THE THIRTY-SECOND ANNUAL
AGENCY OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES
WHO WILL BE THE 2020 AGENCY OF THE YEAR?
One of the agencies featured in a Rough Notes cover story during 2020 will be named Agency of the Year. The winner will be selected from votes by the previous 3I years of Rough Notes cover agents (from the years I989-20I9).
The principals of the winning firm will be presented with the award at a dinner held in their honor this spring (COVID-I9 pending).
The nominees for this year’s award are described on the following pages. The winning agency will be announced in the February 202I issue of Rough Notes, and a full story on the winner will appear in a future issue.
Highpoint Insurance Group
When Heather and Brandon Smyrl started Highpoint Insurance Group in 2008, they were strictly a commercial lines agency, working primarily with construction-related contractors or servicing contractors in the oil and gas sector. Early on, they asked clients what needs weren’t being met.
“It wasn’t a big shock when they mentioned benefits and even personal lines,” Heather notes. “So we geared up, making sure that we could do it the right way … .”
One of those ways was by meeting their buyers where they were—on social media.
“Early on, … we were active on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms,” Heather says. “That’s where our customers are and, for many of them, that’s where they see us.”
The agency encourages its team members to move out of their comfort zones.
“It may sound crazy, but comfort is the casualty of growth,” Brandon says. “We strive to be innovative and elevate the success of our clients by constantly challenging ourselves.”
While challenging themselves with how to provide their customers a value-added proposition, Heather attended a presentation by Scott Addis of Beyond Insurance. Afterward she sent all of the agency’s new producers to Scott’s Beyond Insurance Global Network (BIGN) boot camp, and the agency joined BIGN in 2017. The following year Highpoint rebranded their work processes as RISE365, which stands for Risk Improvement Strategies and Execution 365 days a year.
“Our people are trained to be consultative, to listen to clients and prospects and find out everything they can about the client’s business or personal needs,” Brandon notes.
“We have great people who are committed to seeing that this succeeds,” Heather adds.
“[W]e have created an awesome culture, where people have a lot of fun doing what they love. That energy has been felt by our clients; they see that we’re different.”
—Heather Smyrl, CPCU, CIC
Chief Experience Officer
Insurance by Castle
Redwood City, California
Stories abound about people who were convinced that the last thing they wanted was a career in insurance—only to find themselves at the helm of independent agencies and loving it.
That’s the story of Russ Castle, who firmly rejected all thoughts of an insurance career yet today is “living the dream” as president of his family’s agency in Redwood City, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Russ’s “conversion” came in 1989 when he was attending a Little League playoff game whose winner would go to the championship. After his team won the game, Russ overheard a man telling his son that he wouldn’t be able to make it to the championship game because he had to work.
There and then, Russ realized that any 9-to-5 job might mean that he’d be unable to attend events with his (as yet unborn) children. After talking with his father, Jack, he accepted a position as a salesperson with Insurance by Castle, and he has never looked back.
Once a “reactive generalist,” Insurance by Castle did a 180 in 2001 and now focuses on profitable niche markets like fire sprinkler systems and apartment landlords.
To build volume in the landlord niche, Russ took Jack’s suggestion that he take photos of apartment buildings and develop an individual flyer for each owner.
“This turned out to be a gold mine,” Russ says. “And within six months, we expanded to offer coverage in the entire state. We now write more than 2,000 apartment owners statewide,” he continues, “but there are 128,000 in the state, so we have plenty of room to grow.”
Giving back, both to other independent agents and the local community, is a cherished value for Russ and his agency.
“I’m happy to share what we’ve achieved with any agency that wants to market to a niche,” Russ says. “That’s been the most fun, sharing with others and watching them become successful.”
“Through many ups and downs, I found that focusing on a niche offered us the greatest possibility for a strong ROI.”
Hyland Insurance was started from scratch in 1983 by brothers Tim and Pat Hyland. The primarily personal lines agency began growing with the assistance of the Big I’s Best Practices program and automation from what is now Vertafore.
