Welcome to Insurance Journal’s Agents of the Year report.
This report features 25 agents who defined what it meant to be a successful independent agent in 2021. These agents are more than top sellers. While they have achieved impressive success in sales and demonstrated laudable business intelligence and entrepreneurial skills, they also have shown they have a passion for what they do and a commitment to professionalism and, in many cases, specialization. For them, being an insurance agent is more than a job.
Insurance Journal’s Agents of the Year come from all regions of the country, live and work in cities or towns big and small, and know the importance of giving back. Information included in this report was voluntarily submitted online by agents and was supplemented by other public information sources. There are many more agents who deserve mention than are profiled here.
For web badges, plaques, and reprints, visit the Agents of the Year promotions page.
New York native Jonathan Axel has lived in Los Angeles for over 25 years. His areas of specialty include
cultural institutions such as performing arts centers, museums, community centers, live entertainment,
technology, and all aspects of apparel, from manufacturing to retail and online services. Axel has 30 years of
experience working in property, casualty and financial insurance products. Before joining Liberty, he was at
HUB International for 11 years and with Marsh for 14 years. He said the insurance industry is facing several
challenges, chief among them attracting talent, investing in human capital, and fostering a diverse and inclusive industry. "The next generation that is coming into our industry needs to be part of the solution," he added.
"They will need to be able to create new risk methodologies, be experts in their fields of study, understand
the moral implications of these new technologies, and be able to work together to face these new challenges."
Keeping up with client needs will mean increasingly looking outside the insurance industry for expertise, he
added. "Hiring economists, environmentalists, mathematicians, computer scientists and other experts in their
fields, and assisting them to understand the insurance industry as an attractive place to work will be critical."
Ray Roentz doesn't dally. Since launching his insurance career in 2009, he has earned big awards, purchased
the majority interest of his business and surrounded himself with a successful team. The biologist-turned-insurance professional isn't in a lab, but he's implementing a winning formula. Heneghan, White, Cutting &
Rice Insurance Agency hired Roentz as a producer in 2012 — and he immediately began preparing to purchase
the agency. Roentz earned the Illinois Young Agent of the Year award in 2017 and was named the state's
Independent Agent of the Year in 2022. HWCR was also named the state's 2022 Agency of the Year. Small
businesses cover approximately 80% of its commercial book; nearly 50% of that number were new start-ups
when first added. Roentz values lifelong education. He also values continued growth. "I would never be so
bold to consider myself as a ‘top agent' because I owe a good deal of my success to many gracious agents who
have taught me a lot over the last 10 years," he said, "but if forced to make such a tag, I'd say that I should be
considered as a top agent because no matter what level of success I achieve, I continue to improve every year,
month and day in the service of my clients and this industry."
Chip Renno is a relationship builder. "What has been most helpful to me in growing my book has been,
first and foremost, is taking great care of my existing clients with a very proactive service and marketing
strategy model," he said. "I strongly believe in the independent agency system and in continuing education
for myself and for my valued clients." He specializes in manufacturing, distribution, artisan contractors
and service companies. "For over 30 years, I have worked diligently to be an advocate and commercial
insurance/risk management advisor/agent for a variety of my valued commercial P&C clients," he said.
His career has taken him through a few long-term stints with independent agencies, and in 2018 he joined
the team at Snelling Walters as a producer. He became principal and board member in 2021. He credits his
excellent service team with helping him build his reputation. Every team member works with a high sense
of urgency to go above and beyond to exceed clients' expectations, he said. "My exceptional team is able
to help free up my time so that I can spend quite a bit of each day on building relationships with others
and prospecting for new business," he said. "Referrals from clients and others in my community help me
continue to grow my client base each and every year, and I am very thankful for all of those that I work with
each and every day."
Steven Baggett's primary focus is dealerships, including RV, marine, motorcycle, equipment, trailer and
auto dealers. He has a significant focus on property, focused on resorts, timeshares and RV parks, as well.
