Knowledge Center

Knowledge Center Items Podcast Episode 38

How to Focus on the Right Things When You Grow

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How to Focus on the Right Things When You Grow

It's always a good thing when your agency has more business than it did before.

However, as good of a problem that is to have, there are definitely new things you need to handle at each level.

That's where adopting a rapid change mentality can really help support the agency's added weight.

Because what used to be important might not matter to as many people now.

Dan Lau, Vice President of Operations at Roberts Ryan & Associates, talks about everything that you need to pay attention to when your agency starts going in different directions.

For more Change Insurance episodes, click here.

Joey Giangola: Mr. Dan Lau, how you doing today, sir?

Dan Lau: Doing good, Joey, it's great to see you again, even if it's not in person. But it's been awhile.

Joey Giangola: It indeed has been a while, Dan. I appreciate seeing you, as well. I love the new look. I have to say before we really jump into it, Dan, I got to know this, because I feel like you might have an interesting answer, but is there something around this time of year, as things start to wrap up and close up, that you get the urge to do every year for some reason?

Dan Lau: Yeah. It's shave my beard off and have a mustache for about a week. It's been going on about a three or four year tradition now, with my company's holiday party. Every year, I try to one up it. First year, it was just a mustache. Second year, it was a mustache and a holiday suit. Last year, it was a mustache and I was dyed red and green with the holiday suit. So this year, had to take a year off. But it is a fun tradition that I've enjoyed here.

Joey Giangola: Wow, you took it way zanier than I anticipated, Dan. I thought maybe organizing some Post-it notes might be on the list. But I mean, full on. Have you gone twirly handlebar mustache, or have you ever attempted that?

Dan Lau: Never attempted that, no. But I did see there's lights in people's beards now, which maybe could be an option for next year.

Joey Giangola: You never know. I guess I didn't realize that this was a tradition. I usually get the urge to just rearrange or straighten up cable, do the thing on my desk, like really, "Oh man, we'll make this awesome for the year." Even buying like a little hook to hang my headphones on is life-changing for me.

Dan Lau: I usually like to put that after 1/1. I think there's the 1/1 hangover, and so once you get to that 1/1 point in time, you have the first couple of weeks in January, you close out the year that first week. Weeks two and three, you have an opportunity to just clean up everything, email, follow up on phone calls, set some goals for the next year. I let the holidays and all that dust settle, and I tackle those things in the new year.

Joey Giangola: I like that, easing into it, like you said, just easing back into it. I might have to steal that from you, Dan.

Dan Lau: Sure.

Joey Giangola: What's going on in terms of the cleanup front from insurance? What are you guys doing? How have things been, I guess, over the last couple of years in general? Obviously, this last one has been more interesting than most. What are you guys doing, seeing, that is kind of exciting that you're planning to gear up for and just shake things up a little bit?

Dan Lau: Shaking things up next year, I think, is going to be difficult. There's going to be a lot of, see what unfolds next year for us. I say that because there's some interesting predictions out there with what is going to happen with rates and exposures, depending on how much small business you have, what larger accounts. For us right now at the agency, we're really looking to make sure our clients feel comfortable with where they're going next year, and what their insurance program looks like, and that they're getting comfortable rates, and that we're seeing capacity issues on different classes of business that are being reduced. So we're having to go to market a lot earlier than we would have normally. We're really trying to just be more proactive with a shift that's going on, I think, in the insurance marketplace, than we would have had to have been in previous years, to do with being more of a soft market.

Joey Giangola: Yeah. What does that preparation look like? How are you communicating that throughout all the different agents? Is there a company-wide approach, or you're letting each person have their own personal spin on it? What does that look like?

Dan Lau: Yeah. Our strategy as an agency is really to arm our agents. Since we have the independent contractor model, we try to arm our agents with as much information as possible. Then we work with them with providing them some internal resources with our marketing department, myself and a few others here, is to say, they can then come to us and talk about how they want to take that to their clients. We offer company-wide webinars, but then we also might offer more individually focused webinars. If we have a larger client that wants to do something with one of our producers, we might focus on webinars that way, and do some specialized communication with them.

Joey Giangola: Yeah. And you mentioned the independent contractor model. That's one that I've been fascinated with since I think we first got a chance to meet. Break that down. Has that changed or evolved at all over the last couple of years? Is it still the tried and true bread and butter that you guys are known for?

