The Best Independent Agencies to Work For … And Why

By | December 20, 2009

The results are in from the “2009 Best Independent Insurance Agency to Work For” survey by Insurance Journal. The common theme resonating from the winning responses is one of family ideals. Regardless of size or geographic region, employees of the Best Agencies to Work For in 2009 value a working environment that resembles a supportive, stable family. The leaders and managers of these agencies encourage and listen to their employees, create opportunities for success and growth, and provide a sense of stability and protection against the challenges of these uncertain economic times.

Also, the Best Agencies to Work For value the greater community, providing avenues for employees to participate in community service, and advocating for a better and greener world.

While benefits are important to employees, in these winning agencies, the employees respond with understanding that their employers are doing the best they can to provide benefits and express gratitude at having access, regardless of affordability.

The owners of the Best Agencies to Work for in 2009 focus on their employees as their most important assets, each implementing a different approach to fostering the continued growth and security of these assets. Their approaches include promoting a caring, family-like atmosphere from top management down; supporting the community where they work and live, and allowing employees to take part in that mission; providing professional development and a mentor program; encouraging a balance between work and home life; rewarding employees for excellence and commitment; and fostering teamwork.

The survey results are employee-driven, the evaluations are based on employee feedback, and the comments are also from employees. The winners offer other agency owners insight into the benefits, working environments and management styles most valued by employees. This year’s winners provide six lessons for agency managers to apply in their workplaces to foster the loyalty and satisfaction of the employees that can be found in the Best Agencies to Work For in 2009.

Best Overall Agency to Work For

Ramza Insurance GROUP Streator, Illinois


Lesson No. 1: “Our agency owner treats us like family …”

Leadership at Ramza Insurance Group is shared by father and son, Craig Ramza Sr. and Craig Ramza Jr. With a specialty in insurance for public entities serving schools, cities and municipalities through Illinois, the Ramza Insurance Group operates from locations in Streator and Ottawa, Illinois. As one of the first agencies to invest in technology to interface with carriers for instant rate comparisons, Ramza now represents 30 insurance companies and reports premiums written in the range of $11 million to $26 million.

The Ramzas have cultivated an environment that “feels like family,” where management supports its employees both professionally and personally, encourages attention to family and personal needs, and fosters mutual gratitude between employees and owners.

The sentiments of the survey respondents describe the Ramzas with great loyalty and pride. “[W]e have the best employer who always guides us in the right direction and is always willing to give us advice, both professionally and personally …,” offered one enthusiastic member of this agency family.

Contributing to the family environment is the longevity of the agency’s employees, as they have shared many life experiences over the years, exemplified by the attendance of the entire agency at employee Michelle Sheedy’s daughter’s wedding this fall.

Craig Jr. attributes the lack of turnover to the way the employees are treated at Ramza. “Our employees know why they are here and what they get paid to do. And as long as their work meets our expectations, they pretty much have no restrictions. I know they really appreciate the freedom, and it definitely makes for a better, less stressful working environment, ” he said.

This philosophy is shared by Craig Sr. during the interview process. He tells potential employees, “If I ever walk into the office and you’re telling a joke, I’m not going to be upset that you are telling a joke on company time. I’m going to be upset if you don’t start over so I can hear it, too.” His sense of humor is shared by his son, Craig Jr.

Commitment to family and the youth in their communities is reflected through sponsorship of the local Streator youth soccer, baseball and softball leagues, Ottawa national little league and the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for pediatric cancer research.

The agency also has embraced the local animal shelter, running a weekly ad spotlighting pets available for adoption at Pet Project Inc., and the agency organizes fundraisers for the shelter.

West Region Best Agency to Work For

Heffernan Insurance Brokers Walnut Creek, California


Lesson No. 2: “We are dedicated to giving generously in the communities where our employees live and work.”

Since its inception in 1988, Heffernan Insurance Brokers has grown to nine branch locations with a staff of more than 400 that “feel like family.” Heffernan is among the largest agencies nominated, writing $100 million or more in premiums.