He also works with construction, including general contractors, developers and trade contractors. Baggett
joined IOA in 2018 from a position as a marketing rep with Federated Mutual. At IOA, he started from
scratch. "I wanted to build a book with difficult classes of business where the clients needed a true expert,"
he said. "Large garage risks are complex and have few carrier options. We have built a program for the
open lot coverage for a specific group of dealers. We grew it by 40% last year." Technology helps Baggett
create a seamless experience for his clients, from scheduling meetings to fillable apps and forms to providing ongoing updates. He's helping bring his entire team up to the cutting edge as a Salesforce coach for IOA
producers and by assisting producers in optimizing their use of efficiency-building technologies such as
Calendly, Zoominfo and email marketing. "Lastly, I am a hustler, a grinder," Baggett said. "I love the work
I do; I love fixing problems and providing solutions. The next 12 months will be the largest growth year
because of the programs and specialties I have focused on for the last two years."
Laura Noderer likes to make connections and collaborate with her clients to guide them through their most
challenging insurance needs. An independent insurance advisor since 2015, today she works with successful,
accomplished individuals and families with complex private insurance requirements. She specializes in
high-valued homes, autos, collections, equine/farming risks, coastal properties, multiple and jointly held
properties, domestic staff, board participation and international travel. "I analyze their risks and collaborate
with my clients to design customized solutions with the goal to ultimately deliver them peace of mind."
Noderer finds the best strategy is first to help her clients define and set their goals. Those goals serve as the
foundation for building the right private risk program. She is always prepared to bring other partners on
board to ensure a client's best interests and needs are being met. One of the books from which "I gleaned
my approach early in my career was ‘The Go-Giver' by Bob Burg and John Mann," she said. "It really sets the
goal to be a good connector for people in general, and they remember this, and in turn, business will always
increase. In the next year, I plan to partner with more external and internal centers of influence to better
strategize how we can help each other grow."
If you want to reach Adam Frugoli, you may have to call his satellite phone. Frugoli lives in a small community of about 60,000 people in rural Idaho. But he spends many hours on the road to become a top insurance
specialist for doctors in the state. He's often in rural areas with no cell service, so he carries a satellite
phone. "I tell my clients, 'I work when you work,'" Frugoli said. "I'm never unavailable." Frugoli went into
specializing in the healthcare sector full-time after the Affordable Care Act passed. Today he specializes in
small to medium-sized hospitals and senior health, and represents several hundred doctors around the U.S.
"I was raised by a single mother and learned at an early age that selling things of value could get me the
things I wanted," Frugoli said. "This is a career that you can come from poverty and become someone very
respected in your community and live a great life!" At 43, he is celebrating 22 years in the industry. He credits
persistence and consistency with his success, recently landing a healthcare client he had worked on for 10
years. And once he gets them, he keeps them, claiming a 98% to 99% retention level. "I feel I'm just hitting
my stride and am planning for more growth in several other states with exclusive products and carrier
Years of underwriting large-frame course of construction insurance and apartment schedules with a global
insurance carrier made Christian Smith a successful broker. Ten years after making the move, he specializes
in construction and real estate. "Given my underwriting background, I possess a unique ability to structure
and place high-hazard risk on behalf of my clients. 95% of my book of business is in those industries," he said.
After six years with Heffernan Insurance Brokers, including three years as a top 10 producer, Smith moved to
Newfront Insurance Services as a partner. After four years at Newfront and through their merger with ABD,
he accepted a partner position with PCF Insurance Services' Kern Insurance agency, where he serves as a
national resource on construction and real estate risk. It was a natural transition, Smith said. "Even from my
early days as a broker, I was consolidating and redesigning insurance programs for large real estate developers
and owners, as well as clients in the hospitality and entertainment sectors," he said. "My clients hire me and
stay with me not only because I understand their risk exposure as it relates to their specific operations but
because I educate them along the way."
