Jacksonville agency owner goes above and beyond to deliver outstanding client service
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
A 90%-plus retention rate … five- star reviews from happy clients … low employee turnover …
All of those attributes contribute to the success of Zelen Risk Solutions, a property/casualty independent agency founded in 2003 by Vicky Zelen, AAI, ARM,CIC, CRM. Based in Jacksonville, Florida, the agency writes a wide variety of risks and prides itself on delivering coverage and service with a personal touch.
“We answer the phones ourselves,” Zelen says. “When clients or prospects call, they speak to a real person who can help them. We have no voicemail between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.”
Zelen’s insurance career began in high school in her native Milwaukee. “I worked part time in a small agency located in the basement of a bank called Badger Savings and Loan,” she recalls with a smile. “I’m still friends with the manager of that agency, and that goes back about 35 years.
“In college I worked at Milwaukee Mutual Insurance Company,” she continues. “I worked from 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, typing policies, and attended college full time during the day. It was a great learning experience for me to be on the company side.”
After graduating from college, Zelen joined what then was known as Marsh & McLennan. She worked for six years in the Milwaukee office, servicing commercial clients.
“After six years there I felt like I’d hit the glass ceiling,” Zelen says. “Harden & Associates, one of the oldest and largest agencies in Jacksonville, was advertising a position, and they moved me from Wisconsin to Jacksonville.”
At Harden, Zelen serviced commercial accounts and she continued to do so at agencies she subsequently joined. At one point, she recalls, “I was interviewing for a job and took a personality profile. The agency owner offered me a job in account service, and he said, ‘The personality profile says you’d be a really good salesperson.’ I asked, ‘Will you let me sell?’ and he said ‘No.’
“I really wanted to sell commercial insurance,” she says, “and I had a hard time finding anybody who would let me be an outside salesperson. So 18 years ago, I started my own agency because I wanted to sell insurance.”
With a loan from a family friend, Zelen was able to establish Zelen Risk Solutions. “I didn’t have any clients; I didn’t steal any books of business—I just set up an office and started getting appointments.”
At first she worked through brokers. “Some insurers were reluctant to give me an appointment even though I had a great reputation with the marketing reps. They were hesitant to be the first insurer to appoint a brand-new agency because they felt like with just one company, the agent might try to place a risk that didn’t fit the company’s underwriting criteria. I assured them that I wouldn’t do that, and eventually we got appointments with some excellent carriers.”
With just six employees, including Zelen herself, Zelen Risk Solutions considers itself to be a boutique agency that focuses keenly on delivering outstanding customer service.
“Answering our phones is just one of the old-school things we do to help our clients and prospects feel welcome and appreciated,” Zelen explains. “If you get our voicemail after 5:00 p.m., you’ll hear: ‘If you have an urgent need, call Vicky on her cell phone’ followed by my number. The message also mentions Holly, who’s been with me for 17 years, and gives her mobile number.
“One time I got a call from a client at 11:00 p.m.,” Zelen recounts. “It was a contractor who was doing an interior build out in a huge shopping mall, and he accidentally hit the plumbing pipe and flooded the entire mall. He told me that the water extraction team was on scene and wanted him to sign a personal guarantee, and the bill was going to start at $75,000. I told him not to sign anything and instead have the mall security supervisor sign it. I was 90% sure the loss was covered, but at that stage I didn’t want my client to sign a personal guarantee. As it turned out, the loss wasn’t covered.
“The contractor was doing the project as a joint venture, and his policy said that if he worked in a joint venture, the joint venture had to be the named insured—and it wasn’t. The insurer denied the claim, and I told my client that somebody’s insurance was going to pay it. His insurer eventually paid the claim.
“I like to tell that story because it illustrates that not everything that happens in an agency takes place during normal working hours,” Zelen says. “We get after-hours calls all the time, but no one has ever abused the privilege. We try to go above and beyond for our clients. We make sure their audits are correct for general liability and workers comp. We carefully review policy exclusions with our clients. We deal with a large number of contractors, and their policies contain a lot of exclusions. If a client’s premium goes up, we shop the count to see if we can get the same coverage for a better price.
“Some exclusionary endorsements are confusing,” Zelen says. “They’re not always crystal clear.
“We focus on construction contractors, and in many cases we use excess-surplus lines markets,” Zelen says. “Probably 60% to 65% of our book is construction contractors. We also write manufacturing risks, restaurants, professional practices, and service businesses.”
Changes in attitudes
“When I was hired at Marsh in Milwaukee after graduating from college, I was told by my supervisor, who was about 20 years older than me, ‘You’re not going to go anywhere here,’” Zelen recalls. “I didn’t agree. I was young, I was a go-getter, and I wasn’t going to just sit back and wait for someone to notice me. I thought, ‘You’re an old lady; you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Sure enough, I ended up training a young man and he was promoted above me.
“I think attitudes toward women in the industry are evolving and that there are more opportunities for women. Several successful agencies in Jacksonville are woman owned. It’s inspiring and encouraging to me to see how many agency leaders here are women,” Zelen remarks.
“Our Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce has hired a woman whose job is to elevate the status of women and get them into positions where they’re making more decisions,” she continues. “She’ll be focusing on how to get more women involved in politics and other public-facing activities.”
Happy and grateful
“Every day I wake up and think how lucky I am to have my own successful agency,” Zelen says. “I love my clients. I’m friends with a lot of them, and I like meeting new clients, getting to know their businesses, and designing an insurance program that meets their needs. I have a great team, and I couldn’t be more blessed than I am.”
Do you know a female independent agency leader we should feature? If so, please email details about her as well as contact information to Elisabeth Boone, CPCU (email@example.com).