Making the jump from a being a captive agent to an independent one is not for the faint of heart, says one veteran Chicago-based agent.
But Sharon Robles has no regrets, none at all.
Robles was a successful captive agent for 18 years with a Midwest regional carrier, she told Peter Van Artrijk and Rick Morgan in “Captive Agent Successfully Goes Over the Wall,” an On Point podcast running on IJTV. But things started to move in a direction she didn’t want to go and she figured it was time to look around for other opportunities.
“The writing was on the wall, a lot of the companies were going in different directions, and that’s okay. I think a lot of them want to be direct writers in terms of … they want to sell insurance online,” Robles says.
So about a year and a half ago she made the transition and established her own independent agency, the Sharon Robles Agency.
“What I really love about being an independent agent is: you’re truly your own boss. You’re truly independent, you’re truly your own business owner and that really is not necessarily the case when you’re on the captive side,” Robles says.
Primarily a personal lines agent, Robles says she occasionally writes commercial business that comes to her through her clients. But, she says, “I prefer to be in the personal lines space. That’s what I really enjoy doing; that’s what my focus is. I’ve been pretty successful at that.”
Making the switch from captive to independent is not for everybody and it can really be “scary,” Robles says, admitting that she’s had her share of sleepless nights since making the change.
Being a captive agent has its advantages. In the captive industry, “you have a great opportunity to learn the business. There’s some financial assistance that is available. … It is a great opportunity to get in, get your feet wet, learn the business. … but my advice is not to stay in it too long,” she says.
It has its disadvantages too. Unlike an independent, a captive agent doesn’t own their own book of business and that’s a big disadvantage, Robles says. “When you leave, the book stays with the captive carrier. That is a huge barrier … and why agents stay too long. They don’t get to take anything with them. [The companies] classify you as an independent contractor but they can pretty much terminate you at any time. It’s an at-will type of relationship between you and the captive.”
Upon becoming independent, Robles says she was surprised there were so many different companies offering so many different coverages.
“The company I was with pretty much had the same auto policy for 20 years, the same homeowner policy for 20 years. There was really not a lot of innovation in the product. So at some point it becomes difficult to sell because you’re competing with all these other companies offering all these different things,” Robles says.
Marketing as an independent is a challenge, she says. “That’s something that you really have to focus on when you leave your captive company, because they do all the marketing for you.”
A newly independent agent on the other hand has to figure out who they are, what they represent and what they have to offer.
“The advertising pieces are probably the hardest things to get your hands around,” Robles says.
One of the most gratifying things she’s learned since making the transition, though, is that while the captive company owns the files and the paper, the agent still owns the relationships.
“That’s yours and yours alone,” she says. And as it turned out because of the strength of those relationships her clients migrated with her.
A year and a half into her journey into independence, Robles says she’s completed her “freshman year,” in which she focused on getting acclimated to a new way of doing business.
“Now I’m kind of in my sophomore year, so I’m starting to focus a lot more on marketing. … I do a lot through Facebook. I’m doing a lot of my soft marketing through a company called Rocket Referrals,” she says.
‘Coming to Disneyland’
Robles values her time as a captive and says she learned a lot from her carrier, but “leaving them and coming to the independent system, it’s been like coming to Disneyland. I feel like I’ve been able to reinvent myself and reach out to other agents who are trying to make the transition.”
There are so many things to think about, when you make the leap. For instance, if you “have a smaller book — under $5 million — you’re probably not to be able to go knock on Travelers’ door and Safeco’s door and State Auto’s door and have a contract with them. So one of the things you might want to look into if you’re thinking about making the transition is to go with an aggregator,” she says.
In her case, Robles went with a turnkey operation. “They have a management system in place; they do the back office accounting. They have access to a lot of different markets that I would never have been able to get on my own. So even though they take some of your commission, they’re usually able to negotiate somewhat of a higher commission with the carriers in the first place. So even after the split you’re probably about even with what you could do on your own.”
Another thing to think about is creating your own website. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just functional. “If somebody wants to make a payment, make a claim, you direct them to your website. If they can do those couple of things, that’s probably the majority of what people need to do online,” she says.
Other items include getting your own email address, setting up a business Facebook page, and acquiring your own phone systems, signs, business cards and letterhead.
“You might need a new business entity, a new tax ID number. You might need to open new bank accounts. If your captive company provided your computers, you might need to buy new computers,” she says.
One of the most important things is to keep your own phone number. “That’s your number one asset,” she says.
If a captive agent is thinking about transitioning to the independent side, Robles recommends making list of pros and cons — staying with a captive versus leaving.
“It’s not going to be the same for everybody. But it’s been really good for me. … In my first year of independent agency, my commission was 50 percent of what it took me 18 years to establish with the captive system. So it’s possible and it just keeps getting better and better,” she says.
Finally, Robles says she has a “really good assistant” and strongly recommends not trying to go it alone.
“Get help, you’re going to need it,” she says.
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