The story began in 1948 when Paul C. Higginbotham returned from military service to open a small personal lines focused insurance agency. More than 70 years later, Higginbotham has grown to become one of the nation’s largest independent agencies, ranking as No. 15 on Insurance Journal’s Top 100.
Rusty Reid, Higginbotham’s chairman, president and CEO, believes the strength of the firm has always been its employees. Reid began at Higginbotham in 1986 as the firm’s 12th employee. He was named CEO at age 27, where he implemented the agency’s employee ownership model.
“It all starts with our employees,” Reid told Insurance Journal. “Our mission statement is to exceed expectations of our employees. Our vision statement is to be the best place for employees to work. And our value statement is to be a family to our employees.”
This employee-focused and family culture has not gone unnoticed even in an organization that operates with more than 1,000 employees.
“It is a community within a community,” wrote one employee in Insurance Journal’s anonymous survey. “Employees are taught to treat each client’s file as if it was their own. Outstanding work is shown appreciation in the weekly production report. Benevolent group where employees embrace and support worthy charities.”
Another survey respondent said: “Higginbotham is simply good. We have good people, with good hearts and good morals.”
For Reid, acknowledgement that Higginbotham employees value the firm’s culture validates what he set out to do years ago. “It’s not just words; we are practicing what we preach,” he said.
Losing that culture as the firm grows and acquires new firms is what worries Reid the most. But employees continue to feel valued even as the organization has exploded in size. One wrote: “I began working at Higginbotham in 1995. I was employee #30. Today, with 1,100 employees, it still feels like a 30-person agency.”
Employees have a say in just about every aspect of the company, Reid said. “We’ve always been an employee owned company where the majority of the company is not only owned by the employees, but employees actually control the company as well.”
That includes giving back to the communities they serve. In 2011, the firm launched its
Higginbotham Community Fund that’s given almost $1.8 million to local charities. Any employee who gives to the fund has the right to request a donation to a charity of their choice, Reid said.
Higginbotham hasn’t lost sight of its culture even when acquiring new firms. In 2018, in addition to growing organically, Higginbotham acquired five independent agencies and two practice groups. But any new acquisition must first pass the “Thanksgiving test” to make sure the culture fits, Reid said.
“My partner Jim Hubbard described many years ago what you call the Thanksgiving test … if you can’t have Thanksgiving dinner with someone, why would you want them as a partner?” Reid said. That means looking at the culture first. “We want to see some commonality as it relates to values. How do they think about their employees? Do they put their clients first? Employee turnover? … Those are the type of conversations we have so we don’t put our culture at risk.”
Reid’s advice to other agency owners – remember that the insurance business is a service business.
“If you want to have a good culture you need to look at how to make sure you are providing a great work environment and reward your employees,” he said. “If the firm does great it shouldn’t be just Wall Street that gets to celebrate – it should also be the employees because without them there is no firm.”
Reid encourages the industry to remember that insurance is about the people – employees and clients.
“It’s almost as if some have lost sight of what the actual business is,” he said. “This business is designed to help others … it’s not just a financial transaction.” It’s the people that makes the industry tick, he says. “Remember that.”
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