“The Big ‘I’ published the important ratios that these agencies had achieved,” says Tim. “Those ratios became our goals, and as we hit them, we started to enjoy greater profitability.”
The agency expanded by adding commercial lines in 1997 when Tim’s son Terry graduated from college and came aboard. The following year, Hyland became a Strategic Insurance Agency Alliance (SIAA) Master Agency. Mickey Matran was later hired to head up the agency’s new employee benefits department; senior healthcare was also added. Then Tim’s younger brother Mark joined to run Hyland Financial Strategies, the agency’s financial service affiliate.
Terry Hyland notes: “We’re now able to provide everything needed by businesses and individuals.”
To maintain its culture, the agency created the Hyland Bird Dog Battalion, a referral incentive program where employees receive one point for every referral to another department. The objective is to achieve a grand slam by placing a referral in each of the agency’s five departments.
“We have a great group of professional people who operate like a cohesive team,” says Jeffri Northcut, chief operating officer. “We have a terrific level of participation at all our events.”
The agency’s Hyland Cares program gives the team a chance “to participate in events that promote health, have fun and join community projects … with the goal of creating a cohesive culture where everyone looks out for each other,” adds Melissa Stewart, commercial marketing officer.
“As we continue to grow, we are hoping to add more owners to the agency. I’m looking to identify people from within the agency, and there is certainly opportunity for those who demonstrate a team-first attitude.”
CEO and President
Atlantic Shield Insurance Group
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
Back in the day, “starting from scratch” was the method by which most independent agencies were formed. What now seems like a quaint concept is alive and well in South Carolina, where college roommates Erik Loesch and Ryland Hilliard “Hill” Shaw III established Atlantic Shield Insurance Group in 2004.
While the Yellow Pages have fallen into disuse as agencies turn to sophisticated digital marketing strategies, the old-fashioned way of building business became a valuable source of leads to mortgage bankers, real estate agents, and other potential centers of influence for Loesch and Shaw.
As Atlantic Shield grew and gained a reputation for integrity and fair dealing, inevitably the agency attracted the interest of larger organizations. Each time the firm was approached, Loesch and Shaw carefully examined the offer to ascertain whether it would benefit not only themselves but also the employees and clients who had helped them build the organization.
Potential acquirers told Loesch and Shaw that without the support of a larger entity, they inevitably would plateau.
“I guess you can figure out that we didn’t sell by the fact that we’re still independent,” Hill observes. “But we did recognize theneed to focus on developing a strategic plan for the agency’s future.”
That’s when Atlantic Shield connected with The Sitkins Group, Inc., whose founder, Roger Sitkins, and Vice President Brent Kelly became friends and mentors to the agency.
“As Roger and Brent showed us,” Hill says, “with intentional actions and honest assessments, and by tackling one priority at a time, we could avoid plateaus forever.”
“While things seem dire, I am convinced that we will come out on the other side of this crisis more appreciative for what we have. The entire world is sharing. Wouldn’t it be great if that continues?”
Glidewell Investments & Insurance Group (GiiG)
A father, his two sons, and their cousin have formed a team whose goal is to provide financial security to their customers through both investment counseling and insurance. The key to the agency’s success, according to Managing Partner Brandon Smith (the cousin), is in forming bonds: “The difference between a contact and a contract is the letter ‘R.’ I believe the ‘R’ stands for relationships. Once you have the client’s heart, their wallet follows, then their loyalty, retention and referrals”—all of the items necessary for an agency to be successful.
One customer testimonial cites GiiG’s emphasis on communication: “I could shop around for slightly lower rates … but don’t because of the tremendous service GiiG gives.”
Quick response to prospect inquiries begins the process of creating happy customers. GiiG endeavors to respond within one minute of receipt of an inquiry. Then each Thursday the staff begins a phone blitz to reach those inquirers whom they hadn’t been able to contact. The result: a 97.2% contact rate during the fourth quarter of the prior year with sales of 50%.
GiiG’s sources of revenue are property/casualty 56%, life/health 28%, and wealth management 16%.