In the early years, CEO Michael Heffernan focused on the not-for-profit sector, and despite expanding to serve an array of industries, he has not forgotten the importance of the not-for-profit organizations throughout his market. He encourages his employees to become involved in their communities and donates a portion of the profits to well-deserving organizations each year. Employees enjoy the opportunity to volunteer four days per year outside of the office, adopt a family during the holidays, and support “green” initiatives in the office and the greater community. They are very proud to have their efforts associated with an agency ranked as a top philanthropic business in their market.

The positive atmosphere is a reflection of the corporate motto, “Answer the Phones and Have Fun,” a place where teamwork is promoted and employees are treated as the most important asset. Heffernan Agency provides its employees access to a wellness director and yoga instruction twice weekly, supporting mind, body and spirit.

Michael Heffernan’s secret recipe to the best work environment: “If you allow people to do their jobs by creating an environment where they can work well, and you don’t impose your will upon them, then you’ll have a better service platform,” said the CEO.

South Central Region Best Agency to Work For

Swingle Collins & Associates Dallas, Texas


Lesson No. 3: “The atmosphere here is one of a teaching agency for new producers and is conducive to learning the business the right way.”

Swingle Collins & Associates, one of the largest property/casualty agencies in the Dallas area, prides itself on best practices and continual professional development of its employees. Employees of Swingle Collins value the training and continued education provided by their leaders, viewing this benefit as the means to achievement and success. Frank Swingle, who founded the agency in 1982, fully embraces hiring new, inexperienced salespeople with the intention of providing them the tools to succeed. New producers are enrolled in the Independent Agents of Texas Producer Training program, in addition to various training programs provided by partner carriers, such as the 30-week Commercial Lines New Producer Program offered by America First of the Liberty Mutual Group. Each new producer is assigned an in-house mentor to support him or her through this vigorous training process.

Swingle Collins & Associates reports premiums written between $51 million to $100 million. Recognized for its “Best Practices” in 2009 by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, Frank Swingle believes in his motto, “When you work with us, you work with us.” This motto inspires continued training and best practices to insure that clients will be taken care of throughout the entire process by the knowledgeable employees of his agency.

Southeast Region Best Agency to Work For

Senn Dunn Greensboro, North Carolina


Lesson No. 4: “Senn Dunn provides such a sense of care and balance, it makes everyone here want to work hard for the company and the clients it supports.”

Ranked one of the most family friendly companies in North Carolina by Carolina Family Inc., Senn Dunn not only treats its employees like family but also encourages them to strike a balance between work and home life. Policies such as half-day Fridays and bonuses given for taking a full week of vacation are ways the agency encourages employees to take time out for their own families. Although Senn Dunn now operates from four locations throughout North Carolina with more than 140 employees and reports more than $100 million premiums written a year, the owners mobilize the entire agency in support of employees and their families during personal crisis and illness. Meals are prepared when family members are sick, and extended leave is offered to employees if family members need care. When one employee became extremely ill, her benefits were extended and position held until she fully recovered and rejoined her team at work. The motto of Senn Dunn, “Let Us Handle It!” is intended for the clients, but it sees the owners take the same approach with their employees to insure they have a working environment that fosters commitment, hard work and satisfied clients.

Employees attest to the efforts of their owners to navigate the economic challenges and insure stability and a prosperous future.

As stated by the leadership at Senn Dunn: “There is never a decision made that does not involve thorough analysis of the implications of the team.” This is exemplified by the design of the headquarters building, in which all support staff have outer window offices while sales and owners have inner offices, providing those spending the most time in the office with the views of the outdoors.

Despite growing rapidly, the leadership is credited with promoting the family friendly environment, as well as upholding the commitment to a balanced lifestyle and the belief that the Golden Rule still applies.

East Region Best Agency to Work For

Clark-Mortenson Agency Keene, New Hampshire


Lesson No. 5: “Our input matters, our ideas are considered, our voices are heard …”

The rewarding culture of Clark-Mortenson Agency makes it the best agency to work for in the East region that runs from Maine to Virginia. With seven locations throughout New Hampshire and premiums written between $26 million and $50 million a year, President Tom Minkler has found creative ways to maintain a tightly knit team and recognize his employees for their commitment.

