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While attending college in the mid-90s I’d worked selling individual life for Northwestern Mutual as a licensed college agent. So, when I graduated, it might have seemed natural to join my dad’s agency. He’d started his own agency after working for Blue Cross. Being young, however, I thought I’d just set the world on fire blazing my path in the business.
That changed in 1995. After about a year of selling to individuals, I found myself increasingly disillusioned with the grind. When my dad said he could use some help servicing his group accounts, I went on salary with him. But I stuck with individual life. No interest in group benefits.
My interest was changed in 1996 after helping my dad with a marketing push using a provider network offering. That push landed an account that paid a $13,000 commission, which my dad was splitting 50/50 with me. At the time, that overall commission represented an enormous amount of money to me. It opened my eyes. From there on out, I was headlong into the group benefits business.
Building the business from there was straightforward – a lot of phone calls and a lot of meetings.
In 2000, we merged with Jeff Holland’s business focused on life insurance and disability, individual life and disability. We only dabbled in those lines, so bringing him in gave us a fuller capability.
With fuller capabilities, the newly created HollandStivers forged ahead, holding its own when times got tough and even growing a fair amount by the time my dad retired in 2015. A few years later, with Jeff nearing the end of his career, we unwound the merger.
The passing of the torch seemed like the time to shake things up and try some out-of-the-box ideas I’d been contemplating for a while. I always wanted a chance in business to make my own mistakes. Now, I was on my own and able to call my bluff.
We couldn’t scale if I was an indispensable part of every deal. So, I decided to bring in people so good they’d make me almost irrelevant to our sales and service process. We hired more producers and got vocal about telling the market our story. We tried new things, like HR consulting and payroll services. Some things worked, some didn’t, but by 2020, revenue had tripled.
Our success, however, brought a sense we were bumped up against our ceiling. Being local became less of an advantage as larger brokers who weren’t local were winning business. For groups of 30, 40 lives, and 100 lives, we had almost everything clients needed. Competing bigger required all the bells and whistles which we couldn’t bring in-house at any kind of reasonable cost.
Our local market maxed out and needing lots of resources to go bigger, being part of a larger organization seemed the logical move. We could then compete, serve customers better and grow while making it possible for our people to advance in their careers. When a business friend mentioned he’d sold, I had a conversation with the outfit that bought his agency. It sounded good, but I knew better than to jump at a first offer.
Having been approached many times about selling, and sensing my children weren’t sure about taking on the business, I connected with a consistently persistent representative of a well-established insurance M&A advisory firm out of New York City. Over two months, they conducted a thorough interview focused on what I wanted in a buyer, put together a detailed prospectus on us, and lined up 11 private equity-backed brokerage firms.
We did interviews with each of the 11 firms by video conference for a week. The conversation with the Risk Strategies team was very impressive. I liked the people. We were really on the same wavelength. They had a “let’s not complicate this” approach to the whole process. They had done their homework and had a clear idea of where we fit into their organization, what we needed to build greater success, and how being part of Risk Strategies would help us do that.
Of the 11 firms, seven ended up making offers. The Risk Strategies team was one of the last interviews but the first to come back with an offer. I took that as a great sign. It told me their interest was genuine. There were one or two higher offers, but the Risk Strategies offer was very, very competitive and I like to go with my gut.
The Risk Strategies team had told me before the deal that they’d want us to continue doing what we do best. After the deal got done, I found that to be true. The integration went fine and now I’m back focused on selling because that’s what’s needed. I have a bigger team behind me mapping the road ahead.