Guided by heart, woman-owned Connecticut agency thrives
Nearly twenty years ago, Donna Yother took the game-changing step of purchasing SAVA Insurance from the retiring owner, overturning a tradition of male dominance in insurance agency ownership. But her journey to agency ownership—and preparation for her ownership moment—began more than a decade earlier, when she started working part-time “mom hours” while her children were young.
“Technology also allowed us to respond quickly. We have had numerous instances where we were able to have a new client’s policy bound, written and issued before a competitor
got back to them with a quote. That really stands out with the client … ”
President and Owner
Her youngest son had just started first grade, and Donna responded to her changing role—the house was empty and, perhaps, too quiet during the day—by taking a job as a receptionist for a Nationwide agent. As it turns out, the agent was on the road quite a bit. “So, I learned what I could,” she says. “I took it upon myself to learn the Nationwide systems, how to write policies, and more. I really enjoyed learning the business.”
From there Donna saw a bigger opportunity and became a licensed agent. Not long after that, a local independent agency approached her about an opening on its personal lines service team. “I was up for the challenge; I wanted to be able to write more business in the independent agency environment by having multiple companies,” she recalls. She was there for about five-and-a-half years when another local agency was opening an office in another town and recruited her to manage its Waterford location.
“That opportunity offered me yet another great learning experience,” Donna notes. “I learned human resources and developed a strong appreciation for what technology could do to make us more efficient and serve clients more quickly.” When she came on board, she persuaded the agency owner to purchase an agency management system. “We shopped around and decided on an Agena system in 1993,” she recalls. “I was so excited to learn its ins and outs.”
A few years later, the bookkeeper quit. “I was already familiar with the accounting part of the management system, so I volunteered to do that job,” Donna adds, “and the owner took me up on it. I was on salary at the time; if I ever looked at the hours I was working, I definitely was getting paid below minimum wage.”
But she looks at it as part of an invaluable learning experience for when the opportunity to buy the agency came along. “I knew the agency was very profitable, because I paid the bills and saw the previous owner’s expenses,” she adds. So in September 1998, she and a fellow manager purchased the agency and started taking the business in a new direction. In 2014, Donna bought out her partner and became sole owner.
When making the leap to purchase the business, Donna’s family took a financial risk, borrowing a large sum from her husband Dave’s pension to help fund the purchase. This, combined with an SBA loan targeting women-owned businesses, helped make the dream of business ownership a reality.
“From the start,” she recalls, “our family has put its heart into the business and worked to grow it so we could improve the lives of our clients, our community partners, our employees, and the family. The risk and hard work definitely have been worth it.”
One of the first “new owner” changes was consolidating offices into one hub in Waterford. “We had decided to embrace technology, which allowed for us to operate out of one central office,” Donna continues. “We put in a state-of-the-art phone system that let us easily transfer calls to any of our people, whether they were in the office or not. We also shifted from writing non-standard business and focused on writing entire preferred business accounts and growing the personal and commercial lines departments.
“We were looking for long-term relationships with clients—they’re not customers in our world, but clients—where we provide the best service possible and they agree to meet our criteria for excellent risk management,” she adds. “Today, most of our business is preferred. We write about three policies per account, and we’ve been growing by nearly 10% a year.
“Technology also allowed us to respond quickly,” Donna notes. “We have had numerous instances where we were able to have a new client’s policy bound, written and issued before a competitor got back to them with a quote. That really stands out with the client, helping to start off the relationship on the right foot and leading to a strong, long-term relationship.
“We view technology as vital to our success,” she adds. “We’re diligent about keeping our Vertafore system updated and regularly look for other relevant automation tools. But it’s not just so we can be fast. It’s also because doing so lets us provide clients with the best service possible.”
“One of our taglines is ‘SAVA Cares,’ and we think that way in everything that we do,” she explains. “It’s part of the atmosphere that permeates the agency. And we’ve always worked that way.
“I don’t know if it’s because we’re 100% women staffed, but the agency exemplifies what are traditionally seen as feminine attributes,” Donna adds. “We’re nurturing and compassionate, and we care about clients. We get to know their families and go through the good times and bad with them.”
