AGENCY OF THE MONTH
ELEVATING ALL STAKEHOLDERS
Michigan agency adopts “Conscious Capitalism” to support decision making
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
Back in 1972, Bill Brower was getting ready to go to law school and part of that readiness was finding a way to pay for it. He was talking to his insurance agent about an issue with his auto coverage when the agent started discussing employment opportunities. Bill went home and told his wife that he thought he’d been offered a job.
“Sure enough,” he recalls, “a few days later, a letter arrived offering me employment.”
Bill decided not to go to law school. He found that he liked the insurance business and the opportunity it afforded him to help other people. In 1977, he and a partner struck out on their own to form The Harbor Agency in Harbor Springs, Michigan. It was a small firm with only a few company appointments, and Bill found himself facing competition from larger agencies that represented more companies. So, he decided to get bigger.
An opportunity came along to purchase the Brenn Agency in Petoskey, just across Little Traverse Bay from Harbor Springs, so he worked out the financing with one of his insurance companies and completed the transaction. The result was the formation of the agency that today is known as Harbor Brenn Insurance Agencies. For a while, employees worked out of both offices until insurance company financing provided Bill the opportunity to open a new location about halfway between Harbor Springs and Petoskey, where the agency now is located.
Bill didn’t keep his love of insurance just at the office; he brought it home and apparently that had an impact on his family, especially his daughter Ashley, who remembers “always being in the insurance industry.”
So, it comes as no surprise that Ashley, who says she has worked at “nearly every position at the agency,” was the person Bill turned to when he decided to transfer ownership. He began transitioning ownership about eight years ago and today, Ashley Brower-Whitney is president and owner of Harbor Brenn.
Ashley continued to adhere to Bill’s philosophy of placing other people’s needs ahead of his own. In insurance terms, that meant using his and now her insurance knowledge to make certain that every person who came to the agency ended up with the insurance coverage that best served his or her situation. That philosophy was emphasized for all the employees at the agency, and it has taken center stage whenever an opportunity to expand through acquisition presented itself.
For example, Harbor Brenn purchased the Petoskey Agency in 1997 from a man who shared their philosophy and was able to continue to work for the agency until he retired in 2016. It also played a key role in the purchase of the assets of the Waldvogel Agency after the owner passed away. “We had to make certain that the deal benefited the Waldvogel family,” Ashley says, “as well as being good for us. We also got a great employee from that deal, who fit in very well with our philosophy.”
About five years ago, Ashley, who spends much of her day educating her-self about running a business as well as insurance, attended an education program sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce on Conscious Capitalism. “Under that system,” Ashley explains, “an organization elevates all of the entities that are impacted by its busi-ness. Those entities encompass six stakeholders: employees, clients, owners, communities, suppliers, and the environment as a whole, that need to be considered in every decision.
“What this means for me as an owner,” she continues, “is that I have to include the impact on these six stakeholders of every decision I make, as does every employee. For example, it means that going paperless is not done just because it makes things easier for us, but also because it is better for the environment and it provides quicker access to information to the benefit of employees, clients and our suppliers, the insurance companies.
“This was a year-long course with reading and writing assignments that proved to be extremely useful in helping me decide how to run this business,” Ashley says.
A happy place
The fact that there has been very little turnover indicates that people at Harbor Brenn enjoy their jobs. Interestingly, some did leave for “exceptional opportunities” elsewhere, only to find out that other places just didn’t offer the friendly atmosphere and trusting environment that Harbor Brenn does, so they asked to come back and were welcomed with open arms.
“This place is amazing,” says Robyn Rakoniewski, director of first impressions and marketing. Robyn, who joined the agency 15 years ago, was one of those individuals who left—in her case to work with the local school district—and then came back. “The agency is just a great place to work. Everyone here cares and works hard to do their best every day,” she notes.
“We are so involved in the community and with our customers,” she adds. “It just makes me happy to come to work every day and, best of all, feel that I’m doing a job worth doing. We are advocates for our clients, making certain that they get full value from their insurance.
“We also work with a number of community organizations,” Robyn continues. “One of my favorite efforts is our Challenger Team, a special needs Little League team that plays a different organization every week during the season. We’ve sponsored them since their inception. It’s fun for us and great to see the entire community support them.”
Sales Agent Jenny Brower points out that the friendly environment within the agency creates a unique atmosphere that serves to bring a lot of walk-in clients. “I had one customer who told me that she never knew she could have fun buying insurance.” She continues by noting that “the area attracts a lot of tourists who have seasonal homes in the area and many of those people come to us for help with seasonal insurance needs because we’re one of the largest and best-known agencies in the area.
“They come in and sit down with us,” Jenny adds. “There’s no pressure. We often wind up writing their entire account because they like us. We end up becoming their primary agent.”
Director of Operations Amy Eichler adds that Harbor Brenn has “an entirely different environment than what I experienced at my last job. I came here from a down-state agency where a lot of my time was spent processing applications and handling a lot more business, but hardly ever having meaningful conversations with clients or prospects. Here, we have a chance to sit and chat and get to know the people.
“The result is, in my view, that we are able to really zero in on what each client needs and do a much better job of finding the right coverage for each client,” Amy explains. “It’s just an overall different feeling.”
“So much of our ability to serve our community and have meaningful relationships with our clients stems from the freedom that Ashley has given all of us,” Jenny says.
Ashley notes, “This proved to be especially important when we had to work remotely because of COVID; we were ready to work from home. Our systems were set up for this because some winters here produce enough snow that there are times when many of us just can’t get into the office. So, we were ready physically with the right automation at everyone’s home.
However, what they found out was that they were also ready mentally. “Although we felt that was true,” Ashley says, “the pandemic really put it to the test.
“Trusting employees to do the right thing is just part of who we are, and it fits well into conscious capitalism because, when you have trustworthy employees, every one of the stakeholders benefits,” she explains. “We’re all on the same page. And studies have found that when your employees are happy, that translates to better results for clients and providers. Everybody wins. Our experience proves that those studies are correct.
“We don’t track personal time. We have no limits on volunteer hours. We pay for education because that is a vital part of building a more knowledgeable team that can better serve all our stakeholders.
“What I’ve tried to create here is a smaller version of TOMS Shoes,” Ashley says, speaking of the retailer that is renowned for its passionate focus on those in need. “We’re always thinking about creative ways to help others. For example, during COVID, local restaurants really took it on the chin. We wanted to help them, but we didn’t want to contribute to the waste that is produced by all the containers needed for takeout. So, we purchased around $3,000 in gift cards from the restaurants. Now that things are opening up, we’ll have an opportunity to use some of those cards.”
The agency also recognized that COVID created different expectations from employees who had worked virtually for so long. “When we were able to bring everyone together,” Ashley says, “we asked them how they wanted to work. Most said they couldn’t wait to get back in the office full-time, a few thought a hybrid work schedule would be best and two, one of whom now lives in South Carolina, asked to continue to work remotely.
“Since each of our 17 employees had their own office with a door that closes, we’re now looking at ways to utilize those offices that will be empty,” she adds.
Harbor Brenn has created a unique agency that respects and trusts all its stakeholders. The result, not surprisingly, is that Harbor Brenn gets a ton of business from referrals. And that’s why Rough Notes is pleased to recognize them as our Agency of the Month.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.
Cover photo: The Harbor Brenn Insurance Agencies team.