Dan Lau: The model really hasn't changed. I think when we first talked about it, we probably were more focused on, say, individual agents that would come in. We have expanded that model slightly to now have some groups come in where we have, I'll call it a senior producer, that has maybe some junior producers underneath them, help driving sales. So we've expanded that model a little bit. Geographically, we've expanded. We're, I'm trying to think how many states we're in now, we're in probably about 10 states and looking to expand again, probably in early January or early February into some, a couple of additional states in the Midwest. It's given us some, a little more freedom when we added these agencies as groups, versus just looking for maybe an individual agent that was looking either to unplug from another group, or possibly looking just to team up with us.

Joey Giangola: Yeah. I would have to imagine that that opened your possibilities up to working with just a bunch of different people that maybe had those people that they didn't want to be behind. What was the moment that that clicked? Like, "Oh, maybe can make this work for just a handful of people to bring on actual teams of people, to really kick things off?"

Dan Lau: Well, about three years ago, we brought in a CEO from outside the insurance industry. Basically that gave us a fresh perspective on what we were doing and how we needed to look at growing. Given his background, it's just allowed us to be a little bit more flexible and look at things differently. He doesn't get scared of complexity. He basically embraces it and tries to figure out how to make it work. We have had to modify some of our independent contractor agreements to fit that new model, but it's been great for us. I think it's only going to help us long-term. Because internally having these junior producers come in, it continues to create another layer of perpetuation that we will have. We still are an older industry and I'd say, unfortunately, Robertson Ryan continues to skew a little bit older than that average. But we have brought in some youth and there's some new blood there that can take us into the future and help us keep growing.

Joey Giangola: Again, it's been about, I would say, boy, coming on up on maybe two-and-a-half, maybe three years since we last sat down and had a conversation like this. What do you think has maybe changed in the, outside of the obvious, but what do you think has maybe changed from that producer outlook to where, the type of business they were going after, to what people are really looking to accomplish today?

Dan Lau: Our approach to generating sales is very individualized at our agency. We're trying to be a, the trusted advisor, just like everybody in the insurance industry. When we get to our individual producers, they each go to market differently and what that means to them. I think in the past, they were really looking at, "Hey, I'm going to build a relationship and a strong relationship with a client, and I'm going to make sure that I meet their insurance needs." We continue to add different avenues through the agency to provide resources now. We have a 401(k) offering, which I know isn't anything unique, but it's something that was new to Robertson Ryan. We have a premium finance company, which now allows us to work with our agent-owners, as well as the clients that don't want to deal with a higher percentage rate with some of the standard premium finance companies. We've partnered with some HR firms. We continue to do some investments with different technologies and vet those out and see what is necessary for the client.

So I think from that three years ago, I think that was where we're at, and now what people have done is, been able to take those tools and provide additional resources to the clients and additional value and expertise that maybe you can't get with every independent agent on the street. I think now, so more than ever, we also are providing some backroom expertise with all of the craziness that is going on, whether it's a PPP loan, things related to the pandemic, and now we're putting together resources for our clients, related to the vaccine and what that means for people. People are starting to really pivot away from just trying to provide an insurance product to them or an insurance solution, and look at, "Hey, how can I really help your business?" Which I know that's not groundbreaking, but it's a little bit more of a different approach that I think we looked at in the past.

Joey Giangola: Well, I think the overall structure of the company, too, plays a part in that. Just because, like you said, it was all this little individual pockets of independent contractors. I'm kind of curious how your role has evolved in that time period, as well. And I think also, too, speak to your experience, I guess, herding the cats, maybe, in some way, shape or form.

Dan Lau: Sure.

Joey Giangola: To somebody that might be looking to expand their agency and consider different ways to do that, what have you seen in comparison to the way that Robertson Ryan does it versus a traditional agency model, where everybody's brought in, in-house, all of that fun stuff, in a little bit of a different way?

Dan Lau: First, I would tell you, I wish that all the independent contractors were employees. Because it's basically do it or get out, kind of thing. That's extreme, but herding cats is difficult. You get pulled in a lot of directions because, one, so we have about 120 producers. One of them may find value in this offering that we've put together, and the other 119 are just like, "I don't care." So now we've invested all this time and energy in trying to make this offering work for somebody, and it doesn't go as we would like. So we continue to try to build consensus amongst the group to make sure that we are focusing our efforts on the right things, as the agency as a whole, and not just something that is very individualized. Because we've expanded outside of Wisconsin, I think actually we now have over 30% of our employees and producers are outside of the state of Wisconsin.

