“We’ve been very involved in the community for a long time, so it just seemed natural that our advertising and marketing should be funneled directly to nonprofits.”
CELEBRATING COMMUNITY, EDUCATION, AND DIVERSITY
Michigan agency finds success as an education company that sells insurance
By Dave Willis, CPIA
Photography by Arturo Paulino
Many people working in the insurance industry—perhaps most of us—did not have designs on a career in the business. Ben Rathbun did. The son of an agency principal, Ben went to Michigan State University and graduated with a finance degree, and then got his MBA in Insurance and Risk Management from Olivet College.
He knew he’d end up in the agency. He just didn’t know how his career would progress. He most likely didn’t think he’d be heading up a nationally recognized agency in his twenties. But that’s where he found himself a couple of years ago—as president of Rathbun Insurance at age 28.
The Lansing, Michigan-based firm was founded by brothers Jack and Jim Rathbun in 1956. Another brother, Gene, joined Rathbun Insurance in 1966. Jim left the agency to lead The Insurance Company of the West.
“We believe in the power of education
and its potential to transform lives,
and we actively support initiatives that
aim to improve educational resources
and access for all communities.”
Early on, Jack and Gene demonstrated passion for their community, and they lived out the importance they placed on the agent-customer relationship. “Long-term clients still speak fondly of my great uncle’s and grandfather’s genuine interest in them, the customers, as neighbors and friends,” explains Ben, Gene’s grandson.
Paul Rathbun, Ben’s dad, joined the agency in 1983 and became a partner in 1990, after Jack and Gene retired. Paul was agency president at the time of his passing in 2021, at which time Ben assumed the role. “It happened in August two years ago,” Ben recalls. “We had been working together for seven years—full-time together as owners for about two years.”
Ben and another partner, agency Vice President Dave Finkbeiner, each owned 14% of the agency at the time; Paul owned the rest. “Everything shifted when my dad passed away, because he was always the one in charge,” Ben explains. “So, overnight we went from running a business to owning it—and taking on everything that comes with that.”
Fortunately, Ben was prepared for the role. In addition to time spent in the agency in general—and time working more intensely alongside his dad—Ben has a solid educational foundation on which to build. Besides his college degrees, Ben has earned the CPCU, CAWC, and AAI professional designations.
Centered on community
According to Ben, the “friends and neighbors” legacy from the agency’s first-generation owners has been carried through to today. “We’ve always been extremely focused on our community, and that continues,” he says. The focus now extends beyond individual relationships to include organizations that serve neighbors.
“When I joined the agency about nine years ago, I replaced all of our advertising and marketing with direct donations to nonprofits,” Ben explains. To drive that charitable initiative, the agency created “Quotes for a Cause,” through which the agency donates to various local nonprofits.
“We’ve been very involved in the community for a long time, so it just seemed natural that our advertising and marketing should be funneled directly to nonprofits,” he adds. The initiative has done more than help support diverse charitable organizations.
“An unintended consequence of this is it has enabled us to develop closer partnerships with nonprofits,” Ben explains. “Instead of just giving money, we are able to support them in other ways,” like promoting and attending events, providing volunteer support, and more.
The agency also has built a niche serving the insurance and risk management needs of nonprofit organizations. While 70% or so of the agency’s nearly $13 million in premium volume comes from personal lines, other specialized commercial markets include construction and restaurants.
One of the agency’s unique insureds is the Allen Neighborhood Center (ANC), a nonprofit organization that serves as a hub to help improve the health, well-being, and economic opportunities of Lansing Eastside neighbors. Among its facilities is an incubator, or makers, kitchen for farmers and entry-level food entrepreneurs. “For years, we’ve worked with their kitchen, supporting diverse participants,” Ben says. “They’re teaching people how to run a business.
“People can graduate from the makers kitchen into an accelerator kitchen, which is essentially an actual restaurant for the graduates,” he adds. The Rathbun Accelerator Kitchen, as it’s called, offers four different makers access to shared equipment, a storefront, and a small public dining room.
“My father was a long-time supporter of Allen Neighborhood Center—since their founding in 1999,” Ben explains. “After he passed, it seemed a natural fit to support one of his favorite nonprofits with a legacy gift in his honor.”
Clear focus on education
Education parallels community involvement as a key emphasis area. “As an agency leadership team, we’ve been going through a lot of mission, vision, values work here in the agency lately, and one of the things that keeps coming up in those discussions is that we are an education company that happens to sell insurance,” Ben explains.
One area where this plays out, of course, is in customer dealings. When working with clients and prospects, Ben notes, employees act as “advisers helping others buy insurance and manage risks. Most people don’t know a lot about insurance and count on us to know their situation, educate them, and help them make smart choices when it comes to insurance and risk management.”
Education also is front and center in the agency’s community engagement and support. “We believe in the power of education and its potential to transform lives, and we actively support initiatives that aim to improve educational resources and access for all communities,” Ben notes. “We firmly believe in investing in the future of young minds and helping them reach their full potential.”