Jason Upton went from delivering pizzas at the age of 16 years old to owning an agency specializing in
insuring pizza franchisees. Upton spent about 24 years with Domino's, beginning as a driver and ending
with 17 years as a successful franchisee. In about 2009, he started making referrals to his insurance agent,
and within a few months, that agency wanted him to join their ranks. Upton opened his own agency in
the fall of 2010. "My mission, our mission is simple: help franchisees," he said. "We identify our client's
needs, and we find solutions. If there isn't a solution, then we create one!" His success is rooted in having
a background that makes him authentic and trustworthy to his clients. His clients know that he knows the
operations and the coverages specific to their business. "Without question, my personal experience in the
pizzeria world and franchise world has been most helpful to growing my book," Upton said. "Without those
years and years of spinning pies, none of this would have been possible."
Aubrey Cook started at Presley Insurance Group as a single agent just over five years ago. "We now have over
seven agents working here," Cook said. The company has a "How much? How fast?" mentality balanced
with the pride they take in educating clients on products and proper insurance, he said. The team found
quick success by building channel partners that included loan officers, realtors and others in the real estate
field while rates were low. People were buying new homes and others were taking advantage of low rates to
refinance. "Through our partnership with lenders and brokerages, we were able to capture the ability to at
least quote each home involved in a mortgage transaction." Even though the market has cooled, Cook said
the agency's book of business now organically generates business to prevent any reduction in sales. "Of our
staff, three agents have purchased homes for their families for the first time, while two others have been able
to lease apartments and move out on their own," Cook said. "As an agent and principal, I pride and judge
myself based on the success of those around me each day in the office."
Robby McGehee started his professional career as a star on the racetrack and was named Rookie of the Year
at the 1999 Indianapolis 500. When he retired from racing in 2004, he put his ambition and winning attitude
to work in the insurance industry at Huntleigh McGehee Inc., leading a team in risk management for a large
international real estate developer. He joined Smith McGehee Insurance Solutions as president in November
2011, specializing in international residential real estate development and construction. "For me, it started
with three basic concepts that my father (who was in the business 50 years) taught me — honesty/integrity,
knowledge of the business, and willingness to serve," McGehee said. His expertise includes the assessment
and management of land development, horizontal construction, vertical construction and international risk
exposures. In his day-to-day work, McGehee follows those three basic concepts that his father, a 50-year
industry veteran, passed down to him. And he pursues growing his book with the same determination he
showed on the racetrack — with vigor to win.
The insurance industry is in Ben Rathbun's blood. He is the third generation of Rathbuns at the helm of the
family agency his grandfather's two brothers founded in 1956. Rathbun joined The Rathbun Agency as a
business and personal insurance agent in 2014 and became a partner in 2019. In 2021, he took over the role of
president. Rathbun is invested in the future of the industry and developing up-and-coming talent. He serves
the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents as a past chair of the Young Agents Council. He is an active
volunteer in several nonprofits that serve youth, including the Insurance BFF Mentorship program within
Lansing School District's insurance and risk management program. The program pairs high school students
one-on-one with an insurance professional for a semester-long mentorship. Rathbun also serves on the
board of Insuring MI Future, which facilitates and promotes opportunities for a diverse network of students
to pursue a career in insurance. He also serves the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents as a past chair
of the Young Agents Council. The agency is involved with several local nonprofits, and Rathbun founded
the nonprofit For Good Foundation, dedicated to diversifying the independent agency distribution channel.
"Community is at the fabric of all we do," Rathbun said.
As senior vice president of Woodruff Sawyer's Management Liability practice, Mike Ferraro feels he has the
best seat in the house. "I have a front seat and insight into exciting industries like tech and biotech," Ferraro
said. "From new treatments to cancer to what travel will look like in five years, I get to see how the world
evolves and changes. I work with brilliant people and get a behind-the-scenes look at true thought leadership and ingenuity." Ferraro specializes in developing and implementing both public and private company
D&O liability programs, ranging from small start-ups to Fortune 500 corporations. He works with a variety
of industries, but tech and biotech are his most extensive areas of focus, making up about 70% of his client
base. With over 23 years at Woodruff Sawyer, Ferraro has built long-lasting relationships with tech and
biotech companies as they go through all phases of their development, including going public. Ferraro's
strategy is to empower his science-focused clients with analytics, the backstory behind big changes and
the foresight to mitigate adversity. The results are his success story: clients who feel confident that they've
made well-informed and thoughtful decisions.
