The narrative of Andre Urena’s life is told in a series of lessons, many handed down from his peasant-turned-bank president father Alvaro. His father died in December-but not before having a heavy hand in shaping his son’s career and outlook on the world.
“He taught me to learn from people-from their failures and successes,” said the 42-year-old co-founder of New York, N.Y.-based Confie Seguros, a growing network of Latin agencies. “When he died, that left a big void for me. He was my sounding board.”
The elder Urena started in poverty, selling shirts hand sewn by his grandmother in the Costa Rican capital San Jose. In short, Alvaro’s story is that he was educated, worked hard and rose through the financial ranks to eventually lead two banks in Costa Rica — Banco Popular and Banco de Costa Rica.
“He started from nothing; he came from nothing,” Urena said of his father.
Urena’s own story, though still unfolding, has been so far impressive. He has had a hand in the development of several large insurance companies and worked to focus the industry on America’s fastest growing, but a still largely underserved, demographic.
“Insurance to most people is a boring business. It is a quintessential American-type, golf-type business,” said Urena, who remains a citizen of Costa Rica. “My life has been the opposite of boring, but I’ve always made my money in insurance.”
Urena, founder and CEO of the Montebello, Calif.-based Latin American Agents Association, is on a mission to change the business, or as he puts it, to “Latino-ize” the industry — making the industry realize that tapping the buying power of Latino consumers is not only wise, but essential for future growth.
“For the longest time there’s been this buzz about ‘Latino,’” he said. “It’s not only a cultural thing, it’s unavoidable.”
The Hispanic population now represents 16 percent of the nation’s entire populous, according to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center.
“The Latino population in the U.S. has reached more than 50 million,” said Mark Lopez, associate director of Pew. “More than half the nation’s growth came from Hispanics during the last decade.”
And while California and Texas still represent the largest population of Hispanics, the group is now more dispersed, with rapid growth being reported in Southeastern states including South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, according to Pew.
This population is also very young. The median age in the U.S. for Hispanics is 27, compared to 42 for white non-Hispanics, meaning much more growth for Hispanic population can be expected over the course of the next few decades.
By 2050 there will be 130 million Hispanics in the U.S., representing 30 percent of the total population-double the group’s share of the population today, according to Pew.
That growth becomes more staggering when the group’s raw purchasing power is considered. Pew estimates the purchasing power of the Latino community is “about $1 trillion nationwide,” according to Lopez.
Enter Urena, who has taken his “Latino-izing” campaign and ideas to Direct General Insurance Co. as the company’s director of national diversity. The Nashville, Tenn.-based firm is in the middle of opening 50 stores in San Antonio, Texas and Austin, Texas that will focus on the Latino market.
“Latino-izing makes a difference in sales,” Urena said. “When a Latino consumer quotes insurance, they are buying out of fear, not out of need. Therefore it makes a big difference to be able to communicate in language, and in culture too. For example, I teach our staff how to speak with a person from Guadalajara versus a person from Mexico City. When a Latino feels comfortable that you understand where they come from, they will trust you more.”
Urena said he is also working to help the company increase its “Hispanic capabilities” at call centers in Baton Rouge, La. and its claims offices in Tampa, Fla. and Dallas.
Most insurance companies aren’t approaching “Latino-izing” the right way, he said.
“The first thing a company does is translate their paperwork to Spanish, however they do not invest the time in understanding the different languages used by different countries and areas,” Urena said. “Mexico, as an example, has many areas that speak different Spanish than the others and their culture is different. Also companies do not invest the time to teach their staff as to how to handle Latino customers in general.”
Mostly important, many companies are missing the market when it comes to marketing to this group. When Latinos buy, it’s often from referrals, and they typically shop within a five-mile radius from their house, according to Urena.
“The best approach to the Latino market is to be a big fish in the small pond by participating in community events and doing a lot of local advertisement,” he added.
Flyers, bus benches, stores that are high in visibility and located in areas where Latinos shop weekly, such as near supermarkets — these are among the effective outreach methods Urena is urging firms to try.
