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Van Gilder Insurance is Agency of the Year

Traditional values plus next-gen savvy power Denver agency
into its second century

By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU

As the fourth generation to lead the agency that his great-grandfather, Hal Van Gilder, established in Denver in 1905, Michael Van Gilder is clearly both energized and humbled by the mantle of responsibility he assumed in 2006 when his father, Dell Van Gilder Jr., retired from active management.

Accepting the award from Rough Notes Editor in Chief Tom McCoy, Michael spoke in that same spirit of humility.

"This is a tremendous honor; it's breathtaking and humbling," he said. "Our agency has a long history, but our journey is just beginning. For the past five years, we've been positioning ourselves for our next great run."

Michael joined his family's agency in 1991 after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When he became president and chief executive officer in 2006, he said, the agency was still operating as the generalist it had been for the previous 100 years. Van Gilder had a staff of knowledgeable, dedicated employees, and Michael was eager to focus their talent and energy on developing business in carefully selected niche markets where the agency could be the dominant player in each specialty.

Thus began the "Renaissance in the Rockies"—an all-out initiative to rebrand Van Gilder Insurance from a generalist to a specialist while maintaining the character and values of the century-old agency. That renaissance is detailed in the April 2010 issue of Rough Notes, which features Van Gilder Insurance as the Marketing Agency of the Month ("Now the Fun Begins," by Dennis Pillsbury). Here are some highlights of the initiative.

To be considered, each specialty had to meet three criteria. First, it had to be a driver in the economy; second, it must be able to generate revenue of more than $1.5 million; and third, the agency needed to have a full team in place, from sales to account management.

Van Gilder's chosen commercial classes included construction, executive liability, oil and gas, private equity, and professional liability. The agency later added senior housing to the mix and is exploring additional niche markets.

Other areas of specialization are employee benefits and retirement plans as well as personal lines and small business accounts.

Results? Today Van Gilder is one of the top three risk consultants in its market in each of its specialties. Michael is understandably pleased, but the agency continues to go for the gold: becoming the top player in each area.

Van Gilder calls this initiative The Power of V, which, Michael explained, means "the advantage our clients gain by tapping into the high levels of knowledge, innovation, and performance that serve as the context for everything we do."

Key to that endeavor are the 13 new producers who were brought into the agency in the first three years of the renaissance. In recruiting new producers, Michael said, the agency focused on candidates who had sales talent rather than a background in insurance. Once a producer is on board, Van Gilder provides both insurance and sales training and requires the producer to earn the Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) designation.

Was it fun?

Re-engineering, rebranding, refocusing—these are challenging, complex undertakings that demand open minds, flexibility, and lots of old-fashioned hard work.

"One of our goals for our employees is to have fun," Michael said, "and frankly those two years of change were not a lot of fun." As the renaissance began to show results, he commented, employees were energized and motivated to keep at it. "Success is a great catalyst for fun," he said enthusiastically.

Speaking of fun, that's one of Van Gilder's five core values, dating all the way back to 1905. Those values are expressed as a five-word vision statement: Ethics, Family, Balance, Passion, and Fun.

When confronted with a choice, employees are encouraged to take the ethical high road, even when the result is less revenue in the short run. Each employee's family, Michael said, is considered part of the larger Van Gilder "family," and there are strong ties and close friendships among employees.

A convenient downtown location for the agency's new office and a state-of-the-art gym demonstrate Van Gilder's commitment to employee wellness and well-being. In fact, the LEED-certified building is just half a block from Denver's Union Station, where Michael's great-grandfather, Hal, arrived in the city 106 years ago. Now that's coming full circle!

Passion for succeeding in one's specialty is another core value at Van Gilder, and last but by no means least is fun, which, Michael remarked, "is a natural outgrowth of success in the first four areas. Fun grows out of working and playing with people you like."

Praise from fellow agents

Each year, the Rough Notes Marketing Agency of the Year is chosen by vote of the magazine's cover agents from prior years. In presenting this year's award to Michael Van Gilder, Editor in Chief Tom McCoy shared comments made about Van Gilder Insurance by these cover agents, who themselves are top agents.

"Some of those who voted for Van Gilder mentioned their growth, their culture, and their revenue per employee," McCoy said. "One agency owner said that his firm had adopted several ideas from Van Gilder. Another mentioned that she loved seeing an equal number of Van Gilder women and men in senior management and on the cover of the April issue."

"In 2005, Van Gilder Insurance celebrated its 100th anniversary," said Walt Gdowski, president and chief executive officer of The Rough Notes Company. "Not many agencies can look back on such a rich and successful history spanning four generations. We are honored to recognize Van Gilder Insurance as the Rough Notes Marketing Agency of the Year for 2010."

Today Van Gilder has more than 150 employees and total revenue in excess of $40 million. Under the leadership of its fourth generation, the agency is moving confidently forward into the promising future it has worked so hard to create.


Chris Paradiso, Paradiso Financial & Insurance Services, LLC, Stafford, Connecticut; and Paul Murphy, Paul T. Murphy Insurance Agency, Inc., Malden, Massachusetts.
Bob Phelan, Litchfield Insurance Group, Torrington, Connecticut.

Kelly Shepherd, Shepherd Insurance & Financial Services, Carmel, Indiana.


The day after the Marketing Agency of the Year banquet, the Rough Notes Editorial Board assembled for its annual meeting with members of the magazine's editorial staff. Composed of former cover agents, the Editorial Board shares insights into the key issues that are affecting independent agencies' bottom line.
Among the topics that were discussed, and that will be the subjects of feature articles in future issues of the magazine, were:

• Recruiting and hiring new producers, including on-the-job evaluation and mentoring
• Evaluating, monitoring, and supporting veteran producers
• Compensation

• New ways to motivate as workloads increase
• Service innovations: 24/7 availability of information and service
• Flex time and teleworking

Individual business segments
• Commercial lines: How are agents measuring success in the prolonged soft market? What value-added services are agents offering?
• Personal lines: Strategies for profitability
• Employee benefits: Impact of health care reform on the agent's role; adjusting to reduced commissions on life, health, and benefits
Agency operations
• Top to bottom analysis of niche market profitability
• Outsourcing
• E&O limits; how much is enough?
• Investment earnings in a climate of low interest rates
• Contingency commissions: trends and outlook
• Building agency value; progress toward perpetuation; strategies to finance perpetuation

Industry issues
• Recession "hangovers": real estate, construction, financial services
• Old and new sources of competition
• Alternative markets; the New York Insurance Exchange
• Which lines of business are the least soft?

Also ...
• Building relationships in the digital age
• Social networking in business
• Agency culture


The Van Gilder Management Team.


Rough Notes Editor in Chief Tom McCoy (center) presents the 2010 Marketing Agency of the Year award to executives from Van Gilder Insurance, Denver, Colorado. From left are Velma Lane, Executive Vice President--Professional Lines; Michael Van Gilder, CPCU, AAI, President and CEO; Valeria Howard, Senior Vice President--Corporate Risk; and Ed Harrington, Executive Vice President and CFO.


The Account Executives, Account Managers and Account Associates that together comprise the Van Gilder Service Team.


The Producers and Associate Producers gather in the bullpen. Together they comprise the Van Gilder Business Development Team.





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