Partners of Árachas Group, LLC. From left: Erin Kelly, Bill Sullivan, Dallas Peters, Kevin Lesch, Greg Mattingly, and Brian Dolewski. (Not pictured: Valeria Mogildea)
With a vision built around “working as one,”
this Illinois agency is experiencing exponential growth
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
In 1975, Michael Sullivan formed Sullivan & Associates, which quickly grew roots in Bartlett, Illinois, offering insurance solutions to the local community and the surrounding area. Being part of the Chicago metropolitan market, Bartlett offered plenty of opportunities. So it was not surprising that another independent agency, Bartlett Insurance Group, opened its doors there in 1986.
The two family agencies remained friendly competitors for decades, both thriving over the years as they carved out specific insurance and risk management industry focuses.
Then in 2017, they merged and created Árachas Group, bringing together some of the finest industry professionals from both agencies. These included William Sullivan, son of the Sullivan & Associates founder, and Kevin Lesch from Bartlett Insurance Group, a member of the family that founded that agency; they were joined by other industry leaders Dallas Peters and Brian Dolewski, from Critchell Miller, when Árachas purchased half of that agency later that same year.
Also proving to be very important in the agency’s journey was Critchell Miller’s membership in the Keystone agency network.
Today, Bill serves Árachas as chief executive officer, Kevin is chief operating officer, and Brian is chief sales officer.
The name Árachas came out of a desire to have something that was less local and better reflected a business that was growing geographically as well as financially, Bill points out. “It is pronounced awe-rock-us and means ‘insurance’ in the Irish language,” he explains. “We like to think that we mean insurance in any language.”
By the time the merger occurred, Bill, who joined his father in 1989 and took over personal lines, had already begun to develop serious inroads into some commercial niches. The first was transportation, a niche he latched onto after agreeing to purchase half the agency from his father in 1999.
“Buying the agency was a great opportunity, but it meant that I would need to take out a loan to finance the purchase,” Bill explains. “I had a wife and three children, a mortgage, and now a loan that I had to pay back. I realized I needed to find another source of income that would help with that effort. I decided to focus on trucking.”
Recalling his start, he says with tongue in cheek, “We had one trucker paying a premium of $7,000 who bought a second truck, and my business doubled. That doubling continued quite a number of times, and I was able to pay off the loan before my dad decided to retire in 2009, and I was able to buy the rest of the business.”
By then, the firm had three separate entities under the Sullivan umbrella: M. L. Sullivan; Transportation Insurance Solutions; and Executive Global, which was formed with partner Greg Mattingly, who specialized in professional liability, particularly insurance agent’s E&O.
Kevin had an interesting insurance background working with his father, who in the late 1980s started an agency, Lake Risk Management, which had no direct contracts. “Dad worked on large accounts that needed specialty insurance coverages and wrote through wholesalers,” Kevin says.
“He needed a large staff to handle service, particularly around the January 1 and July 1 x-dates,” he adds. “But there were lulls between those times, so he merged with another agency in Bartlett to keep his people busy all year round.
“Out of that grew Bartlett Insurance Group, where I started out in personal lines,” Kevin notes. “Working alongside my dad, Howard, and his partner Tom, I learned the business and ultimately bought them out in 2015.
“Bill and I grew up in the same community and went to the same high school,” he adds. “We liked and trusted each other, so a merger seemed like a good idea, since it would create greater diversity and opportunities for both of us.
“To steal a quote from our national Big ‘I’ chairman, we both believe that this is a noble profession where we can work collaboratively with our clients, our community, our employees, and our markets to create a company where people want to work,” Kevin says.
Brian describes his journey with the firm like this: “I bought in to become a partner because of the tremendous growth opportunity. This is a young, driven agency with great people and markets. I truly feel like this is a place where I could stay forever.
“There’s an attitude here that’s special,” he adds. “It’s aggressive but we also have fun. Our ultimate goal is to succeed by helping our clients succeed.
“Our program depends on creating informed clients who learn to recognize their risk management needs and how best to mitigate their risks,” Brian explains. “In short, we don’t sell insurance; we get clients to the point where they choose to buy because they understand what makes the most sense for their own situation.