After 20 years as an agent, Cheryl Forman sees being a trusted advisor to her clients as one of her greatest
accomplishments. She has worked on the independent side for almost 15 years after working five years for a
captive agent. "I love the fact that I am able to offer an array of different products and carriers as an independent agent," she said. "I feel that has made me successful in a lot of ways." Having the opportunity to offer so
many different carriers and great referral sources helps her retain and grow her book, she said. "I have some
awesome long-term clients that have trusted me with their whole family," she said. "That says a lot about
what they think about me as an agent. I love the fact that I can be their top trusted advisor. It has been a truly
At an age when most teens are clueless about careers, Adam DeSanctis was already starting his insurance
industry success story. After starting in the mail room at age 15, DeSanctis worked his way up to vice
president at age 25. He took over the family business at 27. Desanctis Insurance Agency Inc. acquired another
privately owned surety specialty agency 12 years ago, then partnered with Acrisure in 2018. Today, the
agency specializes in property/casualty and surety for the construction industry in the New England region.
DeSanctis credits the company's continued new business success to a team that combines the enthusiasm
of younger, highly motivated talent with the mentorship and expertise of seasoned pros. "I believe our
DeSanctis Brand, coupled with the size and scale of Acrisure, will continue to lead to more opportunities
both in our local market and also reaching a bit further," DeSanctis said. "I think with the combination of
knowledge and available markets, we are poised for continued growth."
Blake Shannon's family has deep roots in agriculture, having farmed in central California for over 100
years. He worked in the family business that involved farming nuts and table grapes, trucking, green waste
recycling, beef cattle and manure composting before his 1994 graduation from Fresno State with a degree
in agricultural business. He started with Andreini after graduation, drawn to the agricultural industry niche.
His focus includes grower-shipper packers, ag transportation, poultry operations, feed manufacturers,
grain elevators, and all types of farming — vineyards, citrus, nut crops, blueberries — including large farm
labor contractors. "I truly understand my customers' needs, their industry's hurdles, costs, and other issues
that only a business owner can comprehend," Shannon said. "My family currently operates four different
businesses and employs more than 100 full-time employees. I have come across just about every type of
claim, lawsuit and issue from both the broker's side and the business owner's side. I think that helps a great
deal in relating to our clients."
Joseph Tejeda wants to help build the things that last. "I come from a family that is heavily involved in the
construction industry, and it is something I was always proud to be a part of," he said. "There is a special
kind of achievement to see things become tangible and part of a community from start to finish." Today, construction insurance and surety, project policies and insuring portfolios make up 95% of his book of business.
Before insurance, Tejeda worked for his family business that does large masonry and stone public works
projects. "My dad took enormous pride in his work, valued his employees, and had a phenomenal reputation
in the industry, and my grandfather was inducted into the masonry hall of fame." His respect for the industry
and firsthand expertise, help him give his clients the support and services they need. Ultimately, he says, it
comes down to knowledge, work ethic and being a good business partner for clients rather than a salesman.
"What I knew about construction was a great jumping-off point, and it's been an asset in the way of insight
to support clients," Tejeda said. "I believe this experience gave me the opportunity to partner with business
owners in the way they truly need from their insurance broker."
