AGENCY OF THE MONTH
California agency’s niche becomes its mission
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
Tom Cutler started his own agency in 1967 in a prime location—on a card table next to the popcorn machine at Sears—and grew it to a full-service agency of around 30 employees in 20 years. Then he decided to sell the agency, because he realized he wanted to have just one employee. So, in 1987, he sold the agency to MetLife, which wanted to use it to offer its growing property/casualty insurance portfolio.
Well, he sold most of the agency. MetLife didn’t want the church business, which included about 20 houses of worship, so Tom agreed to keep that and started to really focus on the niche. “That turned out to be a great decision,” Tom recalls. “Religious organizations are unique, and they really need an agency that understands and cares about their ministries.
“From the start, I was blessed,” Tom continues. “A lady from our church wanted to be a salesperson, and I agreed to give her an opportunity. She was with me for 15 years and we grew the book to more than 600 churches. She worked just as hard on the local storefront churches as she did on the megachurches, and everybody loved her.
“My son, Charlie Cutler, joined in 1998, and helped bring me into the modern age,” Tom adds, with a chuckle. “The agency was a strictly manual agency until he came on board. He’s a marketing genius, and he’s one of the reasons we insure more than 3,500 ministries in California, Arizona and Nevada.
“Of course, he’s not the only reason,” Tom explains. “The entire staff here is just fantastic. They are as unique as our niche, and every person here shows that they are always willing to go the extra mile to support the ministries that we serve. They all pull together and share our view of this business as being our mission of grace.”
Who really pays premiums
Charlie, who now serves as president of the agency, which along the way became ChurchWest Insurance Services, points out that “we are very aware that insurance premiums are sacrificial gifts paid out of tithes and offerings, and that we are stewards of that. The first step in making certain that we live up to our promise to serve is to make certain that everything we offer is backed by a solid insurance company that specializes in church insurance.
“After the riots sparked by the Rodney King incident in 1991, one insurance company canceled all its church insurance, even though there were no losses; they reacted out of fear,” Charlie adds. “Today, we represent the only two insurance companies that exclusively serve religious nonprofits coast to coast, and we are the primary agency for both companies in California. These carriers understand that churches are part of the community and rarely are targets of violence, even when mob rule is involved.”
In 2002, ChurchWest moved to a new headquarters location in Redlands, California—in a building that started its life in 1905 as a mortuary. Since then, the facility has seen multiple additions and has been built out to now cover around 8,000 square feet. “It’s a great place for our agents to meet with company underwriters, something we try to do at least three times a year,” Charlie says. “Like our marketing to clients, we like to do this in person, but COVID-19 has forced us and our clients to make changes.”
In some ways, these changes have been beneficial. “Church people tend to be traditionalists, and for many, that meant for years their use of the internet had been limited. But that had to change when the pandemic hit. They needed to find new ways to connect with parishioners who could no longer engage in in-person events because of COVID-related guidelines.”
Also, they were required to go online to investigate government-backed loans to cover salaries when staff cuts occurred as a result of limited or no in-person church services. “The pandemic also forced us as an agency to increase our offerings on the internet, to provide easy access to much-needed information on the legal and risk management concerns of our ministries,” Charlie explains.
Information sharing and education have been an important part of the agency’s niche focus. “We first started having conferences for our clients and prospects around the same time that we moved into the new building,” Charlie explains. “One of the first presenters was Richard Hammar, author of Pastor, Church & Law.” Richard is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy. He is a graduate of Harvard Law and Harvard Divinity School.
“When COVID hit, we offered a webinar hosted by Richard that attracted 14,000 people,” Charlie notes. “That really showed us how our marketing reach could be expanded substantially through the internet. Our in-person conferences often attracted more than 250 people and we were extremely happy with how our first online offering was received.”
Benefits becomes key offering
Ryan Lucht joined the agency about 10 years ago to head up a fledgling benefits department. “Before I joined,” Ryan says, “benefits products were offered as an accommodation, but were not part of the agency’s overall strategy. I’m pleased that in my 10 years here, that has changed to the point where benefits now account for approximately 20% of our revenue.
“We’re lucky in California to have a competitive benefits market,” he continues, “so we have the opportunity to search through a number of options whenever we are asked by a ministry to provide a program that fits their budget. And, because of our size, we have been able to create some exclusive programs.
