My dad worked as a surety underwriter, so I kind of learned about the business by osmosis. By the time I graduated college in 2000 with a degree in business, my father had left his underwriting job and started his own small surety agency. When he suggested I join him and his two other employees, I sensed a good ground-floor opportunity. I took the courses to get certified and signed on.
Life seemed to be right on track. I had a new condo and was engaged. Then, in the fall of 2002, my father was hit with a serious, unexpected medical condition. By the end of the year, the business was folded, and my father was out of the picture.
Scrambling with bills to pay, I incorporated JW Surety Bonds on January 30, 2003. With one employee, I quickly rented office space and began prospecting.
That scramble to keep myself afloat turned out to be a great long-term advantage. Everyone goes after contract bonds for the bigger premiums, but I couldn’t be picky. I’d write any type. No bond is too small. That approach got me into the black for the first year and set me up for bigger things when my brother, Mike, and his computer science degree, joined as a partner in 2005.
Harnessing Mike’s computer skills, we shook-up old-school Surety by putting our business on the web’s leading edge. We created robust content to educate newbie buyers and streamlined the application process with digitized, smart forms, dramatically reducing approval times. Licensing in all 50 states meant business surged with our web traffic. We quickly outgrew our office space and purchased our own building.
Our digital processes helped scale while keeping loss ratios low. In 2009, we were granted binding authority. This further reduced the client’s time to bonding and we ran a tight underwriting ship to keep losses low and maintain carrier trust.
Tech savvy and 11 years younger, my brother Eric joined as a partner about this time. With Eric amplifying our online marketing efforts, we created our own self-service surety cloud software to efficiently handle the growing client volume.
Innovation built success and a market-leader reputation. By 2016, I was getting regular calls from M&A advisory firms asking about selling. My immediate answer was no. I was having too much fun with my brothers.
And then came COVID.
When the pandemic hit, I knew our team could handle the challenge. The stress and uncertainty of the times, however, got me thinking about the future of the business. From continuity and operational support to employee career paths, being part of a larger organization offered real upside potential. Also, having over 35,000 clients and no real way to engage them beyond surety bonds felt like an untapped opportunity.
I had a lot of questions about how it could work. So, in the Spring of 2021, I felt an M&A pitch from a top 10 broker. It was educational but didn’t feel like a fit.
After a record 2021, I laid out my thoughts on selling to Mike and Eric in January 2022. I told them, we didn’t have to sell, but we should see what the options looked like. Nothing is more expensive than regret. I was relieved to hear they agreed. I was tapped to take the lead.
In March of 2022, I told our M&A advisor what we wanted: A great working environment and future for our employees and the ability to work hands-on with people we liked while putting rocket boosters on the business. I wasn’t ready to take a check and hit the beach – not by a long shot.
During video interviews with prospective buyers in September of 2022, I did most of the talking while Mike took reams of notes about what each company said about themselves. A spreadsheet grid we created categorized candidates on 20 different attributes.
By late October we had 10 Letters of Intent. Based on advice from a longtime business mentor, I asked not to see the terms before we had conversations with our finalists. It had to be about more than the money. Four we ruled out as not being a good fit. Of the remaining six, Risk Strategies was at the top, and had been from the start.
From the beginning Risk Strategies beat the drum about the company’s culture and customer-first focus. They made it clear they understood that knowledgeable, empowered employees who enjoy their work are key to serving the client and growing the business.
Risk also had a longer track record than the other top contender, had a bunch of great specialty capabilities, and an existing Surety practice headed by people who I knew were really good. We also saw our Surety capabilities were highly complementary to Risk’s existing practice. We could help take its business to a new level. We could be meaningful contributors to success, not just a revenue add-in.
What we found after the close was exactly what was presented to us. Integration was seamless. With Risk Strategies, what you see is what you get. They are who they say they are.