Markel has an office of the president that is shared by three employees), seems energized by the growth in Markel Ventures. I asked about capital allocation decisions, and it was clear that Markel will be focusing its efforts on strategic purchases within the insurance field and more acquisitions of noncore companies at Markel Ventures. They said they have "an abundance" of opportunities in each.

3. Look for the expense ratio to fall
As I mentioned earlier, Markel's expense ratio sits at about 44% right now, and it's exploring ways to get this down to a more acceptable level -- like in the mid-30s.

4. Pricing improvements
There seemed to be some belief that pricing is showing some signs of improvement. Management wasn't giddy, but I got the sense that most believe the good times are getting closer every day. As an aside, Markel doesn't expect much exposure to the floods down South along the Mississippi.

Overall, 2010 was a good year, and Markel seems to be well prepared for whatever is coming in the future. If 2010 is any indication, we can expect more acquisitions and a renewed focus on becoming a more efficient global provider of niche insurance offerings. Of course, the cornerstone of its success still requires great discipline on the underwriting part of the business.

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