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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



February 26
07:57 2020

Looking Back, Looking Ahead


Now in its fifth generation of family leadership, this small-town agency aims big

Then …

Our founder, my great-great grandfather Eli Benjamin Keller, established the agency in 1902. He had three jobs: banker, teacher, and insurance agent. His son, my great-grandfather Harold Keller, was an insurance agent and for a period of time served simultaneously as a York County commissioner, which today is a full-time job.

An insurance company calendar from the agency’s early days.

In 1955, my grandfather Barry Keller took over the agency, and during his tenure the insurance industry began to change rapidly. Insurance Company of North America (INA) was our largest carrier, and it accepted almost any risk he sent their way. My grandfather was excited to offer his customers a brand-new product called a homeowners policy, which was pioneered by INA.

In the late 1970s, Barry’s daughter Joy Keller-Brown and her husband Jeff Brown (my mom and dad) joined the agency and kicked off a major transformation. In 1978, the firm was selected by INA as a COMPAR (Company Agency Relationship) agency. In return for the agency placing most of its business with INA, the company provided favorable pricing, preferred products, top-notch education, co-op advertising, and consulting.

I was born in 1982, and Mom and Dad took me to work with them until I started to crawl around and pull files off the shelves. By the time I was four I had already been to COMPAR conferences in Napa Valley and Puerto Rico. At that time the agency’s office was in my grandfather’s home, where my mom grew up. Barry, Jeff, and Joy were the only employees.

Our agency’s longevity all comes down to culture. Our corporate personality traits are Family, Integrity, Diligence, and Loyalty (FIDL), and they create our culture.

Our first non-family employee was hired in 1982 (she just retired in July 2019!), and the agency soon outgrew its small two-room office. The agency moved to a leased space in Shrewsbury in 1984 and in 1990 renovated a three-story historic building (formerly an Odd Fellows Hall) into the office space we occupy today.

A loyalty award presented to the agency during its second generation of family ownership.

Shortly after that move, on a Friday afternoon in 1990, CIGNA (the then-merged company of INA and Connecticut General) notified us that it was dissolving the COMPAR program nationwide. Additionally, it announced that it was going to non-renew all of its personal auto policies in Pennsylvania because of the provisions of Act 6, which established Pennsylvania as a limited no-fault state. In short order, we had to find a market that would write those auto policies—and we had a lot! Then we learned that CIGNA was spinning off its P-C business to ACE, requiring us to seek contracts with new markets. So, in one year we completed a major office renovation and rewrote almost our entire book of business. My grandfather retired shortly thereafter.

My parents persevered, and after moving sideways as a result of all that rewriting, they began to grow. After college I worked as a commercial trucking underwriter for three years, only to see that insurer declare insolvency. In 2008, I accepted an entry-level position with the family business. After learning personal and commercial lines sales and service, agency management, and strategic planning, I was promoted to president and chief executive officer in 2019, becoming the fifth generation to lead the family business.

Now …

We’ve just gone through a generational change. Employees who had been with us for 20 to 30 years have retired. Fortunately, they gave us plenty of notice, so we were able to hire new talent with time to train them. During this transition we’ve maintained duplicate personnel to give the new talent enough time for the knowledge shift to take hold and to build relationships with our customers. That’s a long way to say we have a total of 20 employees.

Our industry is complex, and we believe it is incumbent on us to be insurance nerds so we can educate our clients to make the best insurance decisions.

Our agency’s longevity all comes down to culture. Our corporate personality traits are Family, Integrity, Diligence, and Loyalty (FIDL), and they create our culture. Technology changes; industries change; carriers, products, and rates change; and so do client needs.

Our culture is the thread that ties everything together when so much is changing.

Each generation of our family has had a different reality and has grown the business under different circumstances. Perfecting the client experience is more top of mind now than ever before. We’ve always been dedicated to providing excellent client service, but now we’re “all in” on the client experience. We’re committed to taking full advantage of the capabilities of the internet, SEO, and social media. We’ve recently engaged with a marketing agency, and I can see that role being in-house in the near future. Providing an effortless client experience and acquiring business with online tools requires building new mindsets, infrastructure, and workflows. These initiatives take time and need to be carefully thought out; they don’t just happen. It takes intentional work.

Local history on display at the agency’s Shrewsbury office, which previously was the historic Odd Fellows Hall.

Our industry is complex, and we believe it is incumbent on us to be insurance nerds so we can educate our clients to make the best insurance decisions. Maintaining a license is not enough in today’s marketplace. Professional designations are supported and highly regarded in our agency. All of our employees are licensed and have either attained or are pursuing their CISR, CISR Elite, CIC, or CRM designation. Our partnership with Insurance Agents and Brokers (IA&B) of Pennsylvania is invaluable. They coordinate our continuing education and are quick to answer any questions we have regarding agency management. IA&B has our back behind the scenes with legislative advocacy.

Every fall we go through a strategic planning process and hold an off-site retreat. To ensure that our production goals are met in 2020, we have instituted weekly SMART Talks between our supervisors and their direct reports.

We believe that part of protecting the communities we serve is sharing our time and resources. In that spirit, we encourage our teammates to serve nonprofit organizations that support culture, health and human services, education, and preservation.

The author

Sarah M. Brown, CIC, CRM, AFIS, is president and chief executive officer of Keller-Brown Insurance Services.

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