One element of this is a program Ben helped form with educators from the Lansing School District Business and Risk Management Program and the Wilson Talent Center, a hub for high school juniors and seniors that provides career and technical education. The program is called the Insurance BFF Mentorship Program. “It’s a program that pairs a high school senior with an insurance professional, and they meet virtually for 15 to 30 minutes every other week for an entire semester,” he explains.
“It’s been great to see the transformative power of mentorship,” Ben adds. “Last year, 19 students took part in the BFF program, and most of them are going to college for risk management or insurance.”
One of the mentorship program graduates—Kenwon Simpson—signed on this summer as a full-time Rathbun Insurance team member. “He just joined us as an account manager,” Ben explains. “Kenwon is 18 and graduated from high school with an insurance license. He has his CISR and his CAWC (Certified Authority on Workers’ Compensation) professional designations. “I didn’t think it would happen so quickly,” Ben notes, “but I’m thrilled to have a graduate of the program on payroll.” The agency’s current intern, Miguel Solis, is also a graduate of the Insurance BFF Mentorship program.
A third area where education is key involves fellow team members in the 16-person agency. “It’s our job to educate people, and then they’re going to educate other people,” Ben observes. To help support this initiative, fellow management team member Laura Stoken created a program to help drive comprehensive and consistent employee development and intern onboarding. Stoken joined the agency earlier this year and serves as chief administrative officer.
“We had been talking about the need,” Ben recalls, “and within two weeks Laura put together an almost-hundred-page immersive document that addresses virtually everything involved in being a Rathbun Insurance team member,” something that already has proven to be particularly useful for new employee onboarding as well.
“It walks through everything, starting with being a professional, workplace expectations, daily habits, ways to be successful in a business—those sorts of things,” Ben explains. “Then it breaks down all of the different aspects of both our agency and the insurance industry as a whole.
“What’s really cool is it ensures we are training people in a consistent and thorough manner, and by more than just me or another staff member,” he adds. It takes away the random nature of training and onboarding that is prevalent today in so many agencies—and other small businesses, for that matter.
The program can take up to sixteen weeks to complete, depending on the employee’s role in the agency, Ben notes.
This onboarding education is helping the agency build diversity and leverage it for growth. “At the agency, we have gone from one ‘diverse’ employee to four in a matter of two years; it’s been really interesting to see,” he explains. “We find that we all have very different circles that we run in.
“From a simple business standpoint, why would an agency not want to have more diverse producers? We’re finding producers who live in diverse communities, for example, are working with customers who rightly say, ‘I have never talked to someone who looks like me when I bought insurance.’
“Think about it,” he adds. “There are 40,000 people who are in the Hispanic community just in our area, and none of them are being serviced by an independent agent who is fluent in Spanish. That’s a huge opportunity—for a bilingual person and for the agency where that person works.”
The Rathbun agency’s work has caught the attention of other independent agency owners, thanks in part to Ben’s involvement in industry organizations and initiatives. A past chair of the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents Young Agents Council, Ben was named 2020 Big “I” National Young Agent of the Year and is the 2022 recipient of the association’s Dan Fulwider Award for Community Involvement.
“It’s interesting,” he observes. “As I’ve engaged with fellow agency and industry leaders, I find a true willingness to broaden our industry’s reach, but that willingness is paired with concern about doing or saying the wrong thing.”
“It’s essential that we’re not deterred by past mistakes.
What we should do instead is use them as learning
opportunities, as stepping stones to build more inclusive and equitable
situations—in our agencies, our industry, and our communities.”
While that’s a legitimate concern, Ben points out that “it’s essential that we’re not deterred by past mistakes. What we should do instead is use them as learning opportunities, as stepping stones to build more inclusive and equitable situations—in our agencies, our industry, and our communities.”
Recently, based on interest from others, Ben and Laura have unveiled a program to help other agencies with a similar mindset—one of building opportunities for a more diverse and broader group of potential employees. They formed a firm, Genuine Immersion, to market their onboarding process, to help other businesses successfully integrate diverse interns into their firms.
“We are copyrighting our onboarding process and are making it available to others in the industry,” Ben explains. “The Internship Passport, as we call the offering, is our proven, comprehensive tool that offers an immersive, consistent way to build diversity into an agency.”
Responding to interest from others, Ben offers some practical advice based on his own firm’s experience for those interested in taking a similar approach: “It’s important to recognize that diversity work is an ongoing process, and there will always be room for improvement. But I encourage everyone to continue taking steps and, before you know it, real change will occur.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Rathbun Insurance as our Agency of the Month. Understanding their role as “an education company that happens to sell insurance” provides a clarity that helps agency leaders build a successful future, for the firm, its team members, clients, those in the community, and the industry as a whole. The agency’s commitment to bolstering the community in which they operate and their passion for building a more diverse agency—and independent agency system—are worthy of our admiration.