When Shane Vander Giessen graduated from the University of Washington in 2009, it was the peak of the
recession, and job prospects were bleak. But he was ready to improvise. "I was able to convince a local brokerage to take a shot on me, paying me commission only while I lived in a renovated chicken coop to make
ends meet while my wife finished college." The career clicked. "I quickly realized an affinity for connecting
with personal lines clients and became the agency's top performing producer as a solely personal lines
producing agent," he said. After four years, he moved to Rice Insurance as their first personal lines-focused
producer. "Since coming to Rice in 2013, we have now grown to eight full-time personal lines producers
and grown the entire personal lines book by more than 800%," he said. He credits internal managers that
developed a top-notch in-house service team, including an in-house technology manager that keeps them
on the cutting edge of leads, sales and service. "Insurance brokerages are at the precipice of having the same
scalability of growth that large captives have had for the last decade-plus," he said. "And I can't wait to see
what the next couple years hold!"
Descended from a family of farmers in Italy, Mark Anelli specializes in wineries and agriculture, joining the
industry after a detour onto the gridiron. The former NFL player joined Morris & Garritano after leaving
the league in 2008 and currently serves as their regional vice president and senior risk advisor, heading up
operations in Irvine, California. "I have developed a strong passion for agricultural science and viticulture
going back to my experience with my family's farm in Italy," Anelli said. "It's there I learned the challenges
and intricacies of the industry and how to care for those involved." Anelli's agricultural background helps him
develop meaningful relationships with his clients across the country, working to understand their challenges
and find solutions that work. "In a particularly difficult market this year, I've been able to lean on my knowledge of the industry and expertise in the field to create specialty products and tailor innovative solutions for
my clients," he said. "I'm honored to be a leader among my peers where other brokers can come to me for
advice and insight." Anelli also volunteers in the community and helps create a new generation of leaders as
the head coach for Newport Beach Seahawks Youth Football.
Before kicking off his insurance career in 2008, Chris Huebener worked in the service industry for 10 years
— and continued to work in a restaurant for four years while learning the property/casualty business. Today,
he specializes in home purchases for first-time buyers. He's been named the top agent within Brightway
in sales production every year since 2012. Despite Florida's challenging marketplace, Brightway continues
to see growth year after year, working exclusively with referral partners. The agency receives more than
5,000 referrals per year. "Growing our book of business was never the intended goal, but to just take care of
our clients, and the rest will follow," he said. "We use many different strategies to help with our processes
and are always adapting and growing our model in our office to keep up with the ever-changing market. ...
Implementing different ways of communication, automation, and overall experience has catapulted us into
our next phase of growth."
Cameron Annas joined Granite Insurance in 2013 as a business risk consultant and quickly built what is
known today as the Adventure, Amusement & Entertainment National Practice Group. In 2017, Annas was
promoted to vice president of business development, where he led the organization through unprecedented
growth ranging from 18% to 42% annually. Over the past seven years, the adventure, amusement and
entertainment team has grown from one client to over 300 clients throughout all 50 states. In January
2021, Cameron was promoted to CEO. He also serves as the national practice leader for the Adventure &
Entertainment team. "Surrounding yourself with a talented and high caliber team is the only reason I've
been able to be successful," Annas said. "Our whole team never takes our eye off empowering others! By
focusing on empowering others, we continually are able to matched with the top clients in the adventure
and entertainment industries across the United States."
Edward Nagel started his insurance career in 1989 as a medical malpractice underwriter. The more he worked,
the more he became interested in all areas of insurance and risk management. Ultimately, he found he relished
the complexity of the commercial lines segment. Today, he deals with widely varying industries from construction, street and road, energy, food industry, manufacturing and distribution and transportation. In 1996,
he moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area, where he got into the risk management sector of insurance.
There he began to change how he partnered with clients, providing more consultative services so they could
make more informed decisions on managing their company's risk profile rather than just focusing on an annual
renewal premium. He credits early mentorship from the insurance industry in both coverage and sales with
influencing the unique perspectives that have led to his success. "Today, I embrace this knowledge when I
mentor younger professionals in our industry," he said. He added that everyone in the industry can benefit
from ongoing training and education as the world becomes more complex and clients need more information
and guidance. "I am actively pursuing and promoting this much-needed training and mentorship to benefit our
Francesca Forlivio Lipp started at the scanner — and now she's here. The Connecticut-based agent entered
insurance as an intern who organized data and scanned documents to help her family agency go paperless.