We definitely had to look at things differently, and make sure that we're not just focused on things that are in Southeastern Wisconsin, because that's not important to someone that's in Arizona or Nevada. I know that seems easy, but as an agency, when you start growing rapidly like that, we had to change things. I mean, change things as simple as just having a different distribution list within our email system, so people don't get blasted by news, that's happening in our Milwaukee headquarters and "Hey, there's going to be a protest on the street, make sure you get out of here before that time," type of thing. We've just really had to become more nationally focused and not just so Midwest focused.

Joey Giangola: Now you've got me interested, Dan. I kind of want to know, like you said, the different offerings, what does that process look like then, to really jump into, "Well should we go this route? What carriers do we bring on? What products do we want to focus on?" I can imagine that's got to be an intense democratic process. If it is one, how do you make any progress in that area?

Dan Lau: It's very difficult. If you talk to any of the software firms that try to sell us products, you'll know how difficult it is. But for us, when our CEO came in, one of the things that he implemented was an agency council. So the way we're structured is, we're owned by a group of shareholders. There's a board that provides us direction. And then there's the management team. From the management team, what we do is, we start out vetting new ideas and concepts, and then we take them to this agency council. The agency council is made up of a few of our shareholders, as well as non shareholders. We'll bring ideas to that group, talk them out, debate them, see what makes sense. If on that group, it goes nowhere, generally, we're deciding probably not to focus our time on it. But if they see interest and they want us to explore it a little more, we'll keep digging into it and possibly make an investment for that new offering.

That has seemed to work pretty good, because that group consists of about 15 people. If we have 15 kind of, I'll say, strong, independent contractors that are out there selling and growing their book, that just builds momentum enough where everybody follows and comes onboard with the idea.

Joey Giangola: I don't know if you have the answer to this question off the top of your head, or at least just in some sort of general thought or idea, but with everybody having, being very encouraged to be, like you said, individual, they have their own way thinking, they control their book of business in a way most agents don't, is there an area of business that you find that most agents just gradually naturally default to, like selling a lot of? Do you see any sort of a, "These are the things that we sell pretty consistently, no matter where we're bringing people on?" Or is it really just, 5% here? 2% there? Is a little more scattered?

Dan Lau: That really depends on the agent, I think. Because, we do have agents that are niche-focused, and what people are doing in different niches tends to have similar results. But for the most part, most of our agents are main street generalist type agents. Some of them stay in their lane and other ones are comfortable getting outside of it a little bit. I don't know that I would say I see anything consistently across the board.

Joey Giangola: All right, Dan, then give me something, is there something that you have seen that has peaked your interest, saying, "I think I like where this is heading. I like what I've seen from maybe a small group of agents"? Is there something that's really stood out to you that looks promising, that you think maybe should deserve a little more attention?

Dan Lau: So you want our secret sauce, Joey?

Joey Giangola: I mean, not the whole-

Dan Lau: I'm just kidding.

Joey Giangola: Just maybe some salt and pepper, a little ketchup.

Dan Lau: Yeah. I tend to answer that question as like, we don't, at least here, we don't over-complicate things in terms of coming up with this great philosophy on how we sell insurance or how we convince our clients on what to buy. Our main focus has always been, and I think will continue to be for the foreseeable future is, it's still going to be relationship-driven. The only thing that has really changed in our model and had some agents adapt, is that, it's the way they're interacting with clients now. That has been, I think, the difference-maker. Which, I know we're all adapting in this day and age, with video meetings and email blasts, podcast, whatever it is. But the people, at least here at Robertson Ryan, that have adapted to trying to reach out to a client in a different format and embraced it, seem to be making deeper connections than other people that are still relying on some of that old-school of philosophy. I don't even know if that's salt and pepper. That's just a crumb that fell off the edge of the table, but that's what's going on here.

Joey Giangola: Well, maybe next time we'll get to something like a Hollandaise sauce, potentially.

Dan Lau: There we go.

Joey Giangola: But maybe next time. This question might seem simple, but I don't know if it is. What do you think makes a great relationship?

Dan Lau: That's a simple, great question though. In insurance, it is... actually, I'll just say in life, to me, it's all about trust. It's all about having your business partner, your client, your vendor, trust who you are. I'll relate it back to underwriting. Underwriting, as an agent, you're constantly trying to get them to bend the rules or operate in that gray space versus being held to some underwriting rule where you're not going to really get something done. If underwriters don't trust you for the information you're giving them, or what you're saying is going to happen down the road, they're probably not going to bend that guideline for you.

