Agency of the month
The Aspire Insurance Group team. From left: Chloe DeLaForest,
Marketing; Caryn Weingartner, Agent; Beth DeLaForest, President;
Adam DeLaForest, Chief Financial Officer; Kaitlyn Jensen, Agency Manager;
and Whitney Elsen, Personal Lines Account Specialist.
GOING REMOTE WITHOUT BEING REMOTE
Relationships are key to success in the virtual world
for this upper Midwest agency
By Dennis H. Pillsbury • Photography by Lynn Donaldson
Beth DeLaForest started her insurance career as a receptionist on the captive side when she was 20; three months later she became licensed. After nearly ten years gaining experience in the business, she
ventured to the independent agency realm
It was a “very powerful experience to have been on the captive side,” she says, with the hindsight of now owning her own independent agency and seeing the “really big difference between the captive and the independent side.”
Beth was just shy of 10 years at the direct writer when she realized that she was stuck. “I wanted to be helpful in a helping profession,” she explains, “and all I was doing was pure sales.”
While working at the captive, Beth became a founding director of a nonprofit organization, A Rotta Love Plus (www.arottalove.org), which rescues Pit Bulls and Rottweilers. While there, she started a dog-bite prevention program, which used Pit Bull and Rottweiler therapy dogs in schools to create dog safety awareness.
Then serendipity struck. One of the volunteers at the rescue was working at an independent agency. “We talked and I was convinced that being an independent agent would let me use my experience and still give me a chance to be helpful,” Beth recalls. “So, three weeks after our meeting, I started at an independent agency, where I could provide more than just selling one company’s policies and making them fit.
“The emphasis changed from sales to service, where the needs of the client came first—finding a fit rather than forcing a fit,” she adds. “It also allowed me to stay at home with my children, who were two and three in 2010 when I started working from home as an independent.
“I started from scratch, even though my non-compete with my previous agency was 10 years old and not valid per an attorney, because I wanted to avoid anything that might bring my integrity into question,” Beth notes. “I built up a book of personal and commercial business and decided in 2014 that I wanted to start my own agency, using that book as the starting point.
“I purchased the book and rolled it over to the agency I founded, Aspire Insurance Group, in Hudson, Wisconsin.”
Founded as a remote agency
“I built Aspire remotely right from the start, using technology to handle the back-office stuff,” Beth says. “The information from the book that I rolled over went directly into our management system, allowing me and Adam (her husband and agency teammate) to get out and develop relationships.
“I did this so I would have the freedom and flexibility to be with my family when I needed to and still develop the relationships needed to bring in business to a growing insurance agency. And, I extend this freedom to all my staff. They have a lot of autonomy.”
As an agency, she continues, “We started with four core values: team, innovation, raving fans, and growth. That first core value came from what I had seen and experienced prior to starting Aspire. There was tension between sales and service that I felt created an environment that prevented everyone at the agency from doing their best work.
“This not only affected the team members, but was reflected in the service to clients,” Beth explains. “I didn’t want that happening at Aspire. And selfishly, I needed that. I was in the middle of a massive learning process when we started out.
“I had never marketed personal lines. I never saw an ACORD form when I was at the direct writer. Marketing to multiple companies was new; I had to establish relationships with carriers and get to know what each market was best at so we could send submissions to the ones that wanted the business and would provide the best coverage and service for a particular client.”
Relationships and culture
“One of my strengths is that I am good at building relationships,” Beth says. “That is how you get and retain clients and staff. We don’t cold call and we don’t advertise. We have relationships with commercial lenders, realtors, and other centers of influence, including current clients, who channel prospects to us.
“And that has to be true internally as well,” she adds. “While we may not see each other every day because of the remote, now hybrid, nature of our agency, we still must all get along and be heading in the same direction.” Agency team members use Slack—an instant messaging program owned by Salesforce—to communicate regularly.
