Agency of the Month
A REAL MOM AND POP AGENCY …
becomes a high-growth operation as son implements unstoppable growth strategy
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
The world didn’t come to an end in2000 as many atrabilious prognosticators opined. The Millennium Bug proved less problematic than most predicted. However, it certainly was a trying year for Dan Butler, who was downsized from a Fortune 100 company. That meant finding another line of work, so he looked around and saw that insurance seemed to offer a good, steady career. He got his P-C license and partnered with the agent who wrote his business.
Although he had no insurance experience to speak of, Dan had a strong marketing background that stood him in good stead while he learned the business. By 2002, he went out on his own, bought a book of business and added his wife Linda to Butler & Associates Insurance Agency, located in Apple Valley, Minnesota. She had a teaching background, coupled with a Masters in Theology. Both Dan and Linda focused on learning—going through CIC and CISR courses in between running the business and selling insurance.
So, it was truly a Mom and Pop shop for son Bill Butler who joined the agency in 2004. His background was 13 years in the military—the National Guard for four-and-a-half years, active duty through 2001 and then as a recruiter for the National Guard and trainer for soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan. Yet another person without an insurance background. And, as a result, yet another person committed to industry education.
Learning while doing
“It takes three to five years to learn the industry,” Bill notes. “So initially we focused on personal lines, which was the easiest to understand, and wrote all the business that came in through the door. Our book was about 85% personal lines and 15% commercial. And I’ll admit that I was struggling. At the end of my first four years, my parents sat down with me and had a heart-to-heart. They needed to know if I was serious about making this a career. It was eye-opening. They had bet the farm on this business and needed me to pull my weight.
“Up until that point, I had not been proactive as an agent,” he adds. “Part of the problem was my lack of business training, in addition to my lack of an insurance background, which had been alleviated by my enrolling in and receiving both the CISR and CIC designations. We found the budget to hire a business coach to help me along.”
“The result,” Bill recalls, “was a change in the type of client we started to write, insisting on a complete package of coverages including the umbrella for our personal lines clients, for example. There was also a change in my attitude. I became focused on finding the right coverage for every client and taking price out of the equation wherever possible.
“We went from doing business the expedient way to doing business the right way, and it showed in the results,” he says. “Between 2008 and 2011, I doubled my book. And I began to see the value of insurance as both a business that allowed me to make a good living, and also as an important risk management tool that gave our clients peace of mind and, when tragedy struck, the money needed to put them back on their feet.
“I honestly began to like the business,” Bill adds.
What’s really important
Before we get to Bill’s further success at building an agency that saw 54% sales growth last year—despite the retirement of Dan and Linda—and that in the first quarter of this year has already written more than half of what it wrote all of last year, let’s focus on an aspect of this business that isn’t always discussed: how it affords people a way to achieve a work/life balance even when the weights on the scale suddenly become heavily skewed in one direction. In 2012, Linda’s father was seriously hurt in a car accident, and she became his full-time caregiver and went from a full-time employee to part-time. “Our growth slowed a little, but we were still able to survive as Dad and I shared her role as the primary service person at the agency in addition to producing new business,” Bill notes.
Linda returned to full-time in 2014 when, “unfortunately, my grandfather passed away,” Bill says.
UPP boot camp
“Later that year, I received an invitation to attend an Unstoppable Profit Producer (UPP) boot camp hosted by Mike Stromsoe,” Bill says. “I jumped at the chance. While the business coach had helped me focus on getting the right clients, I felt like I really needed to meet with other successful agents and learn from their success. The program concentrated on business building rather than insurance education. I came back with pages of notes concerning things we needed to do to become a truly great organization.
“On top of that, I also became immersed in the teachings of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and other books on business. I have read all his books. The combination of what I learned from UPP and these writings allowed me to develop a business model that focused on sales management.
“We went from doing business the expedient way to doing business the right way and it showed in the results. Between 2008 and 2011, I doubled my book.”
-Bill Butler, President
“With help from Mike and his team we developed a complete hiring system so we could add world-class people when our growth necessitated that,” he adds. “We also developed an agency intranet that showed processes and procedures for employees to follow for both producing and renewing business, as well as servicing clients. We also developed a proprietary proposal to help us zero in on those clients who were most likely to work with our agency. The result is that, today, our close ratio in personal lines is over 50% and it’s better than 80% for our niche commercial clients.”
But stop for a moment. Once again, the true value of an insurance agency career became apparent. In February 2016, Bill’s wife, Shannon, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. “We were right in the middle of implementing many of the changes, and I had to become a part-timer so I could stay home with Shannon. Although I did go into the agency occasionally, I was not in the agency at all for four months. Fortunately, Shannon was in full remission by December,” Bill recalls. Meanwhile, Dan and Linda kept the agency going and growing.
When Bill returned, he focused on implementing the hiring practices by adding two people to the staff, so his mom and dad could retire. “I am so grateful to them for keeping the agency going and implementing some of the changes we had just started to make when Shannon’s diagnosis came,” he says. “I’m also grateful that I work in an industry where we are able to live life on our terms and respond to family needs when they arise.”
Education is the glue
The two employees follow the original model for employment at Butler & Associates—they did not have an insurance background. “They’re both still learning insurance, as am I,” Bill says. “Education remains paramount here and will continue to be one of the cornerstones of the agency as we add new personnel. While we fully intend to stay ‘lean and mean,’ we certainly understand that our growth strategy will make it imperative that we add new people on a regular basis.”
Both employees are focused on personal lines as account managers and already know that there is room for promotion and growth. Senior and executive account manager positions are open as their education and revenue grow. Bill says, “The newest member of our team, Jessica, joined us in 2018 and has already gotten her CISR designation.”
Meanwhile, Bill is focused on growing the commercial lines side of the business and has already developed a niche practice providing coverage for veterinarians. Doing business as Butler Vet Insurance, Bill says the niche was decided on when “we saw that this was a unique field with unique needs. A lot of people don’t realize how stressful this field is. Vets have to deal with the loss of beloved clients more often than any other medical professional, as well as human clients who often expect miracles.
“Veterinarians also have to diagnose health problems when the patient can’t tell them what’s wrong,” he adds. “I was surprised to learn that veterinarians have a suicide rate of more than double that of the general population.
“The program we put together is designed to at least take the stress of getting the right insurance coverage off of their shoulders. I’m proud that we have been able to offer this service.”
Bill closes: “Having a plan, being focused, taking action and implementing have been the keys to our success. You have to take consistent strategic action toward building a great business. Both strategies and tactics may change as you learn, so you can implement new great ideas that you pick up along the way and incorporate them into your overall plan. That’s what won me both the 2012 Minnesota Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers Young Agent of the Year and the 2018 UPP Implementer of the Year awards.
“We have a strong foundation on which to build, and that’s only the beginning,” he adds. “We are continually learning inside and outside the insurance industry, and I am convinced that more great ideas will be coming our way. We’re ready to implement them.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Butler & Associates Insurance Agency as our Agency of the Month. Their focus on education and on sharing what they learn is exemplary. Bill is happy to share what he has learned with other agents both formally and informally at industry meetings he attends.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.
Cover Caption: From left: Dan Butler, CIC, Chief Financial Officer; Linda Butler, CIC, CISR, Retired Account Manager; Bill Butler, CIC, CISR, President.