I also think that goes true with your client. Your client needs to know that, "My business is in good hands." Fundamentally what we're doing is, we're protecting their largest asset, their business, their home, those type of things. They need to be able to trust you, that you're getting them the best product out there, that in the event of that loss, they're going to be able to be put back to whole again. If you're not able to build that trust and that credibility, or have the client have confidence in you, it just, it isn't going to work. That relationship will... it's going to be surface-deep and they're going to leave you before you can ever have a long-term relationship with them, I guess. That's what I think.

Joey Giangola: I'm going to go for one more simple, maybe difficult question. What is your preferred way to build that trust?

Dan Lau: I like to do what I say I'm going to do, would be the first thing. And then the next thing, coming through for them when it matters. Right out of the gate, I think it's pretty difficult to tell people, tell clients, "Hey, I've got you. Here's my track record. This is why you should trust me." Some people get that, but until they get to know you and they have an experience where you can come through for them, that's usually, I think that moment where it seals the deal of like, "Hey, this is a great relationship. I know Dan has my back. I know he's going to get this done for me when the time matters."

Joey Giangola: I can say for sure that I can vouch for the first part of that. I'm pretty sure you do what you say you're going to do Dan. We don't know each other that well, but I can go on record, and I think I can put that out on the record. Again, I got three more questions for you.

Dan Lau: Okay.

Joey Giangola: We're going to keep them simple, still. The first one, I got to know, what's one thing that you hope you never forget?

Dan Lau: Good question. What if I told you there's things that I've already lost sight of a little bit, that I wish I could get back. But I just want to make sure that I never forget all of the people along the way that has helped me get through life, get through my career, get to where I'm at, because I'm very thankful for them. I will tell you that I've made many mistakes along the way and had to have been picked up and helped. And those people, I just, I always want to make sure that I never forget them. I owe them a lot of thanks for helping me grow up and become who I am.

Joey Giangola: All right, Dan. I'm kind of curious. I want to know, I'm going to break format here, I'm going to add in a question here, what are the things that you've [inaudible 00:20:23]? You brought it up. We got to go there.

Dan Lau: I have two kids. This is more on a personal level, not on a professional level, but the two kids. And then you have children, as well. So you know that going in and the birth of your first one is amazing, and the birth of your second one is, is great, and however many kids you have, they're all amazing. But there's details of that night or that morning that I will tell you have slipped away. I'm like, "I either should have wrote them down or I should have taken a video about it," because I felt like those moments where it was so incredible that I never want to forget any second of it. I know that there's little details that I have missed out on now that I probably will not get back, or I need to talk to my children's mother to make sure that she can keep me in the loop on them. That's just one example.

Joey Giangola: I guess maybe I'll get you a video camera for Christmas, Dan, a nice, good one. We'll get you all set up and maybe some editing software, and we'll get you high flying and all that. All right. The original second question in the sequence is on the other side of what have you hope you don't forget. What's one thing that you still have yet to learn?

Dan Lau: That was a good one. One of the things I think I strive to be is a great coach and a great leader. I'm learning how to be a good coach with my kids and with my colleagues at work. I'm also striving to become a great leader. I know that, in sitting in meetings with other people that I look up to and that are in positions of leadership, I know that I'm not where I need to be. I know that I've got a long way to go to learn and master those two things. But yeah, I would say I look forward to getting better at those two.

Joey Giangola: There's nothing like noticing that little bit of, that little tiny moment of, "Wow, that was great leadership," if you're able to recognize it, right around the moment. All right, Dan, last question to you, sir. If I were to hand you a magic wand of sorts to reshape change, alter, speed up, really do whatever you want with insurance in any way, shape, or form, what's that thing? Where is it going? And what is it doing?

Dan Lau: My magic wand would be, can we get through all of the figuring out what technology is going to win? There are so many great offerings right now with InsureTech companies that are here to support the independent agents that you're constantly vetting them out. You're exploring new ones and it's uncertain which one is going to win out. Maybe they all win out, but it's, for me and at the firm, when we're looking at these new options, we try to understand, which one do we put the most amount of time into, and which one would make sense for us as an agency? It's hard to make that answer or find that answer. It would just be nice to be like, take that magic wand, fast forward five years, whatever it is, and say, "Oh, that was the right one," and go from there.

Joey Giangola: Dan this has been fantastic. I'm going to leave it right there, sir.

Dan Lau: All right. Thank you, Joey. This was great.

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