“We also ask our salespeople to develop a niche or two where they can become experts,” he notes. “My niche is driving schools, in addition to being a generalist. I continue to build my own book during regular business hours, since a lot of the high-initiative-type stuff can be handled after hours.
“And I have a great staff that helps me succeed,” Brian says.
“One of the most important things that we offer, thanks to our size and growth, is a greater opportunity to advance,” he adds. “We’re able to provide people at all levels with a career path. And of course, the sky is the limit for our salespeople, as long as they avoid the order-taking mentality and do a serious job of developing relationships with each and every client—relationships that are based on mutual trust.”
Kevin adds that paying attention to the small stuff is a key to “differentiating ourselves from the competition. Brian and I were at a security guard conference and were talking to a prospect who was with one of the big brokers. When they asked why they should come with us, I simply said, ‘We answer our phones.’
“We got a great reception and we continued to use that statement throughout the conference,” he adds. “That really put it in perspective for the prospects we met; the little things matter.”
Partnering with Keystone
As mentioned above, the Keystone relationship has proven to be especially key (pun intended) for the agency. “Once we started working with them after the acquisition of Critchell Miller we found their services to be helpful,” Bill notes. “But things really started to take off when they established Keystone Agency Partners (KAP) in 2020 as a vehicle to help find and finance potential acquisition candidates.
“We became a partner in KAP in July of 2021,” he explains. “At that time, we were just shy of $10 million in revenue. Two years later, in July of 2023, our revenues were just shy of $24 million.”
Thanks to the support of KAP, Árachas was able to acquire eight independent agencies with like-minded leadership that also provided several people who became equity partners in the firm. “That is an important part of our acquisition strategy,” Bill adds proudly. “We are looking for partnerships that will add to our expertise and niche offerings.
He is quick to point out that the agency’s organic growth also has been outstanding. “It was almost 30% in 2021 and 12% in 2022,” he explains. “We look to double organically every five years through double-digit growth annually.
“Another great addition to the agency came from KAP when we hired Bethany Snyder as chief of staff,”
Bill notes. “She joined us from KAP in 2022.”
“My job as chief of staff is to execute our strategic plan,” Bethany points out. “To do that, of course, I have to work with leadership and staff to put it together, help set priorities, and put structure to ideas that come from all levels of the agency.
“Lots of great ideas come into management at agencies, but they aren’t always implemented,” she explains. “A big part of my job is to help sort through the ideas, pick the ones that will have the biggest impact, and help our team focus on just one or two things at a time.”
Bethany continues: “Steve Jobs said, ‘People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.’ That is so true in our business.”
Don’t Waste the Chaos
“Our extraordinary growth means that we are almost always in some stage of change, which can be tough,” Bethany says. “But it also presents an enormous opportunity. A friend shared with me once the idea of ‘don’t waste the chaos’ and it really resonated. It took away a lot of the fear and replaced it with momentum and a sense of urgency to take advantage of every moment.
“Our goal is to be a small agency,” she adds, “with all the small-agency benefits, like collaboration and a family-like atmosphere, while operating as a large agency that can compete with anyone for business. ‘Don’t Waste the Chaos’ has become my mantra as I explore the best way to maximize this opportunity. Our team understands that this is good for all of us.”
Bill picks up on that thought by pointing out that “most agencies experience growing pains every five to ten years. But we’re having growing pains every six months. Bethany has helped us stay ahead of this. She understands agency data and what it means thanks to her work at MarshBerry before she went to KAP.”
Kevin points out that the agency continues to be involved in the community—both the insurance community and the community where they work. Several of their people have been involved in the Big ‘I’ of Illinois and are engaged in other industry organizations.
“One of our passions is our work with Young Hearts for Life, an organization that works to prevent the ravages of cardiomyopathy,” Kevin says. “Our agency employees volunteer with the group, giving EKGs to high school students.
“We try to reach as many people as possible, as we work with the second-largest school district in Illinois,” he adds. “We know that this program has saved lives and we’re very proud of that success. (To date, the organization has identified more than 3,100 young adults with undiagnosed heart conditions.) We also support many other charities with contributions of both time and money.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Árachas Group, LLC as our Agency of the Month. As of this writing, the agency employs about 125 people in eight states, but it is adding people almost every day. And each one of those people know about the plaque in the entryway of the office that says: ‘Know What’s Expected and Rise Above.’ Bravo.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.