THE CUSTOMER IS THE MISSION
Nashville agency focuses on helping people, and all the rest follows
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
In 2020, three months before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Martin & Zerfoss, Nashville, Tennessee, implemented an internal perpetuation plan that saw three new owners purchase the shares of founder Tee Zerfoss. This was in keeping with the long-term philosophy of the agency that treating its own people as part of an extended family led to a realization of its goal to be a “service business, not a sales business,” explains Paul Steele, agency president.
“We all wake up every morning with a servant’s heart,” adds Paul, who started with the agency in 2005 right out of college and now is one of the three new owners. “Our goal inside the four walls of the agency is to take care of everyone so they can take care of our customers.
“It’s been very fulfilling to be part of this family,” he notes. “We even get together outside of work, because we all like each other and enjoy working toward our goal of serving clients.”
“I like being here because I like serving people,” Mickey Martin, chairman and CEO, adds quickly. Mickey, who joined the agency in 1983 as Tee’s partner after spending three years at USF&G, continues: “In 1983, there were five of us at the agency writing mostly personal lines, but we slowly started to move into commercial lines. Today, we have 40 team members and write all lines of property/casualty insurance.
“We all wake up every morning with a servant’s heart. Our goal inside the four walls of the agency is to take care of everyone so they can take care of our customers.”
“But our mission throughout our more than 44 years in business hasn’t changed: We’re focused on creating a great place to work and bringing in people who share our enthusiasm for helping people.
“The internal perpetuation was simply a culmination of that philosophy that showed people inside the agency that they have opportunities for growth and showed people outside the agency that they can count on us to be here for them into the future,” Mickey adds. “Our customers appreciate the fact that we are committed to remaining independent so that we can continue to provide the service that they expect—service that might not be as strong if we were up for sale.”
Paul continues, “We’re not being pushed by another entity and won’t be. We choose our goals, all of which focus ultimately on providing the best service to customers. We take care of the customer, and everything else takes care of itself. We need to always stay centered on the fact that the customer is our mission.”
Another member of the 2020 class of new owners, Chief Financial Officer Amanda Hardin, CPA, believes the agency’s biggest investments focus on its commitment to customers: “people and technology. We have a great, wonderful staff of very knowledgeable people. Another part of my focus is making sure that our staff members feel that they are a part of a secure and welcoming team.
“We are fortunate to be where we are. Nashville is a wonderful place to live and attracts talented people to our area. That is a key ingredient to our success. We are always looking for new people as we grow.”
Chief Financial Officer
“I started in 2002 as controller and worked to help create most of the employee benefits plan, which includes a 401(k) and voluntary benefits, but also focuses on fellowship,” she adds. “We have numerous company events like lunches, happy hours, outings, and volunteering, all of which serve to enhance the feeling that this is a family.
“We also understand that working parents want to attend their children’s sporting events and performances and even be given the opportunity to volunteer at their children’s schools,” Amanda says. “So those opportunities are a large part of our employee benefits and, as a working mom myself, I really appreciate this.”
She continues by noting that “we are fortunate to be where we are. Nashville is a wonderful place to live and that attracts talented people to our area. That is a key ingredient to our success. We are always looking for new people as we grow.”
The third new owner, Taylor Ragan, chief operating officer, joined the agency in 2009. In his capacity of overseeing operations, he focuses on the human side of technology. Assisted by Mickey’s wife, Dibbie, who has served as IT director for nearly 20 years, the agency has implemented strong technology advancements over the last two years that have “allowed me to focus on agency operations and workflows,” Taylor says.
“[A]fter COVID restrictions were lowered, we … changed our standard work week to two days in the office and three days at home. We also offer flexible hours and actually have our first fully remote worker in a different city.”
Chief Operating Officer
“Through data review, we can pinpoint areas where staff may be overworked or where some staff might be better utilized in other areas,” he says. “With the help of ActivTrak™ and Applied Analytics®, we are able to pinpoint where we can discuss workload and other concerns with our staff.
“This became increasingly important during COVID,” Taylor continues. “We were able to seamlessly provide service to clients, while keeping staff happy by making certain they weren’t overwhelmed by outside pressure to perform. We were able to relieve potential workload problems almost before they occurred, while maintaining a strong, albeit remote, relationship with our people.”
The agency has been with Applied Systems since 1990; it is currently on Applied Epic® and uses Indio, Benefits Designer™, Applied CSR24® with MobileInsured, Applied Mobile®, Applied Marketing Automation™, and Applied Analytics® and is an IVANS Connected Agency. Their staff also uses Vertafore PL Rater™ for personal lines rating.
Technology helps staff
Amanda points out that COVID “made us realize how critically important our technology platform is in regards to workload, client communication, efficiency, and accurate data to determine workload. We felt we were already above the bar. But we realized the need to add technology that would let our current staff take on more higher-level insurance tasks and premium volume.
“Technology could handle some lower-level administrative work so that no individual felt over-burdened,” she adds, “and we could still provide quick, efficient and excellent service to clients. In 2021, we began using Marble Box (a virtual insurance processing provider) for lower-level administrative work.
“At the same time, we made certain that we continued to provide the personal touch, using technology to make our service more personal,” Amanda maintains. “For example, we have a VOIP phone system so staff can answer phones remotely, if needed.”
“When staff was able to return to work after COVID restrictions were lowered,” Taylor says, “we met with staff to determine how they felt about returning to the office. Based on those conversations, we changed our standard work week to two days in the office and three days at home. We also offer flexible hours and actually have our first fully remote worker in a different city.”
The agency used Reagan Consulting to facilitate the purchase of Tee Zerfoss’s shares and, at the same time, to create a future internal perpetuation plan to continue to offer ownership throughout the years to sales producers and support staff.
“What we set up assures that we will be able to remain locally owned,” Mickey says. “I’m happy that we have been able to take this route and show that the independent agency can survive and prosper in an environment where large multiples are being offer-ed by potential acquirers.
“Our customers appreciate the fact that we are committed to remaining independent so that we can continue to provide the service that they expect—service that might not be as strong if we were up for sale.”
Chairman and CEO
“We’ve seen a lot of our competitors go that path,” he adds, “and that’s fine for them. But we are committed to serving our customers first and that means that sometimes we have to ignore the bottom-line implications in favor of doing what’s right for the customer.
“We believe that the good results will follow,” Mickey notes, “and if our results during the pandemic are any indication, we’re on the right track. We had our largest year of revenue growth in 2021.”
According to Mickey, there is no particular secret to the agency’s success. “We simply adhere to old-fashioned values of honesty and integrity in all of our dealings and we have great people and great technology. We tell the truth to customers, our companies and our people.
“Because of that, we write most of our business through referrals that come from current customers, from members of the community who have seen the support we provide through charitable giving of both money and time, and from the companies we represent who have learned to trust us because our submissions are clean and accurate,” he notes.
As part of Martin & Zerfoss’ commitment to clients, the agency moved its entire system to Microsoft 365® and other Microsoft products, such as Microsoft Defender for Business, with the help of Kite Technology Group, in order to make certain that clients’ data is secure. One result of that was that Microsoft did a customer story on Martin & Zerfoss. The commitment to technological excellence has also been recognized by Applied Systems.
Rough Notes is pleased to recognize Martin & Zerfoss as our Agency of the Month. The agency’s commitment to independence because it is the best way to serve clients is praiseworthy and fits with Rough Notes’ commitment to the independent agency system, which we continue to see as the best insurance distribution system in the United States, one that exemplifies the American ideals of independence and free-market entrepreneurship.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance writer.