Full Circle: Meet Your New Big 'I' Chairman

Vaughn Graham was feeling confident when he interviewed for a sales job at an independent agency in Tulsa, Oklahoma at 26 years old.

But after an encouraging introduction with four of the firm’s shareholders, the fifth shareholder called Graham into his office and delivered a blow: “We’re not hiring you.” Turns out he had two sons who would both be joining the agency ranks after graduating college. He simply didn’t have a place for Graham.

Graham found work elsewhere, at a different agency as a producer. And 13 years ago, his agency Consolidated Insurance folded its business in with a local agency called Rich & Cartmill—the same agency where Graham had that first failed interview back in 1976.

“I was pretty sure of myself at 26 years old,” recalls Graham, incoming Big “I” chairman, who now serves as president, shareholder and active producer at Rich & Cartmill. “The world we live in is very small, but the insurance world in which we work is even smaller. I learned a valuable lesson early on that you never burn your bridges.”

IA spoke with Graham about what else he’s learned from the industry, the challenges of running an independent agency today and his plans to keep giving back to the independent insurance community.

IA: Walk us through your personal and professional background.

Graham: When I was really young, my family moved to Oklahoma from Iowa with another family that had bought a regional insurance company. My parents both worked for them. My dad was always on the claims side, and I actually started working for them in the mailroom when I was 16 years old. I became one their first insurance claims trainees for the company.

Upon graduation from college, I started going to the Oklahoma City University School of Law at night while continuing to work my way up through the claims ranks at the company. It was at a time in our country’s history when the Vietnam War was in full throes, and those who weren’t ready to serve their country were getting student deferments. So getting into any post-graduate school or professional school was very competitive. I made myself a personal promise that if I ever got to a point in law school when, being honest with myself, I wasn’t there for the right reasons, I wasn’t going to continue to hold a seat.

I reached that point when my wife, Candace, and I had been married probably nine months. She was working all day, I was working all day and going to school all night, and that’s not a conducive way to start a brand-new marriage. I realized I wasn’t in school for the right reasons, so I had a conversation with her. And she said, “Yeah, I’ll support you in your decision, but how are you going to support us going forward?” That was the first time I came to the realization that I wasn’t really educationally prepared for much of anything else, other than law school. I fell back on my insurance knowledge and experience.

Tell us about your agency.

Our two largest offices are our headquarters in Tulsa and our office in Oklahoma City. We also have offices in Ozark, Missouri, Olathe, Kansas and Greeley, Colorado. We remain privately owned—there are at present 20 shareholders, and those shareholders are also active producers. We have 86 producers throughout the footprint in all the offices.

We view ourselves as a traditional generalist agency, but we think it’s an advantage to have several focus areas of insurance and bonding expertise. Our construction and surety group is one, our energy group is another; we have a health care and life sciences practice. We have a couple of agents who focus primarily on nonprofit organizations, and we have a larger group of producers that focus more on industrial and manufacturing risks. We have producers who have large personal lines books, and we have others who truly are generalists—they write as much commercial business as they do personal lines business. About 4-5% of our total business comes in the life-health and employee benefits sector. Probably another 23-24% is personal lines, and the rest is commercial.

What’s made your agency successful?

Rich & Cartmill was established in 1922 by two entrepreneurs from Illinois who had come to Tulsa ostensibly to follow a new industry—the oil business. And many of the basic business tenets on which Irwin Rich and John Cartmill established the agency back in 1922 are still the foundations of how we operate today: recognizing that our customers come first, maintaining the professionalism and integrity we’re known for within the industry and by our customers, and treating our customers the way we would want to be treated.

How do you juggle leadership responsibilities with managing your own book of business?

I’m a big team-focused guy. Everybody has strengths and everybody has weaknesses. The great thing about being a successful team is figuring out how to complement each other’s successes and how to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Individually, I’m blessed to have a great team at home, led by Candace. Sometimes we have family obligations where I can’t be in two places at one time, and Candace is there to make sure everybody understands I am there in spirit. I’m also blessed to have a fabulous team at Rich & Cartmill that supports my activities and the responsibilities I’ve accepted nationally. And obviously the professional staff nationally, who are second to none in my view, are critical to what we all do at the Big “I.”

What are the most important issues facing the industry today?

Technological advances are coming more rapidly every day, and InsurTech “disruptors” are becoming more prevalent and are very well funded. There’s more funding out there than there ever has been, and venture capitalists are looking at our industry in particular to make those investments. As we continue to face these types of challenges, we have to recognize that they bring many more opportunities for all of us as well.

What can agents do in their daily work to address those challenges?

We need to continue to focus on our consumer and digital brand for independent agents, Trusted Choice® and TrustedChoice.com. The Trusted Choice brand is not in lieu of your individual agency’s brand—it’s in addition to. It’s not competing. It’s structured and it’s fostered and it’s meant to complement your own agency brand. If you’re not utilizing our brand, you’re missing the boat.

And as a Trusted Choice agent, if you’re not taking advantage of all the pre-qualified folks that are looking for you on TrustedChoice.com—if you’re not there where they can find you—how are you going to reach them? There’s nothing wrong with positioning yourself as you would traditionally, but your current and future customers might want to do business a different way. Whether you’re going out in person or you get a phone call or somebody refers someone to you or you uncover a lead online, now you have an opportunity to talk with them and make a determination. It’s the same process; it just takes a different form.

What are your goals for your term as chairman?

Short- and long-term, the biggest challenge as well as the biggest opportunity is in the area of membership. It’s my first priority. No product or service, regardless of how cutting-edge or valuable it is, is going to make any difference if there are no members to take advantage of it. It’s critical to understand what our current members want from belonging to the Big “I,” and it’s equally important to understand how those expectations may be different for the next generation of members.

What are you most looking forward to during your term?

I’ve enjoyed every aspect of being a part of the leadership team since my first year as an at-large member, listening and learning from the team members ahead of me. They’ve been great teachers and mentors. Hopefully I can add a brick or two to the foundation they’ve built.

Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.

From Then to Now

1978: joins Oklahoma Young Agents

1986: elected chair of Oklahoma Young Agents

2004: elected chair of the Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma (IIAO)

2007: elected IIAO director to the board

2012: elected to national executive committee

2017: elected Big “I” chairman

“During my second term as director, a number of my peer directors started engaging my interest about running for the Executive Committee. And on more than one occasion, I declined,” Graham recalls. “The leadership’s future team members come from sitting around the horseshoe, and there’s always a lot of talent around the horseshoe. I felt comfortable initially in saying, ‘There are other well-qualified leaders here that would have more interest in it.’”

“Fortunately, they were persistent,” Graham continues. “This industry has given me so much—professionally, individually and for my family. If I had an opportunity to leave it a little better than I found it, how selfish was I to not try?” —J.C.