Jessica Belleville Whitman’s first job as a kid was emptying the garbage cans at her dad’s agency for 25 cents a can.
“Throughout high school and even into college, I would work part-time at the agency—filing, answering phones, doing odd jobs,” recalls Belleville Whitman. “But I still had zero interest in working there, to say nothing of taking over someday.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and Belleville Whitman is third-generation owner of the agency her grandfather started back in 1949. “I started full-time at the agency on April 1, 2002,” she says. “To this day, I still kid with my dad that it’s the biggest April Fool’s joke of all time.”
Perpetuation remains a serious challenge for the independent agency system: The average age of agency principals with 20% or more ownership in their agencies is 54 years old, with 15% of those principals age 66 or older, according to the 2018 Future One Agency Universe Study.
But while smaller agencies, in particular, are more likely to be unsure of their agency’s net worth, unsure of their perpetuation options, concerned about difficulties finding an outside buyer, and concerned that their successors do not want to buy the agency out, nearly nine out of ten agencies have some type of agency perpetuation tool or plan in place—a significant increase from 79% in 2016.
In their own words, here are three stories from independent agents who are taking part in the successful perpetuation of not only their individual businesses, but the independent agency system as a whole.
Jess Belleville Whitman
Belleville & Associates, Inc.
Tupper Lake, New York
If you ask a dozen kids what they want to be when they grow up, I doubt any of them would jump up and yell, “an insurance agent!” I know I didn’t—even after growing up in an insurance family, I had no interest in being part of the family business.
My grandfather started the agency back in 1949 as The Harold J. Nichols Insurance Agency. By 2002, my father was sole owner, and the agency name had been changed twice to reflect my dad’s belief that it’s not just about him—that everyone who works here is an integral part of the agency.
That year, I was working for a doctor’s office and not enjoying it. It wasn’t even my dad’s idea to hire me—one of his associates suggested it during an office discussion about the need for more help. That was the seed that started his perpetuation planning.
After joining Belleville & Associates, Inc. as an associate, I spent several years learning all the ins and outs of the agency. Sometime around 2008-2009, my dad began stepping back, taking more time off and giving me more responsibility.
Before then, I never fully appreciated all the moving parts that go into running a successful agency—staffing, scheduling, advocating with our carriers on our clients’ behalf. There were budgets and plans, finances, bad attitudes and the ever-dreaded “boss talk.” None of it was easy, but my father was there to back me up every step of the way.
Around that time, we sat down and met with Dad’s accountant to start discussing the formal buy-out. They worked out a plan that ensured I could afford to pay my dad every month, providing him with an adequate retirement income while still maintaining the agency.
I was fortunate that my father had these plans in place and worked with me to ensure not only that I would be able to continue to grow and succeed, but that he would be able to retire with the knowledge that the agency was still thriving. During that process, I also learned the value of maintaining a team of trusted professional consultants—an accountant, an attorney and a financial planner.
In January 2012, I officially became the third-generation owner of Belleville & Associates, Inc. My dad stayed on part-time for three more years to assist in the transition, and to help with some of the staff who were reluctant to see me as their new boss.
We’ve had a few power struggles over the years, and I’ve had to let some staff go because of it. But while I have a smaller staff now than we had 17 years ago, we are a cohesive, tight-knit family, and I wouldn’t change our culture for anything.
The work environment has changed significantly since I started in 2002. We are now paperless, and technological advancements have made it so that fewer people can accomplish the same amount of work. Today, we are a thriving agency of four, with a solid mix of personal lines and commercial clients from our small, isolated community of about 2,500 people.
Both my grandfather and father served on the Board of Directors for Big “I” New York, and both served as chair or president of the board during their tenure. I have also served on the board since 2014. These industry contacts have proven invaluable to our agency over the years.
In the years ahead, I look forward to growing the agency and continuing to make it my own. My hope is that someday, one of my daughters will bring the agency into its fourth generation.
J. Byrne Agency
Wildwood, New Jersey
My insurance career began when I was 14 years old, working summers in the family agency’s services department. John Byrne founded our firm with his business partner in 1946, and James Byrne entered the firm about a decade later. James’s two sons, my uncle Tom and my father Tim, joined the agency in 1982.
After three summers, I left for alternative seasonal employment while in high school and college. I had no intention of returning to the insurance industry after being exposed to the boredom of a support staff position at such a young age.
Around that time, my father left the agency and founded a coastal homeowners insurance MGA, Coastal Agents Alliance. I was a senior in college when he sold the MGA to Orchid Underwriters in 2015. That summer, I worked with Coastal Agents Alliance during the merger as an underwriting assistant.