Relationships extend to the industry itself as well as GiiG’s two communities. Brandon co-founded the Insurance Agency Owners Alliance (IAOA), and GiiG sponsored the GiiG Little League team. A social media channel allowed team enthusiasts to follow its progress. GiiG profited indirectly ($11,000 in revenue) as fans sought it out for their insurance needs.
“The difference between a contact and a contract is the letter ‘R.’ I believe the ‘R’ stands for relationships. Once you have the client’s heart, their wallet follows, then their loyalty, retention and referrals. It’s how you create customers for life.”
NSI Insurance Group
Miami Lakes, Florida
International in scope but local in administration, the NSI Insurance Group operates in all 50 states and more than 80 countries, relying on its high-tech electronic capabilities to serve its clients efficiently and with quality service. Founded in 1958 and bought out in 2016 by one-time partner and now CEO Oscar Seikaly, the firm has taken advantage of the international nature of the Miami area and has effectively diversified over the past four years (property/casualty 56%, life/health 28% and wealth management 16%).
Says Seikaly, “We don’t have a single industry that dominates our business,” adding, “All of our clients lead us to the next opportunities. … Many of our private clients owned businesses that we learned how to insure. That’s one of the reasons we’re so diversified. They own yachts, so we learned how to insure yachts.”
In addition, the staff itself is a model of diversity and thus is able to provide quality service. Team members are fluent in seven different languages.
“Our niche is not a particular industry, but quality companies,” says Seikaly. In addition, NSI’s own quality of service has made the firm unique in the middle market and has allowed it to achieve 77% growth in the past four years, as well as the opening of offices in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale.
Even the pandemic hasn’t put a damper on hiring. The 80-person staff has increased by seven, owing partly to the fact that no single client adds more than 2% to total revenue.
“Our ultimate goal is not money or success, but rather it’s to do a great job for the client. If we do that well, money and success will eventually follow.”
Chief Executive Officer
Does anyone remember the 1968 hit “Everyday People” by soul band Sly and the Family Stone?
Although the current owners of the Berry Agency in Franklin, Massachusetts, hadn’t even been born when the iconic single soared to the top of the charts, the title accurately describes how they think about themselves and their employees.
“We’re just everyday people,” says President Kaitlyn Pintarich. “All we really try to do is be open and honest with each other and our clients and continuously better ourselves.”
Founded by “kitchen broker” Johanna Berry in 1922, just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the agency continued under family ownership until 2017 when Johanna’s grandson, Bob, sold his ownership to Kaitlyn and her husband, Chris. Chris serves as vice president of sales.
Kaitlyn earned a degree in marketing from Bryant University in 2003 and says that background taught her to look at everything from multiple angles.
“In everything we do, I always ask: ‘Is this beneficial for our clients?’ ‘How does this help our clients, employees, and community?’ ‘Besides insurance—where we know we do a great job—what other issues affect our clients? ‘How can we be more helpful to our clients?’”
Each week team members share questions they’ve been asked by clients and prospects. As a team, Kaitlyn says, “We answer [the questions] honestly and transparently. We publish the blogs in the online learning center of our website.”
For anyone who’s responsible for selling, Chris explains, saying “no” can be painful. “It’s tough for a guy who brings people to ‘yes’ when I recognize that we have to say ‘no’ to shoppers who are only interested in price,” he says. “We ultimately come up with the same message of leading with risk management and protection for customers who value that and value us because of our focus.”
“We try to work with clients in areas beyond just insurance. Our goal is to become a resource for them in any way we can. We do a lot in the area of education—offering seminars on a number of topics that we found were of concern to our clients … .”
When Ralph McClone started selling insurance from his kitchen table in 1949, he never could have envisioned that his son and grandson would head a company that employed 100 people and had evolved into a powerhouse in modern risk management.
Says grandson Dustin, “Our passion is to proactively protect businesses, organizations and families—beyond insurance—better than anyone and with a smile.” Teaming up with Scott Addis and the Beyond Insurance Global Network about 10 years ago “gave us access not only to the network’s resources, but also to members who share a commitment to risk management.”
