Agency partners (from left) Jay Hickman, Casey Chastain, and Tom Jensen
AGENTS OF CHANGE
Missouri-based agency grows with Branson and then beyond
By Dennis Pillsbury
Location. Location. Location. We know them as the three things that matter in real estate. But a good location certainly doesn’t hurt when you’re active in the insurance business.
Casey Chastain, SPHR, PWCA, partner and consultant with Connell Insurance, points out that “we started out in Branson before Branson was Branson. That was back in 1970, when Pat Connell started the agency. We grew with Branson,” he adds, “which brought us to revenues of about $2.1 million 10 years ago, principally from the hospitality field as well as personal lines. That was fine as far as it went.
“However, we recognized that we needed to expand into other niches if we wanted to grow out of our comfort-able geographic area and become more focused on providing specialized insurance solutions in specific niches regard-less of location. And we did.
“That was a decision the five agency partners made when Tom Jensen, Jay Hickman and I joined the agency around 2011. The two other partners were Tim Connell, who joined the agency 35 years ago and took over when his older brother retired, and Randall Gammill, SPHR, who joined in 2004 from the Missouri Division of Labor-Workers Compensation Division and became partner in 2006. Tim and Randall provided the vision, capital and strategy for us to achieve growth from that $2.1 million to $9.8 million last year. Without them, none of this growth or impact would be possible.”
A niche player
“We want all of our employees to be well educated, not just in insurance, but in all areas of knowledge. We believe that this … provides them with a self-confidence that is extremely important in this business on both the sales and service side.”
—Tom Jensen, SHRM-CP
Partner and Consultant
Tom Jensen, SHRM-CP, partner and consultant, points out that the agency reached its $9.8 million in revenue last year, helped by “our largest growth in new business. Our nine producers had a total of $1.48 million in new business revenue.
“That’s a testament to our niche focus,” Tom adds. “We concentrate on six commercial areas: transportation, public entities, manufacturing, construction, social services, and hospitality, as well as personal lines and benefits.
“This niche approach allows us to focus our energy and our marketing on developing systems that let us provide solutions to the unique risks faced by each of those industries, as well as matching our service capabilities with their needs,” he notes. “We’ve been able to build high performance teams around each of the niches where the producer or producers can focus on reaching out to prospects with a laser focus, while the service team uses the same focus to make certain that we live up to our promises.”
“We’re not successful because we belong to the same country club or church,” Casey adds, “but because we are able to build a professional relationship based on assessments, data-driven solutions and measurable results. We’ve grown fivefold in 10 years because of a niche focus and sales process. ”
“That partnership is established from the outset as we go through our unique process with the client or prospect to help identify their distinct risks,” adds Chase Marable, consultant and sales manager. “Our producers walk them through the process, explaining exactly what exposures they have and the best ways to mitigate each risk. It is much more an educational process than a sales process. We listen to their concerns, answer questions and offer effective solutions that fit into their budget.”
Jay Hickman, partner and consultant, points out that “we use niche-specific subject matter experts to really dive deeply into each client’s unique risks. These people are respected within their niche and that enhances our credibility and helps us break through the noise in the insurance market, where prospects often hear about price breaks and other inducements but rarely are provided with expert information that helps them make an informed, data-driven decision. That’s where we come in and succeed. This is especially important now that we have active business in 41 states (we can write in all states) where the only thing they know about us is our reputation.”
Technology as a learning tool
“We’ve long been involved with Vertafore,” Casey points out. “The ability to integrate with other platforms has been very helpful to us internally. And the system has allowed us to evolve over time. Our internal processes are not stagnant and the system changes along with us. This allows us to be nimble and able to keep pace with the everchanging marketplace and its impact on each of the niches that we serve.”
“Technology also has proved to be a tremendous boon to us in our efforts to ‘learn from the best,’” Tom says. “We really haven’t done anything that is uniquely ours,” he admits with humility. “We have happily borrowed and used the best ideas from others in our industry. What is unique is how we have combined those ideas and how we implement them by adhering to systems that we use to make certain everyone at the agency is on the same page.