Throughout the year, peers vote for employees who uphold the company mission, brand and values. The winners are recognized with the Summit Award: a $500 bonus, crystal award, name on the company plaque, and dinner with one’s spouse and senior management. Employee anniversaries are celebrated with cards, flowers and bonuses beginning at $100 and increasing each year. The Longevity Recognition Award marks the five-year anniversary with a $1,500 bonus and 10-year anniversary with a $3,000 bonus. The bonuses are to be used on vacations, and upon return, all share in the photos and memories of the trips taken.

At one year of service, employees may finance home computers interest-free through payroll deduction. Employees are also treated to an annual summer outing and a December holiday party.

To break up the winter “blahs,” the agency holds a Life Skills Day each January. The office is closed and all employees participate in seminars and team building exercises.

All employees receive equal share of three quarterly profit sharing checks, reflecting the recognition of the team effort. The fourth becomes a contribution to each employee’s 401k, based upon a percentage of salary.

Minkler believes that his employees are his most valuable resource and great care is given to making sure employees want to come to work. His “bottom up, not top down” philosophy is reflected in his engagement of employees in what makes their environment a better place to work, regularly implementing the changes necessary to meet their needs. “I want to be surrounded by people that make us all stronger” and by rewarding their efforts and supporting their needs, Minkler said.

Midwest Region Best Agency to Work For

RATHBUN AGENCY Lansing, Michigan


Lesson No. 6: “This is not a job, it is a team…Team Rathbun!”

A quick browse through Rathbun Agency’s website, www.rathbunagency.com, reveals the importance of the associates to the owners of this Lansing, Mich., agency. The team photo highlights each member’s contribution to the agency, and the agency directory is complete with individual photos.

Serving 4,200 clients in the mid-Michigan market, employees describe the agency as compassionate and caring, where there is a sense of belonging. Employees are motivated to work for the collective good of the team as all receive financial benefit through a profit sharing program at year-end. Although the economic downturn has reduced these profits, the owners have subsidized the year-end bonus program by reducing their own profits to insure that the employees of Rathbun remain well-compensated.

Providing full financial transparency to all associates creates an awareness of expenses and revenues, and the direct impact of their collective hard work. Employees are keenly aware that during these financial times, the owners are acting responsibly and proactively to insure security for the agency.

Associates enjoy unusual perks including miscellaneous gift days that include flowers, fruit, sweet corn and the occasional lunch; cases of favorite beverages; snow free cars in the winter time and special bonuses.

Asked how the team environment is supported, owner John Keel responded quickly: “First of all, there are no employees here, only associates, and we treat them as our partners.” All associates are cross-trained to provide support to one another and strengthen the support for clients. The team effort is promoted with group events, including trips to the baseball park, group shopping trips and occasional meals together.

Finally, there is literally an “open door” policy as Keel had the doors removed from the offices.

About the Survey

The results of the “Insurance Journal 2009 Best Independent Insurance Agencies to Work For” survey are from research that began with an online survey on www.insurancejournal.com in August. Employees were asked to nominate property/casualty independent insurance agencies; respondents were limited to current employees of the agency being nominated. A minimum of five agency employee nominations was required for an agency to be nominated.

Employees had to complete a survey with 20 multiple part, in-depth questions on their working environment, employee benefits, work satisfaction, and evaluations of owners and immediate bosses. They were asked for confidential testimonials and supporting information. A total of 1,102 eligible employees representing 66 different insurance agencies participated.

Each question was assigned to one of five categories and assigned a numerical weight. The responses were scored according to various factors that included the importance to employees of the category and employees’ degree of satisfaction with their agency, boss and owner in that category. The responses were further analyzed in light of additional information that included specific workplace examples, relevant supporting comments and the size of the agency, along with the number of employees participating. The process produced the agency with the highest overall score, as well as the top performers for each of five regions.

Contributors to the survey and analysis included Insurance Journal Editor-in-Chief Andrea Wells, Wells Publishing Vice President of New Business Development Adam Dunford, Wells Publishing Vice President of Content Andrew Simpson, MyNewMarkets.com Associate Editor Christopher J. Boggs, and others with insurance and management experience. Pamela Simpson, a management consultant based in South Hadley, Mass., conducted final verifications and analysis, and authored the winners’ profiles.

About Pamela Simpson

Pam is the Senior Strategist, Branded Content & Research for Insurance Journal. More from Pamela Simpson

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