And a lot more from a talented staff at this Michigan agency
What do you do when you decide that the insurance company ranks are no longer for you?
“I was tired of banging my head on the ceiling,” says Kevin Elliott. “If you followed the wrong person up the ladder at the company, you could end up getting stuck. I decided to go somewhere where my abilities would determine whether I would succeed or fail.”
For Kevin, that meant buying a small independent agency and starting to build it. That’s easier said than done, however. Kevin, who in 1983 bought an agency in West Branch, Michigan, looked for advice on the best way to develop the agency into a force to be reckoned with.
Kevin met Roger Sitkins, who was starting his career as an agency consultant with the formation of the Sitkins 100. “I met Roger in Gaylord, Michigan, and signed up with him that day,” Kevin remembers. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, with Roger serving as friend and mentor for 20 years and counting.
The results speak for themselves. Today Diebold Insurance has 17 employees in West Branch, another seven in a Prudenville branch and five in a downtown Detroit branch. These three offices account for $4.9 million in revenue, excluding contingencies, with West Branch serving as the administrative and sales hub.
A key part of Roger’s message was for producers and owners to develop a practice, much like a lawyer or a doctor, rather than sell insurance. “That was a big selling point for me,” says John Mrsan, a partner and commercial producer in the Detroit office. John, who was a CPA before he entered the insurance business, admits to being a contract-and-coverage wonk who likes to focus on the true cost of risk when he meets with clients. “Roger’s message resonates with that approach, where you are serving client needs all year long rather than getting involved only 90 days prior to renewal. For most of the smaller businesses that are our clients, we are their risk managers and we emphasize the importance of communication, so we can do our job as effectively as possible. Our clients call us when they are buying a building, creating an employee manual, getting ready to sign a contract or a lease, or performing any other tasks that require an understanding of the risk and insurance implications. When they come to us ahead of time, we are in a better position to advise them about the most risk-efficient way to proceed, in the long term saving them a significant amount of money.”
Vice President and Sales Manager Dan Elliott has been instrumental in bringing young producers into the agency. “We use Roger as our sales training resource, helping the new producers develop an approach that centers on listening to the prospect and developing a plan that will help them reduce their overall cost of risk. We emphasize the importance of creating a niche where they want to develop expertise. In most cases, it’s already an area of interest. For example, one of our producers has niches in aircraft and breweries. I do transportation and contractors. This approach has allowed each producer to attend the meetings of the niche markets as well as develop relationships with key centers of influence. This results in a higher level of engagement as well as a growing referral base as our producer becomes known and recommended by the clients he or she has served well. The end result is high retention and a strong closing ratio.”
Kevin adds that the young producers also “are encouraged to get to know the company underwriters who best serve their niche. These relationships serve us well when we submit a proposal. We’re pretty certain it will go to the top of the stack because the underwriter knows our producer has expertise in the niche and will submit only good business.”
Although the agency today is 62% commercial lines, with the balance coming from personal lines and health, it was primarily a personal lines and small commercial agency in the early days because of its location in a small town of about 2,000 people. “Those personal lines clients remain an important part of our agency,” says Charlie Elliott, partner in charge of personal lines. “We use a similar approach with them as with our commercial clients,” he adds, “focusing on risk mitigation and coverage concerns. We also do a lot of local advertising and, equally important, support local schools and charities. We sponsor Little League teams and other sporting endeavors, and this gets us noticed in a positive way in the communities that we serve.”
Operations Manager Amy Langlois says, “We have tremendous loyalty from our customers, who also are our friends. We work side by side with our clients at charity events and see them at sporting events, community meetings and so on. In my mind, that is what sets this agency apart from everyone else. We really care, and it shows. We take good care of our employees and clients and our community. For the employees, there is no ceiling. Time out of the office to work in the community is supported, as is additional education. That’s why I joined this agency. I already knew the people and what they were doing in the community. It’s a great place.”
Benefits Administrator Julie Hock echoes that sentiment. “Most of our health business is self-funded, and I handle the administration. Since joining the agency, I have become certified by the Society of Human Resource Management and as a wellness coach. I was encouraged to further my education by everyone here, and it has allowed me to provide better service to our health clients. It’s really rewarding and allows me to provide risk mitigation services to health clients that are similar to what we do for commercial lines clients.
For example, I helped one client set up a wellness program that started out with a wellness check for each employee. They were encouraged by the offer of $100 to anyone who took the wellness check. We found two people who were in the early stages of cancer. Both have good prognoses. One person quit smoking. A lot of the claims that occur in the health field are the result of lifestyle choices, and we’ve been able to step in and help people make healthier choices, extending their lives and enhancing their physical well-being as well as saving the client money.
“We’re also working with schools thanks to a grant through Blue Cross to get kids to be more active,” Julie continues. “The program includes eye exams, teaching about sugar and fat, and instituting active learning where, for example, kids will say their ABCs while doing jumping jacks.”
Keeping it fun
Kevin points out that a key reason for his agency’s success is that “Roger showed me how to keep this fun. He talked about the 80/20 rule and showed me how to implement it in my situation. I learned how to delegate and learned to recognize it as a good business practice. Handing off business to colleagues who enjoy working with it made sense. We are in a small town. The notion of getting rid of business runs counter to our dedication to our community and our desire to be an integral part of its success. So we make sure that business is handled by people who will provide it the best service. And the best way you can be certain that the service is great is when employees enjoy providing that service.”
Peter Elliott, who represents the fourth generation at this family business, says that one of the great things about working at the agency is that “you are given the flexibility to do what you want. As a personal lines manager, I work with the kind of business with which I am comfortable. This includes high net worth personal lines and small commercial lines.”
John concludes that “what makes this work for me is the small town, family environment that emphasizes service to people, and we feel that even here in the Detroit office. I came here from an agency that sold to Brown & Brown. I didn’t want to go through that again. Diebold has a perpetuation plan that includes several generations of young people. Equally important, they have an understanding that building a practice doesn’t happen overnight. Production goals are important, but the leadership also respects the fact that building a long-term relationship can take time as you explain the risk mitigation and risk management plans that are needed to achieve long-term success. They want clients for life rather than the quick hit, and that fits perfectly with my way of doing business.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Diebold Insurance as our Agency of the Month. It is an agency where a person can “really enjoy getting up and coming to work,” as Charlie Elliott puts it. “I enjoy helping people, and this place gives me the opportunity to do that every day.”
Dennis H. Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.