Agency of the Year winners (from left): Brandon Ream and Grant Botma, Stewardship, Gilbert, Arizona; Randy Hulett and Mike Stansbury, Elite Insurance Solutions, Franklin, Tennessee; Heather Smyrl, Highpoint Insurance Group, Friendswood, Texas; and Diana and Juan Portillo and Eboné and Jeff Granger, Granger Financial, Sterling, Virginia.
CELEBRATING AGENCY SUCCESS
Leaders come together to honor award
winners and discuss industry trends
Following a four-year hiatus, principals and other independent agency leaders from throughout North America gathered in Indianapolis to take part in the Rough Notes Agency of the Year dinner, Community Service Award presentation, and Rough Notes Agent Editorial Advisory Board meeting. More than three dozen professionals participated in the event, which was held in downtown Indianapolis.
An annual occurrence for thirty straight years, the two-day gathering scheduled for March 2020 fell victim to travel concerns around COVID-19. The 2021 and 2022 meetings were not held, either, because of pandemic-related issues.
So, the opportunity to return to Indy for the celebration of agency success was overwhelmingly welcomed, and leaders from four Rough Notes Agencies of the Year, together with the 2022 Rough Notes Community Service Award recipient and members of the Rough Notes Agent Editorial Advisory Board, joined together once again.
The event kicked off with an unstructured, pre-reception afternoon gathering of agents, some of whom had never met, others who’d not seen each other since the 2019 dinner and meeting, and others who connect regularly at industry events. The evening festivities themselves began with a reception and photo sessions of four years of winners and other guests.
Following this, the dinner kicked off with a brief overview of The Rough Notes Company’s storied 144-year history, led by The Rough Notes Company President and CEO Walt Gdowski. After dinner, The Rough Notes Company Chief Operating Officer Sam Berman presented the company’s Community Service Award to Susan Shaw, principal of Shaw Insurance Group in Hurst, Texas.
Susan, in partnership with her daughter, Sarah, operates Goals for Bowls Foundation. Goals for Bowls Foundation’s mission is to take soccer balls and provide vital resources—including food, water, medicine and more—to children in need all over the world. To date, the grassroots group has donated more than 200 new soccer balls, 75,000 meals, 460 Bibles, and 75 clean water filter systems on seven trips to numerous countries. (See the full story in this issue of Rough Notes.)
Agencies of the Year
Next, Rough Notes magazine Editor-in-Chief Dave Willis, CPIA, presented the magazine’s 2019—and 2020, 2021, and 2022—Agency of the Year awards to winning agencies. Willis pointed out that all winners were selected by past Agency of the Month honorees from among the agencies recognized by the magazine on its cover during each respective year.
First on the docket—the agency waiting the longest to receive its in-person recognition—was Elite Insurance Solutions, from Franklin, Tennessee. Reasons cited by past winners who voted for Elite as Agency of the Year included the agency’s unique three-way communication process involving the client, the agency and the insurer using technology; its focus on attracting young talent into the agency; the fact that they found a way to differentiate themselves in a way that serves the client; and more.
Besides delivering value for customers—and employees who want to make a difference in peoples’ lives—the agency is committed to supporting local and national charities, including Shriners, Wounded Warriors, and Special Olympics. It’s part of their DNA, they say. The award was presented to Agency Principals Mike Stansbury and Randy Hulett.
Next was 2020 winner Highpoint Insurance Group, Friendswood, Texas. One past winner cast their vote for Highpoint based on how many points they highlight in an article they’d like to share with their agency. Another thought it was great that the agency moves staff out of their comfort zones and obtains growth in its wake. Yet another said agency leaders have made our industry super cool and sexy.
“From the start, principals wanted employees to have fun in an industry that is naturally stressful,” Willis noted, quoting voter commentary. “Two phrases that describe the agency are ‘fun’ and ‘unafraid.’ Unafraid emphasized the agency’s heat-seeker role around social media; from the earliest days, employees could go on social media during office hours, which was heresy in many agencies at the time.” Principal Heather Smyrl accepted the award.
The 2021 Agency of the Year winner was Stewardship in Gilbert, Arizona. “Mission” and “growth” are two Stewardship attributes that caught voters’ attention. One past cover agent noted that Stewardship built the essence of an independent insurance agent—helping others in the community—into their core belief, even if it’s not insurance related, filling many gaps for individuals and families.
Stewardship includes a mortgage business, as well as insurance, life and benefits, and financial advising and planning operations. Willis said, “Among the agency’s successes—besides the obvious: earning an all-expense paid trip to Indy as Agency of the Year—was earning back-to-back honors as an Inc. 5000 fastest growing privately held company, with three-year growth topping 200% each year.” Principals Grant Botma and Brandon Ream were on hand to receive the award.
And finally, the most recent winner—the 2022 Agency of the Year—is Granger Financial, based in Sterling, Virginia. Willis remarked, “One past winner described [Granger] as a great, non-traditional insurance success story. Another cited the agency’s success in ‘bringing younger agents into the industry, leveraging their background in sports, and embracing the community—all great things by themselves. Doing it with a small operation and making an impact, very impressive.’”
Another voter—actually a past Agency of the Year winner—had this to say: “Granger Financial was born out of adversity, when Jeff abruptly lost his job with the direct writer but immediately went to work to build something meaningful for himself and others. They’re an example of how this industry is legacy-building for people of all backgrounds and we need to recognize and celebrate that fact.”
He continued, “I think the final paragraph of the article says it all: ‘They should be commended for their commitment to bringing more minorities into the independent agency system and for showing us yet another way that the system has the resilience and opportunity to serve diverse clients and interests.’ Mic drop.”
Granger Team leaders Jeff and Eboné Granger and Juan and Diana Portillo accepted the award.
Editorial board meeting
The following morning, members of the Rough Notes Agent Editorial Advisory Board took part in a content-rich discussion of industry trends and outlook. “It’s great to be able to host a number of industry heat seekers—members of our editorial board and other top agency leaders—to discuss their experiences in today’s market and what readers need to know,” Willis observes.
“As editors, we work with agents—including these board members—throughout the year, but getting them together at one time takes it to another level,” he notes. “It’s a great opportunity for them to share with each other what they’re experiencing and to confirm with our editorial team what things look like on the front line.”
Board members candidly discussed—with each other and with Rough Notes editorial and technical products staff members—new ideas, recently found technologies, agency challenges, and successes they’ve accomplished. “Agency leaders who take part refer to the value they receive from fellow professionals and the ideas they come away with to build a stronger agency in their own communities,” Willis concludes.