Tom Minkler believes independent agents need to tread new ground in order to thrive. And for him, that’s nothing new.
His mother was the first woman in Massachusetts to solely own an independent agency.
He defies conventional wisdom by being bullish on personal lines for an agency with $6.5 million in revenue.
While many agents lament they can’t compete for good hires, his agency was named the “Best Company to Work For” in the small business category by Business New Hampshire magazine.
And in his association work, he has one of only a few agents who has served as president of two different state associations.
“I don’t think the local independent agent is in danger of becoming extinct, but we have to evolve,” says Minkler.
And he plans to help agents do just that.
Family Agency Roots
When Minkler’s parents started an independent agency, “everyone told them they were nuts for doing it,” he says. But a few years later, he joined his brother Tim jumping in to Minkler Insurance Agency in Stockbridge, Mass.—then run by only four family members—for a number of years, expanding it over time. “That agency started in a basement,” Minkler says. “I lived the challenges of starting a business and growing it. That background serves me well when talking to members.”
Minkler says his parents were always very attuned to the need for a transition plan to pass the agency on to the next generation. When his parents retired, they sold the agency to their sons as sole stockholders.
Minkler can relate to the daily demands of the family business—a common dynamic for many independent agencies. “Running a small, family-run agency has its own set of challenges,” Minkler says. “Not only are you trying to compete with bigger agencies, but you’re trying to manage the family dynamic at the same time.”
The brothers ran Minkler Insurance until a second marriage took Tom away from the agency and he moved to New Hampshire. The agency was eventually sold to a larger entity, and Tom’s brother continues to work there today.
For Minkler, the family agency experience also reinforced the unique value family businesses can provide to customers. “I think one of the things that family agencies have a leg up on the very large agencies out there is that they are able to provide a level of personal service that is unparalleled,” Minkler says.
Thinking Outside the Box
In contrast, the agency Minkler joined as a partner with his wife Heather and others almost 14 years ago, enables him to relate to agencies at the opposite end of the size spectrum. Categorized as a large agency based on Big “I” demographic data, Clark- Mortenson based in Keene, N.H. has 7 locations in New Hampshire and Vermont, 55 employees and $6.5 million in revenue.
But the agency is a bit of an anomaly in that 45–47% of revenue is personal lines, which Minkler concedes is rather unusual for a larger agency. “We’re bullish on personal lines,” Minkler says. “We think not only there is a place for it, but it is a stabilizing factor that has served us well the last 10 years, when the commercial lines market was eroding or so soft that it was hard to make your margins. Personal lines was a nice balance to have at that time.”
Minkler describes the agency’s approach to clients as holistic. While internally the agency uses the terms “personal lines,” “commercial lines” and “employee benefits,” the agency has only two client-facing divisions: “For You” (addressing insurance needs for the individual) and “For Your Business” (anything on the commercial lines or benefits side).
“I think most agents would tell you that they want to serve the client completely,” Minkler says, “but we truly have it as a focal point with our staff. It’s a continual learning experience about making sure that we’re uncovering a need for those clients, whether it’s on the ‘For You’ side or the ‘For Your Business’ side.”
Minkler notes that the agency’s fastest-growing area is the “select” client group in personal lines, a group focused on high-net worth individuals with dedicated producers and a service team. For the commercial lines side, the agency has focused heavily on assisting business clients with human resources and state/federal compliance issues, delivering the information via individual consulting, seminars and webinars. Because this approach focuses in on helping clients outside the insurance field, Minkler calls it the “single biggest game changer” for the agency over the past few years—especially when it comes to driving both retention and new business.
But beyond tactics that are specific to lines of business, the agency’s overall strategy of trying to meet customers on their level is paying off. Minkler says that from a service standpoint, the agency focuses on how to respond to clients on a more interactive basis. That involves prominent use of social media, digital marketing and other user-friendly online platforms.
“Our new producers want to interact on a 24/7 basis and there are folks that are communicating with clients after hours through their iPads, Facebook, etc., and we’re having success because of that,” Minkler says. “I would tell you that I think we’re ahead of the curve on that, but we’d still consider ourselves in the infancy of getting that right.”
Keeping Up with Changing Times
Mastering an evolving sales and service model is one of the biggest challenges Minkler hears agents discuss as he travels around the country. He notes that the way agents interact with consumers has drastically changed in the past few years. “When I started in this business, one of two entities decided the way this industry was going to go—insurance companies or agents,” Minkler says. “A few years ago, that changed. Today it’s the consumer who is driving what is going on in our industry and we have to adapt and evolve to that model. It’s not a flash in the pan—it’s here to stay. And it results in a lot of challenges that we all have to face.”
More and more, Minkler notes, the consumer—whether small commercial, large commercial or personal lines—wants to reach agents through very different channels, including social media, live chat and online. “There are a multitude of channels that we’re going to need to make sure we’re as proficient in as we were in the old days when someone either walked through our front door or gave us a call,” Minkler says. “That change is already here—consumers expect that in their life everywhere else. And the insurance industry is starting to stick out like a sore thumb because we’re not delivering that experience the way a lot of other consumer products are.”
The Big “I” is helping agents meet consumer needs from a number of directions, including research and thought leadership from the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) as well as the recent launch of the Consumer Agent Portal (CAP). “The fact remains that independent agents only control 33% of the personal lines marketplace,” Minkler says. “CAP has the potential to fulfill the promise to get us back more deeply into personal lines.”
Appealing to the Masses
With an average employee age 30% higher than in other industries and 400,000 positions expected to turn over between now and 2020, Minkler says that insurance industry workforce development and recruitment is critical to the industry’s future success. And because baby boomers are exiting the workforce without sufficient replacements and the same pattern is happening in other industries, the competition has only become even fiercer.
Compounding the problem is the millennial generation’s negative view of the insurance industry: only about 25% of 18- to 29-year-olds think the insurance industry would be a good place to work. “[Workforce development] needs to be a focus going forward, and it will be,” Minkler says. “It’s something we will be talking about at the national level. We’ve had great success with InVEST over the last few years and we need to keep ramping it up.”
If given the opportunity to make the case, Minkler believes the insurance industry has a great story to tell millennials about jobs in independent agencies. Careers in insurance can appeal to their social consciousness while offering flexibility, providing different work experiences each day and enabling them to give back to the community. “We’ve hired several new young producers and they’re doing well,” Minkler says. “They have unlimited income potential and they are enjoying themselves. I think being an independent agent is the best kept secret in America.”
“Willing to Evolve”
As Minkler begins his term as chairman, he looks forward to continuing to visit the states and speak with members about their challenges, noting every conversation provides something he can bring back to the national association.
“I’m looking forward to helping the industry thrive. There are some reports of doom and gloom, but I’m not one of those guys,” Minkler says. “I love this business. I believe there is a bright future for Trusted Choice® independent agents. As long as we’re willing to evolve, we can be something even stronger.”
Katie Butler is IA editor in chief.