Debbie Yother Kane, vice president and personal lines business development manager, adds, “We’re definitely out in the community. We’ve been supporting local charities for more than 20 years, and we’re not just a name on a check. Our team is out there volunteering and participating in events. And the community remembers that.”
Donna adds, “It’s not unusual to see the SAVA team attending community events two or three times a week.”
“Most of our business is in the community,” Debbie says. “This is our way of giving back, of thanking the community for supporting us. Along the way, we’ve developed strong relationships with our clients, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, attorneys, and other centers of influence who are happy to refer their clients to us because they know that we provide the right advice and excellent service. Our referral program produces between 400 and 500 referrals every year.
“When we sit down with a new personal lines prospect, we tell them right off that we won’t work with minimum limits and we educate them as to why,” she explains. “We advise them on what would be the best coverage for them, and then we provide quote options from the many companies that we represent. We also work to round out the account so we can best protect against any coverage gaps.”
The agency has developed expertise in flood insurance. “That’s because we are located in a shoreline community, and many of our clients are on or near the coast,” Debbie notes. “We stay up to date with the coverage changes that seem to be happening with greater and greater frequency. That way we can be proactive with our clients, advising them of any necessary changes in or additions to coverage that may be necessitated due to legislative or administrative changes in insurance requirements.”
Finding the right niches
Diana Yother Buscetto, vice president and commercial lines business development manager, points out that “commercial lines is a tougher arena than personal lines. There is such a plethora of coverages that are needed to correctly protect a business. And there is a lot of competition. In order for us to compete effectively, we decided to focus on niche marketing and work with our carriers to provide competitive rates and coverage options for our clients.”
One niche focus grew out of her passion for nonprofits. “I love working with them and that became one of our areas of specialty,” Diana explains. “So, we learned everything we could about the insurance needs of nonprofits by talking with nonprofit executive directors and the insurance carriers.
“Our other principal niches are contractors, women-owned businesses, and in-home healthcare, and we’ve taken the same approach there,” she adds. “We’ve become experts.
“At the same time, we’ve cultivated trusted relationships with our carriers where they know that, because of our expertise, we will send them only quality business in these niches,” Diana continues. “We’ve walked away from accounts that weren’t willing to properly manage their risk and purchase the proper coverage.”
Donna notes that Diana recently chose to not write a large account because the potential client was really operating as a general contractor but was being insured through a BOP. “They wanted us to continue to write them in that way and we just wouldn’t do it,” Donna explains.
Stability amid change
“We’re guided by heart,” Donna says, quoting another tagline. “We are proud to lead and think with our hearts first. We take time to truly listen and make the best decisions for our clients based on their unique needs. Our team of insurance professionals will always treat clients the way we want to be treated: with respect, care, and passion.”
In 2016, the agency hired Agency Appeal to help refine and define its brand. “We knew we had something special,” Donna explains. “The branding firm helped make it a reality for our target audiences.
“There are new risks emerging regularly and we try to be proactive in alerting our clients on the need for cyber coverage or increased D&O,” Donna explains. “For example, we’ve worked with many nonprofits and other businesses that hadn’t thought to purchase cyber, employment practices liability and D&O. Times have changed, and organizations need these coverages to protect themselves.
“We’re definitely out in the community. We’ve been supporting local charities for more than 20 years, and we’re not just a
name on a check. Our team is out there volunteering and participating in events. And the community remembers that.”
—Debbie Yother Kane
Vice President and Personal Lines Business Development Manager
“We love and embrace change,” she continues. “But at the same time, we love to provide stability to our clients, and one of the most important displays of stability is our agency as a family-owned business. Our clients love to see my daughters working here and to see my granddaughters working here in the summer. We’re very fortunate to have a strong team with many years of experience in the insurance business.
“The agency has demanded a lot from our family,” Donna says, “and we have given it willingly, because it has provided us with rewards that are much more important than financial—although we appreciate that very much. We’ve sacrificed a lot because we wanted to and, along the way, we’ve had a great deal of fun and built a huge family of client friends.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize SAVA Insurance Group as our Agency of the Month for turning tradition on its head and proving that change is good for the insurance industry.
By Jenny Berner