How One Agent Adopted a Niche within a Niche

Phillip Hawley, president of Hawley & Associates in Bellevue, Wash., understands the power of referrals in the nonprofit insurance world. His entire agency’s book of business took root with nonprofit referrals – one right after the other.

Hawley began his insurance career at Chubb Group, eventually landing in management as international underwriter and regional division leader. After 17 years on the company side, Hawley decided to explore a career as an independent agent and broker.

“The first thing I noticed as a broker was this lack of any ability to differentiate yourself from the other brokers in the area,” he said.

The firm he was at was a large regional firm specializing in construction. “They handed you the phone book and said, ‘That’s what we specialize in.'”

Hawley remembered his first call: “I get a hold of this guy and I said, ‘I’m Phil and we specialize in construction.’ And his response was, ‘Yeah, you and everybody else.’ And it was so true. We all specialized in construction.”

That’s when Hawley started looking for a better way to differentiate himself. And it came during a family conversation with his brother-in-law.

“My brother-in-law was the executive director for one of the world’s largest international adoption agencies and he had just returned from a national conference,” he said. “He said everyone there had expressed frustration that there wasn’t one insurance broker out there that knew anything about adoption,” Hawley recalled. “He said, ‘You should really look into this,’ and so I did.”

Hawley began reaching out to international adoption agencies. “I couldn’t believe how willing they were to talk to me. They said no one had ever called them … and it started the snowball rolling downhill.”

He approached his employer at the time about forming a specialty in international adoption. “It was a space I couldn’t find anyone else in.”

But his employer laughed. “They seriously thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard,” he said. “‘We do construction. We do big cranes and towers and you’re talking about doing babies? Are you nuts?'”

Hawley had a decision to make – continue along the same path in construction along with everyone else or quit.

“It was really the first time I ever took a chance in my life,” he said. “I quit and set up my own shop, Hawley and Associates, and began writing adoption agencies in my very first month.”

Hawley uncovered a niche within a niche, and struck gold.

“It was going so fast, it was making my head spin,” he said. Within a few months he had hired a couple of employees and within three or four years, he had written more than half of all U.S. based international adoption agencies. Just three years later his agency had earned the endorsement of the National Council for Adoption Associations in Washington, D.C.

From there, Hawley expanded into domestic adoption agencies, and then foster care agencies.

“Today, we are a full-service firm and provide insurance for any social service agency whether it’s a humanitarian organization or a local foundation or a very large, diversified organization,” he said. “We’re just a small brokerage just outside of Seattle, but we have two of the state’s largest nonprofits.”

Hawley serves some of the largest social service nonprofits in country, including one of the oldest U.S. adoption agencies, the Gladney Center for Adoption, an organization founded in 1887.

“We’ve really grown by becoming real specialists and experts in this area,” he said.

Today, Hawley is a recognized speaker on insurance issues surrounding the social services market especially in the smaller niche sector of foster care and adoption agencies.

Adoption is a very risky class of business and probably an area to avoid without expertise, he said.

“The E&O exposure is huge and it’s just not something that you can go into without a good understanding of how to cover them,” Hawley said.

It’s about finding the right niche within this niche market.

“Insurance brokers have to find their niche, whatever that niche is,” he said. “You’ve got to find your specialty. Instead of, ‘I’m a construction specialist, it should be ‘We specialize in mechanical contractors’ or whatever it is.”