Today, she's a top agent who splits her days 60-40 between protecting clients and working human resources.
"After obtaining my P&C license, I started full time in human resources with no desire to sell," she reflected.
"After chatting with our producers and actively training with account managers and managers to learn
coverages and forms with all 200+ carriers, I dove in and have not looked back." Lipp works with individuals
and families at JMG Insurance Corp. She specializes in personal lines insurance with a niche in high-net-worth
clientele and habitational investments. That incredible feeling when clients glowingly refer her to friends,
family and neighbors has guided her professional path. She said it has led her to phenomenal financial and real
estate professionals. "Between these two streams, I am ever busy expanding my network and my clients," she
said. "I am very grateful to be continuously growing these last nine years with no intention of slowing down!"
John Chamness Jr. offers two words as the key to success: lifelong learning. "Overall, the important thing is
not to become a dinosaur in any area, whether it's regarding customer service, product knowledge, or sales
expertise," he said. "Dinosaurs become extinct. In the insurance industry, perhaps more so than in other
fields of endeavor, staying current, staying educated, and staying engaged are the best ways to stay relevant
and successful." Four years ago, Chamness moved from a direct writing company to writing commercial
business. In his first year, he wrote nearly 70 accounts, about 90% construction and contractors. Since
then, that has been the primary focus of his book growth. Chamness' strategy is built on excellent customer
service, product knowledge and, of course, continual learning. Because the landscape of insurance changes
frequently, from carrier appetites to underwriting personnel changes, to additions and changes to coverage,
it requires an agent to be fluid in their pursuit of ongoing education, he said. "So many agents are taught to
sell insurance but are never schooled on the intricacies of insurance coverage. From my start, I have always
viewed that as not only careless but dangerous," he said. "… The more you know about what you are
providing, the better you will do at presenting it to your prospects. So, by combining product knowledge
with continued sales training, an agent can become a double threat."
At IOA West Palm Beach, Rick Neyman manages the global insurance interests of some of South Florida's
most successful companies, including businesses with ten-figure annual insurance spends. "I view
business risk globally, and both human risk and healthcare are always part of the risk-management and
risk-financing discussions," he said. Neyman specializes in large and complex risks with broad experience
in manufacturing, construction, healthcare and technology. He also maintains dual expertise in both property/casualty and employee benefits. After college, he started his insurance career in Washington, D.C. He
relocated to Florida 25 years ago, spending a large part of his career working at the 100-year-old firm, Slaton
Risk Services, where he grew to over half of the firm's total revenue. About five years ago, when Slayton's
owner passed away, Neyman purchased a little over half of the assets to open IOA WPB Florida. That
agency now has 25 total insurance professionals (partners and staff). "I would especially credit working
relentlessly to protect the best interests of my clients through innovation while only bringing quality risks
with ethical owners and managers to my carrier relationships," he said. "This is a business of long-term
relationships where smart people who are driven to find a better way for their clients can achieve unlimited
Teaching English in Tokyo? Check. Building mansions in Montana? Check. Selling customs bonds and cargo
insurance? Add it to the list. Travis Smith's talents are borderless. At Trade Risk Guaranty, he helps U.S.
importers secure tools for continued international trade success. "Building relationships with clients and
understanding their pain points has been key," he shared. "Given the events over the past six-plus years, there
has been ample opportunities to relate to a client based on their struggles." The trade war with China, container congestion and the increased visibility of U.S. Customs have all presented hurdles. Free TRG webinars and
content enable clients to succeed. Smith believes the risks of transporting goods through any mode can't be
ignored. "Our niche products (the customs bond and cargo insurance) can't be properly administered without
a deep knowledge of many different aspects," he said. "From U.S. Customs compliance to relationships with
key cargo insurance underwriters to new U.S. laws such as the UFLPA, knowledge, and experience from the
TRG team as a whole supports the growth of my book of business."