Urena’s journey to the U.S., and his entry into the insurance world, took place in the span of a few years on the heels of a minor failure as a youth. He came to the U.S. in 1984 after being held back a year in school in Costa Rica. His father sent him to live in Cerritos, Calif. with his aunt, who owned an accounting firm. Shortly thereafter, Urena’s father moved with them and went to work for one of the firm’s customers, a managing general agency in Studio City named Pac-West Surplus Lines.
Urena’s father had started working with the agency as a client of the accounting firm, and when it started growing, the elder Urena’s father became Pac-West’s chief financial officer.
Around that time, Urena’s love of drawing led him to begin designing women’s shoes for a local shoemaker and retailer who sold knock-offs of the hottest products on the market. He had Urena draw something similar to popular shoes, and the maker would craft and sell them.
That’s when Urena’s father again stepped into his son’s life to offer a little direction. “My dad believed that I should have a trade,” he said. So he got his son into Pac-West’s customer service department. Not too long afterward, the owner discovered Urena’s drawing talent, and asked Urena to create a marketing department.
Not only was he marketing at Pac-West, but Urena also was learning how to create rates and guidelines to make programs.
Soon after, he partnered with a fellow agent to form Oasis Insurance in Van Nuys, Calif., a firm that focused on the Latino market. Oasis grew to 38 stores in less than five years.
Urena’s life hasn’t been boring because he gets bored easily. He had returned for a period to Costa Rica, where he still keeps a home, and while there he realized he was “fed up with having partners.”
“I was watching the monkeys eating mangos and asked myself, ‘Why do I have partners?’” he said.
So he returned to the U.S. and got rid of his partners. They kept Oasis South Insurance Services Inc. and Oasis San Jose Insurance Services Inc., and Urena kept Oasis Insurance Services Inc., a company with a presence from Orange to Ventura counties.
It was around that time, sometime in 1998, that Urena started the Latin American Agents Association, and part of the impetus for his decision was opportunity.
After several years of running the business and the association, he said he got a call from a New Jersey group that was interested in buying his agency. It dawned on him that this could be an opportunity to focus his time and efforts on Latino-izing the industry.
It was around 2006 when IDT Corp., a company in New Jersey that sold calling cards, a popular product with Latinos at the time, was seeking an avenue into the insurance business to duplicate its success with calling cards.
The Confie Connection
His respite from the insurance business was short-lived, thanks again to opportunity, this time to buy back his firm Oasis at a discount.
“They weren’t doing anything with it,” Urena said, adding that he and a partner bought it back for “pennies on the dollar.” He declined to name the selling price, or what he paid to repurchase the firm.
Soon after, Urena says San Francisco, Calif.-based Genstar Capital financed him and partners for an undisclosed sum, and the group went around the U.S. looking for small Hispanic insurance agencies to buy. This was the beginning of Confie Seguros Holdings, which has been creating a nationwide network of insurance agencies serving the Hispanic market since 2008. Urena served on the executive team as senior vice president of business development.
A lot has happened in Urena’s life since. He spent some time in a home in Rosirito, Baja California, painting, and working as a deejay in Panama, another passion. He got divorced and his father died from complications from diabetes at age 67. Both disruptions to his life occurred at the same time, around December.
Perhaps taking a final cue from his father, Urena, who was also severely overweight and a diabetic, got the restrictive surgery known as the Lap Band to help him lose weight. He’s lost 180 pounds.
Because he has experience opening call centers, and because of his international connections and ability to work with various governments, Urena’s attorney’s cousin tapped him to help open call centers in Costa Rica, as well as a 2,000-person call center in Panama that was opened last year.
It was while in Panama that Urena found his latest calling. A friend of his, who was executive vice president of Direct Auto, brought on Urena to help Latino-ize, or organize, the firm’s efforts to open Latino-focused stores in call centers in and around Texas.
Working with Direct CEO John W. Mullen, they have 13 signed leases, and have hired nearly two-dozen staff in San Antonio and Austin in the past three months.
“We should have all the 50 open by the end of quarter next year,” Urena said.
Of course, all the stores have an Hispanic motif and a new slogan.
“Direct Auto, we’ll do right by you,” the original slogan, has been changed. The slogan now says, “Estamos con usted.” That translates to: “We are with you.”