“I normally go in after the property/casualty producer and find that there is a willingness and a desire to offer benefits to church employees, but there is not always the financial wherewithal to do so,” Ryan explains. “When we sit down with a ministry that wants to start or replace an existing program, our goal is to come in under their budget, while at the same time providing coverage that is at least as good as what they currently have, although we really hope to be able to enhance coverage while reducing costs.
“We are aware that anything a church spends with us reduces what is available to the ministry for its primary mission to further the Kingdom,” he notes. “We are very cognizant of the need to use the money from tithing and contributions as efficiently as possible. I view this as my ministry and service to the church world.
“This also is why our department is built around service. We provide our phone numbers (business and personal) to any of our clients and offer to respond to any benefits questions that arise. We want to serve as their benefits department if that is what they want. At many ministries, benefits is just one of many hats that an individual within the church may wear, so we’re happy to remove that burden.”
Still growing, despite COVID-19
“I walked into this job 13 months ago,” notes Sales Manager Dave Bloodgood, “several months after I spoke to Charlie about my availability. I had met him at a ChurchWest Annual Ministry HR Boot Camp, where the agency brings in an HR consultant and California attorney to provide updates on legal and HR changes in California. You could tell he was sincere about ChurchWest and its mission.
“The agency just struck me as the place to be, especially for me and my style of sales management,” he adds. “I tend to be the familial type of sales manager, getting to know and becoming friends with the people who I work with. Both Tom and Charlie have fostered that kind of atmosphere here, so I was able to start off without having to worry about fitting in.
“The familial approach also extends to the way I ask my producers to relate with clients,” Dave adds, “and that was already in place, as well. One of the most successful marketing efforts, for example, was introduced by Charlie. He has his sales guys make and then deliver handmade cookies to our clients and prospects.
“This continues in a big way at Christmastime when our people make dozens and dozens of cookies that go out to clients,” he explains. “Our producers don’t rely on business cards; the cookies do the introductions.
“Of course, the pandemic limited our ability to meet in person with clients and prospects, but that didn’t stop us from staying in contact and helping them with their concerns,” Dave notes. “We’ve increased our webinars and other communications, focusing entirely on concerns that have been raised by COVID and the new relationship churches have with the government.
“We let people know we’re here to help and answer any questions they may have,” he adds. “We’ve received and responded to a record number of calls and emails from both clients and non-clients. We believe that we are here to serve the community, so we respond to all requests, regardless of their status vis-a-vis the agency.
“We are very fortunate that many of our churches are doing as well as or even better than they were before the pandemic,” Dave says. “This is part of the reason we hit our goal this year. The other part is that people in our niche are coming to us, looking for expertise because of the disruptions that have been brought about by the pandemic.
“I worked in the secular industry for 20 years before joining ChurchWest,”he says. “I can honestly say this has been a wonderful change, and I plan on staying here for as long as they’ll have me.”
Taking care of staff
Andrea Saputo, operations direct-or, keeps the office functioning while the producers are out meeting with clients or, more recently, contacting clients and prospects virtually. “Before I joined the agency 10 years ago, it never really occurred to me that churches needed insurance,” Andrea admits. “I’m really glad they do, because it means that I get to work at a place that really cares. I love it here.
“Tom and Charlie are really passion-ate about what they do, and that enthuses the entire staff,” she explains. “It makes my job easier. I oversee a staff of around 25 internal people, all of whom want to do their job to the best of their ability, because they also share the mission of helping ministries succeed.
“The pandemic gave me a real understanding of what can happen when we all pull together and want to help each other,” Andrea adds. “We did not have a plan for working from home. Our IT guy, Ray, was toying with Amazon Workspaces for our producers when we got the news about the shutdown. We were having a staff meeting at the time, and I asked him if he could tweak it to allow our staff to work from home. He immediately got to work on it, developed a framework, and started training people to use it in a matter of days.
“We also have a robust benefits plan for employees that includes profit sharing, a regular pension plan for selected staff and a 401(k) plan,” Andrea explains. Charlie has made it clear that he wants everyone to be able to retire comfortably when they reach that point. The profit sharing goes directly into the 401(k) plan so that younger employees who choose not to contribute still start building equity.
“That really reflects their attitude about taking care of people,” she notes.
Rough Notes is pleased to recognize a true niche player that has become an important partner with its market. ChurchWest boasts some $55 million in premium and has enjoyed steady organic growth of 10% or better. They richly deserve recognition as our Agency of the Month.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based insurance freelance writer.