Editor’s note: Mike Christian, a 40-year veteran of the insurance industry, founded Risk Strategies in 1997. After growing the company into one of the largest and most prestigious specialty insurance brokerages in the United States, he is shifting gears - relinquishing the CEO seat to take a position as Executive Chairman. Here, he reflects on his time at the helm, giving thanks and looking toward the future.
What are you most proud of about Risk Strategies?
The thing that is most striking to me is how many great people we have in the company, both those who have been here from the beginning and helped build the foundation of Risk Strategies, and the new generation of people that will take the company into the future. I’m proud that the business is still very much client-centric, has a strong reputation as a specialty broker and the momentum to remain a meaningful stand-alone organization for years to come.
Can you share the journey of creating Risk Strategies?
At the beginning, it was just me in a start-up consulting business. The work at that point was so entrepreneurial and focused on creating a meaningful value proposition for clients and employees. At that stage, I was only thinking about growth and survival. We had to be scrappy and pay attention to one transaction at a time, crafting tangible value for clients, generating positive cash flow and recruiting top talent.
It’s so different today, with over 1,600 employees, 70+ offices and 100K clients, that sometimes I can’t believe it’s the same company! Most founders would say that the skill set needed for starting a company is so different than managing it once it has scaled up. That’s the founder’s dilemma and why it’s unusual for a founder to remain at a company once it has grown into a mature, national firm. Fortunately, we have strong leaders with the expertise and energy necessary to lead this much larger firm into the future.
What was your greatest challenge in building the firm?
Being able to maintain and nurture the culture of the company, its creativity, and client focus; retaining those qualities that made us successful in the beginning is the biggest challenge in a growth organization. What motivated me to create Risk Strategies was a desire to be different than the bigger, global brokers, where it’s easy to feel disenfranchised and disconnected from your clients. In the beginning, the question was: could we build something that was different and special? The answer was yes. As we grew the question became: how can we retain those fundamentals that made the company special at the outset?
I recently came across the original Risk Strategies business plan from 1997, and it’s amazing how similar the language is to what we say now. We’re still focused on bringing quality people into the organization, being client-centric, and providing creative risk and insurance solutions. We’ve maintained that specialty focus by going deep into our clients’ businesses and understanding where we can add value through great service and an emphasis on managing their overall cost of risk. That’s what made us successful then, and they are the same things that make us successful now.
What lessons have you learned from your 22 years at Risk Strategies that you want to share with others?
Communication, communication, communication…. Its importance cannot be underestimated, a lesson I’ve learned time and time again. Most of our challenges and issues stem from ineffective or non-existent communication. Understanding each other’s perspective is so vital.
I’ve also learned not to assume that the companies and people that join Risk Strategies will embrace change and willingly become part of a national broker. It’s easy to think that the benefits of joining Risk Strategies will be evident to all, but not everyone immediately embraces joining a larger organization. Resistance to change is stronger than we often understand. Implementing an effective integration process that gets people working together, sharing resources and being collaborative is critical. We’re much better at it now, but it requires a continuous focus.
Finally, as a leader I’ve learned that words really matter. What you say and how you say it is so important, whether in writing, casual conversation or meetings. People listen to leaders, so you have to be thoughtful and careful with the words you choose.
Why are you stepping down?
I’m at a point in life and career where I am no longer the future of the company and we’ve reached a time in the evolution of a company where it’s appropriate for the next generation to step in. We have a leadership team that’s ready, capable and eager to make their mark. We’ve been moving toward this for a few years, and the time is now right for a transition. John Mina is ready to move into the CEO role, and I look forward to the positive impact he and his team will have on the future of our organization.
What level of involvement will you continue to have?
As Chairman, I’ll be actively involved. Working with our private equity partner, I’ll continue to help the company by looking at other avenues of growth and by being a senior advisor. I will also be focusing more time on our specialties and the overall client experience.
How have you seen the insurance industry change in your time in the field?
The biggest change is the advent of private equity. At Risk Strategies, we’ve been on the cutting edge of that and a beneficiary of it. Private equity is changing the landscape of insurance distribution by helping to spur consolidation, and by bringing a level of sophistication and financial discipline to the business. Insurance brokerage isn’t the sleepy little local business it was in the past.
I also think that technology, while it hasn’t transformed our business, has increased the velocity of our day-to-day activities. Our clients have increased pressure to perform and as a consequence, have greater expectations for meaningful advice and quick responses.
In other ways, the industry hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still a relationship business grounded on the interactions of brokers, carriers and their clients. Our clients still demand top notch service and want real value from the relationship with their broker. The drive for growth, bringing in and servicing new clients that was prevalent back when I started, still permeates our business efforts today.
What is your vision for Risk Strategies’ future?
I hope the company remains a privately held, stand-alone firm. I want Risk Strategies to continue to be known as the top specialty broker in the country… and maybe in the world. I also hope that we’re known as the employer of choice everywhere we do business, with a strong and nurturing culture that truly cares about its employees.