The road to becoming a successful independent insurance agent is not always easy. The economy and often volatile property/casualty insurance market cycle are just two of the potholes agents must maneuver. Young agents in particular face the added burden — and benefit — of youth.
“I think the biggest challenge for me was just having people take me seriously,” says Erin Atkins, a 32 year old independent agent and agency owner who entered the insurance industry while still attending college.
Atkins says that when she first opened the doors at her independent agency as a 28-years-old owner many people didn’t give her much credit. “A lot of people were like, ‘She just started her own agency. We’ll see how it goes.'” Now, four years into business she’s beginning to get a little more respect. And she’s earned it.
Atkins started her independent agency, Erin Atkins Insurance, from scratch in May 2009, but she began her career in insurance 10 years prior to that. Atkins found her first insurance job as a receptionist at a Nationwide insurance agency in 1999 through the college career center while earning her degree.
“By the time I graduated college, I was the agency’s office manager,” she says. “From there I decided that this is what I was meant to do. I knew that I eventually wanted to own my own agency.”
In late 2009, just six months after opening her own independent agency, Atkins made her first agency acquisition. She purchased a small agency from another young agent. “It wasn’t very big, but I grew that agency and I bought a larger agency in December 2011,” she says.
At 32, Atkins had already accrued 14 years insurance industry experience, launched a start up agency and acquired two others. To date, her agency writes $3 million in premium and is well on its way of meeting 2013’s goal of producing $750,000 to $1 million in new premium.
“I think that we can do that,” she says. “I’m excited every year and I am very optimistic about the industry and just seeing where things are going. This year so far has been good. We’re up in premium over last year, and I expect it to continue that way.”
Atkins’ optimism is shared by other young agents. According to Insurance Journal’s annual Young Agents Survey, 52.4 percent of those responding feel very optimistic that their 2013 income will be greater than their 2012 income.
Eight-one percent of the survey respondents also reported feeling either optimistic or very optimistic about the future of the independent agency system.
Young agents also continue to pursue ownership dreams although most do not currently own an agency, according to the survey. Atkins is part of a small, but growing, group of young agents who own their own agency. Of those responding, 11.3 percent are presently the sole owner of an independent agency and 15.4 percent share ownership with a partner or partners. That compares to 9.8 percent of young agents who said they were sole agency owners, and 16.0 percent who said they shared ownership, in the 2012 survey.
Choosing a career is never an easy choice for young people. But for Atkins and young insurance agents responding to the IJ survey, choosing insurance for their career was the right decision.
The majority of young agents (82.0 percent) responding to 2013 Young Agents Survey say insurance is their permanent career choice. Some 72.2 percent would even go so far as to recommend becoming an independent insurance agent to other young people.
“It’s one of the best known secrets, as far as a career path goes,” one survey respondent wrote. “I have recommended to a number of younger people that I know.”
Another said: “I feel that it is an awarding field if one is willing to put the time in, take the hits, bounce back, and keep trudging. Once a producer is able to ‘see the light’ so to speak and get some momentum going, the feeling of success is unfounded. I also think that the agency needs to be committed to the right education/training from the get-go to prevent bad habits and help with efficiency in time management and the sales process.”
Everyone knows insurance is a relationship business and family relationships matter more than others. According to the survey, family businesses are a major driver of young people into insurance careers. More than half (57.5 percent) of young agents work in family-owned agencies and nearly one-third (32.4 percent) say they were recruited to work in their current insurance job because of a family business relationship, the survey revealed.
Other young agents found their way into their current agency from employee referrals (21.2 percent), job postings (16.9 percent) and even from competing agencies (12.3 percent).
Atkins didn’t work for a family insurance business, but she had close ties to one. Her cousins own the century-plus old Ramey & King Insurance Agency based in Denton, Texas.
“When I was ready to go on my own, my cousins James and Jeff King out of Denton knew I wanted to have my own agency. They had been after me for a couple of years, and they formed ‘Agents Alliance’ and brought me on. I was the first agent to start from scratch with Agents Alliance,” she said.
As a member of Agents Alliance — a network of independent agencies — Atkins opened Ramey King Insurance, Erin Atkins Agency in Rockwall, Texas. She chose to keep the Ramey King name because of its long history and family ties, but she operates her independent agency separately.
Then in 2011 Atkins purchased E.H. Hanby insurance in Mesquite, Texas. E. H. Hanby Insurance was founded in March 1940 by E.H. Hanby and is the oldest insurance agency in Mesquite, Texas.
Family also brought 30-year old Nathan Price, vice president of the Alliance Insurance Group, headquartered in Southwest Arkansas, into the insurance business.
“I graduated from college in May of 2004, and went to work selling insurance in June of 2004,” he says.
