Incoming Big ‘I’ Chairman Bob Fee on technology, the talent gap and instilling stability in the independent agent channel.
“Celebrating our past as we move forward together." These words adorn the walls at Fee Insurance in Hutchinson, Kansas, in a room dedicated to the history of the family-run agency founded in 1883. As Bob Fee, president of Fee Insurance, prepares to be installed as the new Big “I" chairman at the Big “I" Fall Leadership Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, these words hold additional significance.
This year, the association celebrates its 125th anniversary against the backdrop of a country and an industry keen to put the pandemic firmly in the rearview mirror. Yet, while the fabric of doing business in 2021 feels like it has irreversibly changed, the Big “I" continues to provide stability to its members.
During his term as chairman, Fee (pictured above, and with wife Annie below) will focus on the association's “key areas," he explains. “That's our membership, our national and state relationships, providing outstanding products and services, creating resources to stay abreast of technology, and having a well-structured board and executive committee—so that we are a stable association for the long term."
“We've been following the strategic plan that we put together a year and a half ago, and we just did an extensive overview of it, making some changes and modifications," Fee says. “But in this day and age, we know we've got to be nimble."
Independent Agent magazine talked with Fee about his history and his goals for his chairmanship, as well as the challenges that lie ahead for the independent agency channel.
What's your personal and professional background?
I was born and raised here in Hutchinson, Kansas, right in the middle of wheat country. I grew up pulling weeds and doing odd jobs around the agency. I was clueless about what the agency really did. But I did know that owning a business is more than just what you do inside the doors. It involves taking care of the parking lot. It involves taking care of the outside of the building. Shoveling snow. We used to have a sign out front of the building, and one of my early jobs was to change the little slogan.
I joined my dad and my brother at the agency in 1987 after attending the University of Kansas. I was set to go to law school when I graduated, but I was burnt out on school, and my dad and brother asked me to come back for a couple of years. Once you kind of get started on something, it's tough to change course, so I stayed.
Tell us a little about your agency.
My dad had previously been in business with his dad and brother. Now, my brother and I are third-generation agency owners. We recently brought his sons and a niece into the agency, so we have future generations already involved.
We're mostly commercial property-casualty, but we have a strong personal lines department, which represents around 18% of our revenue. We also have a growing benefits, life, health and ancillary benefits division. We're pretty much a generalist agency, but we're good with health care, distributors, manufacturers, retail, construction and contractors.
How does your personal background affect your approach to your chairmanship?
Being involved in an agency that has its roots going back before the national association existed translates well to my work with the association. Both share a commitment to the tradition and responsibility of taking care of your community. At our agency, we talk a lot about how important we are to our employees and clients. I feel the same way about the association, so I feel like I'm just trading hats.
How did you get involved with the Big “I"?
My father was very involved. He is a past president of the Kansas Association of Independent Agents (KAIA) and was a national director. I started out with the Young Agents of Kansas, and eventually, I was asked to serve on the KAIA board. I wasn't sure I wanted to at the time, but my dad said, “I guarantee you'll get more out of this than you will ever give to the association. You should absolutely do it." In 2008, I served as president of the board.
While I was the immediate past president of KAIA, I was asked to serve on the Trusted Choice® board and later became chairman. With Trusted Choice, we took it from being a paid member benefit to giving all members access. My experience there made me want to do more, so I ran for the Executive Committee in 2015 and was fortunate enough to win.
What do you like about being an agency owner?
I like working with people, whether they're our employees or our clients. I also like learning about new industries and talking to other business owners about how they do things or why they do it. What works? What doesn't work? How did they get in the business? I enjoy learning about them and making connections.
Biggest challenge of running an agency today?
Talent and technology are the two major challenges that we have. We also have a lot of challenges with the capacity of our carriers. Sometimes, that makes it very challenging to write business.
There are also challenges in the economy. Some are hidden right now, but they're there. Cyber is one of those hidden challenges. With the seven large companies that are coming together to work on cybercrime through the newly formed CyberAcuView, that says right there that we've got some work to do. Cyber is a cheap line of business right now, but it's not going to stay that way if we continue to see these large hits out there. It's a critical piece of business for our clients but I don't know what the capacity will be in the future.
How can agencies address the talent gap?
The opportunities within the insurance industry, specifically the independent agent channel, are enormous. But our job is not just to recruit and find talented people, we need to onboard and train them properly so that they understand the culture of our industry. Then, because there are a lot of people recruiting for talent right now, you don't want to lose them to a competitor, carrier partner or aggregator. The main thing is: “right person, right seat." Getting the right person is challenging, but what is equally as challenging is putting them in the right position so that they are fulfilled and happy.
What advice do you have for young agents entering the business?
Give it time. You're not going to learn it overnight. You're not going to have success right away. If you become a producer overnight, you probably don't have a very good understanding of everything the job entails. Also, get involved. Not just with the associations, but with other centers of influence, such as the Chamber of Commerce.
Lastly, find a mentor. There are a lot of guys like me who are happy to share our years of having done this job with young people. I always tell our staff, there are no dumb questions. You can give a dumb answer, but there are no dumb questions.
What's the secret to your success?
Hard work. This is not an easy business. It is hard but also very fulfilling. Also, having persistence, working your relationships as best you can and looking out into the future as much as possible. All of those things have been instrumental in our success. But honestly, the biggest thing is hard work.
What's the hardest part of using technology?
There is so much InsurTech available, and I don't even know what most of it does. I'm not unusual for thinking that way. However, there's great technology out there that can help us improve our client experiences and make us more efficient. But with every piece of technology, there's a cost—from spending time researching to buying it to implementing it into workflows and learning how to use it. As an agency owner, I know how hard it is to balance all of that.
What can the association do to address industry challenges?
Some of the challenges that we face are not always in our control. As an association, I think we have to maintain our relationships with our carrier partners and be watchful of the trends going on within the industry, whether it's more direct-to-consumer options, aggregators or agencies being sold to large conglomerates. All of those things are going to have an effect on our industry. The association's job is to highlight them and make people aware of them so they can stay on top of them.
What are the keys for the continued growth in the independent agency system?
I think we have to constantly add value to our client relationships. If it's easier for an insured to go online and buy insurance because they're not getting anything from their agent, then shame on us. We have to provide a client experience. We have to provide that advocacy when it comes to claims or policy reviews. We have to add value for our clients, so they see the value in working directly with an agent. As long as we make them see the value, we shouldn't be scared about anything else that's going on in the industry.
What are you looking forward to the most during your chairman's term?
I'm looking forward to visiting with state leaders and state association execs and talking about how we can work with our members. No agency should be in business without being a member of our association. We have so much to offer, and we need to work as closely as we can to bring out the best in all of us.
Will Jones is IA editor-in-chief.
Brothers in Arms
Working with family can be difficult. But for Bob Fee and his brother Allen Fee, “it's been very good for us," Bob says. In the late '80s, the company was “pretty small," Bob recalls. “But Allen is a real driver. He moved our agency forward in a number of ways.“
Two siblings working together is “challenging," Bob says. “But we realized which talents we each had, and we've utilized them to the best of our abilities to grow as an agency."—WJ