“Most of those ideas have been provided to us through technology,” Casey continues. “It’s amazing how unselfish the top people in our industry are. They readily share the reasons for their success and we readily incorporate those ideas that work for us into our systems.” Casey is only too happy to give credit to Sitkins and Resource Pro, as well as many leading agents, for providing information online that “has really helped us succeed. We’re just modeling the masters,” he says.
“We’re not successful because we belong to the same country club or church, but because we are able to build a professional relationship based on assessments, data-driven solutions and measurable results. We’ve grown fivefold in I0 years because of a niche focus and sales process.”
—Casey Chastain, SPHR, PWCA
Partner and Consultant
“Although we have made a lot of changes in our market approach by focusing on niches and moving away from a geographic focus, one thing that has not changed is the way in which sales occur,” Tom says. “We have always focused on one thing: the needs of the client or prospect. The ways in which we find ideal clients may have grown. We use various methods, especially centers of influence and, of course, referrals, but technology also has provided us opportunities for reaching prospects in our niche areas that were not available to us before.”
An education mindset
Just as educating clients and prospects about their needs is a key component in their producers’ toolbelt, so too is education emphasized within the agency. “We want all of our employees to be well educated, not just in insurance, but in all areas of knowledge,” Tom says. “We believe that this makes them better at their job because it provides them with a self-confidence that is extremely important in this business on both the sales and service side. Because of that, we incentivize all our people to level up with education. We provide incentives for people seeking undergrad and master’s degrees, as well as industry designations.”
“We also appear on the other side of the educational market, providing speakers to local universities in the market we serve,” Chase points out. “These speaking opportunities give us a chance to talk about risk management and insurance and how rewarding a career in these fields can be. This industry provides huge opportunities for young people. Many of them are looking for ways they can help people and that is exactly what we do every day. It’s unfortunate that this message has not been heard and that the industry still has a less than stellar reputation that keeps some young people away. We’re working to change that and internally we’ve been very successful.
“This industry provides huge opportunities for young people. … It’s unfortunate that this message has not been heard … . We’re working to change that and internally we’ve been very successful.”
Consultant and Sales Manager
“We have a fairly young staff and leadership that embraces the Millennials we have on board. We enhance that with our collaborative approach where no one has a bad idea and we encourage everyone to speak out. In addition, we offer wellness and volunteering opportunities, in addition to incentives for continuing education.”
Casey notes that “we have a mentoring system where a partner or sales trainer will ride with new producers and help them succeed. To keep them on track, we have weekly meetings to evaluate their progress and suggest changes where needed as well as praise for good efforts. We work to provide structure and feedback in a supportive fashion to obtain and retain top talent.
“Our agency has always supported local charities with both time and money,” Tom points out, “but we wanted to provide and incentivize to employees to also get involved in giving back.”
Jay continues that, about four years ago, “we implemented our VTO (volunteer time off) program that pays for each employee to spend 24 hours to volunteer at a nonprofit organization of his or her choice. To further incentivize participation, we also offer an enrichment bonus for those employees who fully participate in the VTO program.”
“[W]e use niche-specific subject matter experts to really dive deeply into each client’s unique risks. These people are respected within their niche and that enhances our credibility and helps us break through the noise in the insurance market … .”
Partner and Consultant
“I know that most agencies say that clients come first,” Casey says. “But we take a slightly different point of view and put our people first, followed by clients and then our partners. This is because we know how important it is for us to have happy people working with our clients. So, yes, clients do come first to everyone at the agency, because we put everyone at the agency first, and they know that our culture and our reason for success depends on the way that they treat clients.
“That said, I am proud to say that we have fired abusive clients,” he adds. “When we say that we want ideal clients, we mean clients that partner with us in a friendly, collaborative way that is similar to the way we interact internally. That means no shoppers and no abusers.”
The recognition of how important agency staff is was evidenced by the fact that they all celebrated last year’s success with a contribution to their profit sharing accounts of just over $8,000. In 2021, the agency increased 401(k) contributions, raised salary levels significantly, and offered additional opportunities for advancement.
“We believe in sharing success with our associates,” Jay explains.
Rough Notes is pleased to recognize Connell Insurance, Inc., for its commitment to growth through excellence and for bringing all its employees along with them on its path to continued success.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.