Adds Chief Financial Officer Erik Brenn: “We’ve become more nimble and innovative because of membership.” That nimbleness extends to the tech area, according to Director of Information Technology and Innovation Jason Kilgas. He observes: “When I joined McClone three years ago I found myself at an organization that was very willing to change, especially from a tech standpoint.” That openness is based on Dustin and Erik’s criterion: “Will it result in better service to clients and prospects?”
Another example of McClone’s innovative culture is the elimination of siloes. That’s particularly important in a company whose business is split with 50% commercial, 35% employee benefits, around 10% personal lines, and the rest from HR and 401(k) services.
The firm’s motto, M.A.D.E, stands for “Make A Difference Every day.” At least 10% of every dollar earned is returned to the community. In addition, early in the pandemic, the HR team offered advice to any business in the community—at no cost.
“[W]e look at an organization’s entire enterprise and determine how best to handle all the various risks it faces.”
Executive Vice President of Sales
Specialty Risk Insurance
Specialty Risk Insurance doesn’t keep track of its team members’ vacations or sick days. Everybody does everything, and no one has a title.
“Our people love that and protect it,” Kevin Charleston says. “It’s one of the reasons why we have people who love working here.”
The agency’s revenue mix includes 51% from commercial lines (of which 80% is agribusiness), 33% from farm insurance, 9% from employee benefits and the balance from personal lines.
“The great thing about the farm business, where our team is second to none, is that we can quote and bind it,” Kevin says.
“We have people who specialize in different aspects of the agribusiness and are part of teams that have expertise in livestock … or any other specialty,” adds Robin Smith. “These teams work together seamlessly whenever an account needs access to some or all of that expertise.”
To build on its farm experience, the agency recently launched a new specialist focus—crop insurance.
In addition to strong organic growth, the agency has made several acquisitions, including bringing on a competitor, The Horsey Agency, that was strong in poultry insurance.
“We’re pretty active from Mississippi to the west Texas line and from Iowa to the Gulf,” Kevin notes. “But we have accounts across the country. We write a meat plant in Utah, a fish farm in South Dakota, and a number of agribusinesses in the Carolinas.”
The agency also is active in supporting kids’ programs like Bright Futures and local schools and colleges, as well as county fairs and rodeos.
“Our team knows this business so well that they can visit a farm and develop a program on the spot. When they explain what risks the farm is facing, the owner often realizes that they were underinsured or uninsured for some potentially costly risks.”
The Uhl Agency
While the founding family of The Uhl Agency traces its roots in the insurance industry to the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, stateside the agency’s roots are in the Dayton, Ohio, area, with a number of its staff having graduated from the University of Dayton.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began this year, with the agency’s commitment to technology, including MangoApps and Microsoft One Drive, “we were able to easily pivot to working from home without our clients experiencing a dropoff in service,” says President and CEO Bill Uhl.
“We really do consider what is best for every one of our team members,” adds Chief Operating Officer Marc McNulty. “When some of our people realized that they could work better from home, we found a way to let them do that. … We’re flexible, and our people appreciate that. They don’t take advantage.”
While primarily a generalist, “About 10 years ago, the challenge was to find a niche where we could differentiate ourselves from our competition,” says Marc.
This niche became financial institutions, where the agency has written more than 275 accounts throughout the eastern United States, ranging from start-up firms to one that has more than $25 billion in assets under management.
“It has been a great ride so far, but we still have a lot more to accomplish,” says Executive Vice President Jon Kreusch. “Since , our agency has grown our P-C premium by 142%, almost all organically.”
The agency also donates thousands of dollars annually to nonprofits, mostly in the Dayton area but also to national organizations like Autism Speaks.
“One of the agency’s core beliefs that came from my father is still true today: Transition ownership and leadership to the next generation while they are still young and they can bring new ideas and energy to the agency.”
President and Chief Executive Officer