When Orchid was looking to hire a handful of new underwriters, I jumped at the opportunity. Within two or three months of training, I became the regional underwriter of high-valued homeowners in catastrophe-exposed areas, with a territory ranging from Maryland north to Maine.
I had fantastic underwriting mentorship with Orchid. In my two years as an underwriter, I was exposed to the front-line excitement the insurance industry has to offer. Dealing with complicated surplus lines accounts quickly became a passion of mine, and I enjoyed working with other agencies up and down the Northeast coast.
Meanwhile, my uncle Tom had been serving as president of J. Byrne Agency since my dad left the agency in 2005. Tom began to approach me at family events encouraging me to come work with him on the agency side. I was content with my career as an underwriter, but I gave the possibility of moving to the family agency more thought and ultimately decided it was a great opportunity.
In January 2017, I left my career as an underwriter to become an insurance agent with the family business. In my first year at the agency, I worked as a commercial producer while Tom began to delegate more and more responsibilities to me.
By third-quarter 2017, the majority of presidential duties had transferred to me and we began the formal perpetuation process. With the outstanding help of local legal counsel, we signed the deals Jan. 31, 2018, making me president with a long-term strategy to transfer Tom’s 50% interest to myself and my brothers, Tim Jr. and Logan, in equal parts over the course of about nine years.
Since its inception, J. Byrne Agency has evolved as a product of our environment—a coastal location with a local economy that relies heavily on seasonal tourism. As a 26-year-old president, my primary objective is to be the best at our core specialties—condo associations, hospitality businesses, contractors and the public sector on the commercial side, and homeowners and flood insurance on the personal lines side.
While historically many of these risks would be placed with a surplus lines carrier, we have recently been successful partnering with admitted insurers that have an appetite for our geographic location. Our primary objective is to partner with not only carriers with an acceptable financial rating, but carriers that understand the nature of the coastal environment and are here to stay from an appetite standpoint.
J. Byrne Agency has a great reputation as the go-to agency for protecting your home or business near the New Jersey coast. In the years ahead, I intend to build on that reputation through constant market research and implementation of innovative initiatives.
Hadfield Agency, Inc.
Little Rock, Arkansas
By nature, I’m a very competitive individual. I always want to be the best at everything I get involved in. I like to go full speed all the time, see progress, stay busy and learn new things—and that’s made me a perfect fit for the insurance industry.
My great-grandfather acquired Hadfield Agency, Inc.as bad debt during World War II. My father joined him in 1980, and I have been working at our family agency in some capacity since I was 15 years old, when I started out doing filing and cleaning work in the office on the weekends.
My senior year of high school, I was put in the work study program, where I worked in the office 1-5 p.m. every day during the school year and full-time during the summer. Over the course of the year, my role at the agency expanded. I stared learning customer service, and at 18, I got my license and began working as a part-time account manager, selling personal lines to call-in clients.
I also participated in carrier meetings and accompanied my father on renewal meetings, as well as new commercial client interviews. It opened my eyes to how little the general public knows about insurance and how important it is to help them protect their livelihoods. It was initiation by fire, and I loved it. I soaked up everything like a sponge.
After high school, I decided to pursue a degree in finance and risk management. By my senior year of college, I’d been working with an agency in the city where I was going to school for four years. At the same time, my father was named director of a newly formed MGA.
Business was picking up with the MGA, and by that time, I was ready to officially start my insurance career. My dad suggested I come home and work for the agency and the MGA. I spent the next six or seven years doing everything from commercial lines underwriting and marketing for the MGA to producing and managing the personal lines department of the agency.
In 2008-2009, we parted ways with the MGA and began focusing more on our family agency. In 2013, after leading agency financials and operations for a year, I was made partner.
My father and I have always known I would take over for him when he’s ready to retire. I was groomed for it at a young age, and all our clients are familiar with me and my younger sister, who also works for the agency as an account manager.
Thanks to several parties approaching us with acquisition offers, we have a good idea of our equity value. But we haven’t discussed the financial aspect of the transition yet, because my dad isn’t quite ready to retire and I’m in no rush to push him out. When the time is right, we will move forward.
Insurance is a great business with excellent career opportunities. My grandfather once told me people will always need insurance, so there will always be a place for the independent agent. That has really stuck with me over the years, particularly when the economy bottomed out. We lost clients, but it didn’t kill the agency—which proved to me the power of what we do.
My advice for fellow agents who are in the process of perpetuating an agency is to be patient. The process of getting all the clients comfortable with you as the new owner takes time and a lot of effort, but it’s well worth the investment. My main goal for the agency? To make it to the 100-year mark.