Insurance wasn’t always the plan for Price.
“I was a finance major, and have a degree in financial management and in investments. I wanted to be a stockbroker,” he said. But as the economy and stock market fell during Price’s college years, he began to explore other options in the financial services world.
“I knew that I wanted to be in the financial services market and had some interest in selling insurance, but didn’t really know a whole lot about commercial insurance. Growing up, your parents buy home and auto insurance, but unless your parents have a business, you’re not going to know about the commercial property insurance market, and all those different lines.”
He took a job in his wife’s family’s agency in Arkadelphia, Ark., and started cold calling on day one. That was eight years ago, he said.
Family also led Price into his insurance specialty: nonprofit and social service organizations. His mother, a school teacher, worked in a nonprofit/social service organization when Price was younger and from early-on he developed a passion for helping others.
Many of the nonprofit social service organizations he works with help physically and mentally handicapped adults and children. “They do job training, Head Start programs, daycare programs for children that are in some way developmentally delayed,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t very comfortable with that kind of a setting and that kind of a risk,” he said. “I was around that whole lot and just developed a passion for it.”
Like many specialist agents, Price mixed that passion with his profession and found success. “I was able to go out and actually get us some really good contracts. It seemed like the more that I wrote the more that these organizations wanted to come in and contract with us.”
Today, Alliance Insurance Group is one of just three agencies in the state specializing in these risks, he says.
“We’ve put together a really nice little program. We’ve got special knowledge of the industry that not any agent off the street would have,” he said. “We stay up with new laws and regulations, and legislation that’s coming down both nationally and from the state level that can affect these organizations.”
Burden or Benefit?
For those deciding on a career path, youth can be both a benefit and a burden in just about any industry. Insurance is no different.
The majority of young agents (78.0 percent) responding to the survey said they feel they must work harder to gain the confidence of clients.
Starting an independent agency during a soft insurance market and in economic recession was tough but adding to the challenge was Atkins’ youthful age of just 28.
“It’s definitely been difficult and a learning experience,” she said. “A lot of other agents that have been in the business for 30 years said when I started, ‘You are starting at the worst time! It’s going to be so hard for you.’ That hasn’t really been my experience,” Atkins said. “I’m not going to say it hasn’t been hard, but I think every business is hard.”
To get her agency noticed, Atkins began using social media to communicate with potential clients, especially the younger generation, on insurance and why it’s important to have an agent. Most recently, Atkins launched a new social media campaign on YouTube called “Erin, the Insurance Chick.”
“I’ve already gotten phone calls from agents all over Texas, about Erin the Insurance Chick, and that’s crazy,” she said. Clients are calling too. “‘I saw your YouTube video,,”‘ they say. “They’re more excited about that than I am.”
Her presence on social media is helping her agency to get noticed and respected, she says. “I think by doing those things, I was able to show people that I’m serious about what I do, and I’m here to stay.”
Starting as a young agent was challenging for a younger Price as well. Clients are less likely to trust a young agent, he says, and building trust between a client and agent is critical.
“We sell an intangible product, and it’s based on trust,” he said. “They have to trust you that it works when they need it … that you’re going to be responsive, that you’re going to follow through, and that you’re going to pay the claim if it’s covered. I think that the trust factor’s a big deal.”
In most industries, the decision maker buying the insurance for a business or organization is typically not a younger person, Price says. “If you’re walking in to a CFO’s office that’s in their 50s or 60s, and so you’re 20-something … you just look green. For lack of a better word, you’re just green. There’s always that little bit of doubt and until you get the opportunity to prove yourself, it’s really tough to overcome.”
One agent told Insurance Journal in the survey said that what they like least about being a young agent is building the credibility needed to work in the industry. “As a younger, newer producer, I compete with people that have been around for some time, with an average age of 55. I am confident that things will begin to snowball, and it is just a matter of time until I reach that point.”
Why It’s the Right Choice
Both Atkins and Price feel confident that their choice to become an independent agent was the right one despite the challenges they have faced or will face in the future.
“I fell into insurance, and it has been the biggest blessing for me because I love my job. I love everything that I do,” Atkins said. “I feel like with our profession, more than any other profession, there’s a real connection with your clients, like they expect you to be there for them.”
Her motto: “Know me, like me, trust me, and that’s how I want my customers to feel about me.”
As far as careers in financial services go, Price believes insurance is the best choice for young people.
Insurance is not as volatile a market as other financial services industries like banking and investments, he says. “At the end of the day, people don’t have to make investments, people don’t have to go borrow money, but they need insurance.” That need makes insurance a safer bet when it comes to careers.
“People are always going to look for an insurance policy, they’re always going to look for an insurance agent, and they’re going to stay with the one that they trust,” Price said.
“This is like the best kept secret for young people.”