AGENCY OF THE MONTH
Two entrepreneurs think smart and work hard to build a growing operation and then help other agencies succeed
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
Maybe it’s because I now live in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I can and do converse with Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers in the historic Colonial area, that my view of independence has changed from “Do your own thing,” to a philosophy that requires a team of people working and sometimes fighting to allow all people to achieve equality of opportunity. While the belligerence required for our nation to realize the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence is not necessary in the business world where there is no hostile king or Parliament using armed forces to deny our rights, it still can take a degree of finesse and understanding of human nature to truly be successful.
When Dawnyel Smink joined Canyon Lands Insurance (CLI), Mesa, Arizona, in 2004, she had left a captive agency situation that constrained her zeal for independence. In fact, when she joined CLI, driven by the temerity of youth, she announced that she intended to start her own agency within a couple of years. Rather than being put off by this brashness, the then owner and the person who hired her, Ken Walters, who started the agency in 2001, saw this desire as a positive that fit quite well into his own plans if Dawnyel’s words were equaled by her deeds. Dawnyel was encouraged to help grow the agency as she was put in charge of a fledgling commercial lines unit. Her efforts proved propitious and, in 2007, Ken talked to her about ownership and the next year, she bought him out.
Meanwhile, in 2005, Heather McDougall joined CLI. Heather had been working in benefits for about 10 years and decided to try her hand at property/casualty insurance by buying a multilines shop where the owner was retiring. Her entry into the P-C world was initially disappointing. “It wasn’t like benefits where you can get the contract easily and there was a ton of service work,” she says. “I’d met Dawnyel through Ken and, since we were making money with benefits at my office, I decided to sell my P-C business to her.” And then controversy over ACA started causing problems. “I saw what could happen to benefits and came back on with Dawnyel as chief operating officer.”
But wait, there’s more
Today, Dawnyel and Heather are president and chief operating officer of CLI. And you’d think that the rest of this story would be about how they led the agency to grow and prosper. Well, that’s certainly part of the story. The agency indeed has grown through their leadership and sales acumen. But there’s more. The agency has become a hub for other agencies seeking to remain independent while still gaining economies of scale by joining other like-minded entrepreneurs who want to work with others.
“I had the opportunity to work with peak performance coach Darren Hardy in 2014,” Dawnyel remembers. “We worked alongside successful executives from all types of businesses and learned how to be business owners as well as producers. That not only changed how we worked at CLI, but also started us thinking about ways we could help other agencies by offering them help in those areas that were not their strengths.
“I like process as well as selling,” Dawnyel admits. But that isn’t the norm for most producers. “Most producers are really bad at paperwork and do it reluctantly, and we all know what happens when someone does a job that way. It’s not always the best it could be, and that means that the information that is in the automated systems of that producer’s agency may not be sufficient to allow the agency to maximize opportunities in terms of cross-selling and, of course, excellent service.
“We started to develop technology around processes that are needed by every independent agency,” she continues. “We partnered with companies like EZLynx and ePayPolicy; we created a team that could do the back-end processing whenever producers brought a client to ‘yes.’”
Other agencies found the approach helpful and started to join up with what was to become CLI Select Agencies, with locations in Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Georgia, Texas, Washington and Montana. Today, the group boasts 36 locations with 84 people, including four new agencies that joined the group at the beginning of this year.
The approach is unique in that each member is completely independent in terms of ownership. “There is no buy-in or buy-out,” Dawnyel says. “Members pay a monthly fee for the services.”
Heather elaborates: “We truly become partners with our agencies and vet them carefully before they become members of our team. We don’t just take everyone. We’re looking for like-minded owners who share our vision of creating a unique approach to helping the independent agency survive through teamwork. They must be willing to embrace change and the technology that supports the community. We consider that the buy-in. The result is that we’ve been able to bring some amazing people together.”
Another change for future growth
“Last year was another year of dramatic change,” Dawnyel says. “Heather and I recognized that we needed to focus on the growth of the group when we developed our ‘Road to 200’ plan. So we replaced ourselves at the Mesa and Chandler agencies so we could focus on reaching our goal of 200 agencies in our team. Then we spent six months looking ahead to determine what we would need if we had 200 agencies.”
“One thing that was clear is that we needed to spend time developing those talents that were required for our new roles,” Heather says. “We needed to become better coaches so we could not just work better with current and new members but convince others that we truly had something to offer that would help them build their businesses.”
While CLI Select consists of agencies that are established, “we also saw a need for smaller agencies that had trouble getting appointments with commercial insurance carriers,” Dawnyel notes. “So last year we created a contract that would help them place business with one of our broker agencies that focused on a specialized area of commercial insurance. The broker agencies manage accounts for other CLI Select Agencies in their niche, which then provides both market expertise and expanded risk management capabilities for the client and the other referring CLI agency.”
Keeping in touch
One of the key ingredients of a venture that encompasses agencies from diverse areas is regular communication. “We use Zoom a lot for videoconferencing,” Dawnyel says, adding that: “We also send out videos talking about what we have to offer and how agencies are using our technology to their advantage. That really helps with onboarding new members. Another useful video shows conversations with agency owners talking about not being alone any longer. It’s been very effective.”
Heather adds: “We’ve created an agency council comprised of leaders from our members and hold monthly teleconferences with them. We also have a kick-off meeting in January or February to discuss our strategy for the year.” For that meeting, the members fly into Arizona, something that must be especially pleasant for those members located in northern areas—a nice bit of summer in the middle of winter.
CLI also regularly surveys members to determine if there are any pain points for which they are not providing solutions. “Heather conducted a survey of one member, for example, and found that they needed help with HR,” Dawnyel notes. “So we developed an HR portal that has been used by a number of our members. We’ve found that, oftentimes, when one agency has a need that we’ve identified through the survey or teleconference, that is an area where other agencies need help but hadn’t expressed the concern because they were focused on other matters. It really helps us stay ahead of the curve.”
In addition, there are monetary benefits for members thanks to aggregation of premium for carriers and contingency sharing.
Not surprisingly, one of Dawnyel’s and Heather’s passions is getting more women involved in the insurance industry at all levels. They have created a web group called Women In Insurance Sharing Empowerment that can be found at www.wiisewomen.com. “Nearly half of the members are men,” Dawnyel points out proudly. “They are men who see the need and have contributed by mentoring women who have entered the business, helping them develop the expertise and leadership qualities that are needed to run an agency or the skills that are needed to succeed in other areas of the agency. Each year, we recognize one of these men as a Menafactor. The first recipient was Ken Walters, who did so much to help me and Heather succeed.”
Heather concludes: “We firmly believe that the independent agency system is the best marketing system for clients and represents a wonderful opportunity for growth for anyone seeking a challenging career that focuses on helping people. This is not an industry where we sell widgets or some other tangible product. It is an industry that sells an intangible product that provides peace of mind and, during a crisis, can be the difference between bankruptcy and recovery. It’s a perfect spot for women and for Millennials, who, based on surveys, want to find jobs where they can help people. That’s what we do every day. We are truly involved in a service industry, with an emphasis on service.”
That says it all. Rough Notes is proud to recognize CLI as our Agency of the Month.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.