“Protecting the culture is especially important here because our clients are part of that culture,” Beth explains. “We vet our clients and prospects based on how they fit into our culture rather than by class. We actually stay away from niching. I’ve seen too many agencies that have suffered when the companies decide that a particular niche is no longer something they want to write or will only do so for a price.” That said, Aspire does have one area that is the agency’s and Beth’s passion project: animal liability.
The agency established a division (www.doggoneinsurance.com) that handles a lot of business in the area, including finding homeowners insurance that doesn’t breed discriminate, finding insurance after an animal liability claim, and finding business insurance for animal-related businesses—including rescue facilities. They also offer a responsible owner program that helps owners address bad behaviors that may have led to the dog being listed as a dangerous dog by the city or town.
The other Aspire
Kaitlyn Jensen joined Aspire Insurance Agency, Gilbert, Minnesota, in 2017 as the receptionist. She got licensed quickly and moved into personal lines and, in 2020, had baby Emma and “had cleaned out my desk when I left on maternity leave.” She did not intend to come back.
So, are you confused? So was the post office. It turns out that Aspire Insurance Agency in Gilbert was receiving some of Beth’s mail. The owner called Beth while Beth was attending a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses entrepreneur program to let her know and they got together for coffee when she returned.
It turns out that he was interviewing Beth for his perpetuation program and that started a conversation that lasted about eight months until, at the end of June 2020, Aspire Insurance Group acquired Aspire Insurance Agency.
After the merger was announced, Beth met Kaitlyn and convinced her to “trust the process and stay on,” and now Kaitlyn serves as her agency manager and “right hand.”
“I feel very valued with Beth,” Kaitlyn says, adding that, “Having Beth and Adam (we’ll get to him very soon) as such supportive leaders has been extremely self-affirming. The flexibility of our hybrid model (part remote and part in-office) is nice and has allowed me to work from home when I need to be there.
“The biggest transition for us has been the move from all paper to completely digital, but I’ve already seen how that is best for us and for our clients,” Kaitlyn adds. “Service is faster and more accurate, and I don’t know how we would have managed the pandemic before, but it was amazing how well it went thanks to the technology Beth and her team brought in. The future seems wonderful, and I feel extremely blessed to be part of this team.”
As promised, here’s the aforementioned Adam DeLaForest, who serves as the agency’s chief financial officer and primarily is focused on auditing commission statements, general finances, payroll, weeding out clients who were consistently slow in paying and so on.
“Another important task today is keeping track of increases and flagging accounts for Beth and Kaitlyn to review and decide on the best strategy for dealing with the increase,” Adam says.
Up until the pandemic, Adam was a full-time chiropractor, but marketing dried up quickly when COVID hit and now he sees his maintenance patients at the clinic part time and is more focused within the agency. It turned out to be propitious timing since the acquisition of the Gilbert agency occurred at almost the same time as the start of the pandemic.
And then it is up to Whitney Elsen, the agency’s personal lines account specialist, to work with personal lines clients and explain why the rates are going up and what can be done to alleviate part of the pain. “So far, everyone is hanging in there,” Whitney reports, “because they know that we are honest and are providing them with the real story.
“They also see how costs for everything are going up and we explain that that includes those items that insurance has to pay for,” she explains, “and that has been exacerbated by the fact that people are driving more which leads to more accidents. We also had a big hailstorm last year. So, people understand.”
Whitney says the important thing is to “get to them early and warn them about what is coming. We always get together with clients at least two months before renewal so we have time to decide on how to proceed. My V.A. (virtual assistant)
Camille helps me contact clients before renewal.” This takes place remotely since Camille is one of two agency V.A.s from the Philippines.
Teamwork—even across continents—as well as diligence and a focus on culture are paying off. The agency continues to grow. Today, most Aspire revenue is from property and casualty lines—skewing slightly to commercial. More important, Beth says proudly, “Our EBITDA is 45% and our retention rate is always in the high 90s.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Aspire Insurance Group as our Agency of the Month. The commitment to team and flexibility shows how using technology to enhance relationships and efficiency points a way to a bright future for independent agencies.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.