What Young Agents Value About Being Independent

Good things come to those who wait and work hard. Even in today’s challenging economic climate, young independent insurance agents remain hopeful and happy to be in a profession that allows them to work independently, be their own boss and reap the success of their efforts.

A career as an independent insurance agent is among the best kept secrets in business, according to Joey O’Connor, vice president of Daniel & Eustis LLC, based in Metairie, La., just outside of New Orleans.

“I think young people coming out of college would be floored at just how successful you can be as an independent insurance agent,” says O’Connor, who serves as the chairman of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America’s Young Agents Committee. “You really have the best of all worlds.”

He notes that agents are in a sales environment where they are directly paid for their success and in many instances, they work as their own boss, giving them the freedom and independence entrepreneurs seek.

Profile of Young Agents

Older Side of Young:
62% are 31 to 40 years old; 38% are 30 and under.

Career Choice:
84% consider insurance to be a permanent career choice; 14% are unsure.

56% have a college degree; 60% have completed or are working on an insurance designation.

25% have less than three years in insurance; 29% have six to 10 years; 21% have three to five years; 25% have 11 or more years.

Family Affairs:
56% work in family-owned agencies.

Ownership Dreams:
73% do not presently own an agency; of these, 57% would like to own someday.

Working Class:
52% work between 41 and 50 hours a week.

Gender ID:
Male 66%; Female 34%

Recruitment Target:
52% have been offered a job by another agency.

O’Connor is not alone in valuing the independence that comes with his job. What many young independent agents — those 40 years old or younger — like the most about their jobs is the freedom it gives them to control their own destiny, according to Insurance Journal’s 2009 Young Agents Survey. For many of the 692 young independent agents surveyed, freedom is what they enjoy most about the industry.

One survey respondent wrote, “Freedom is the best thing about being an independent agent.” And another simply said he enjoys the “freedom in every way.”

Patience to Succeed

While young agents may enjoy the autonomy on the job, being a young independent agent is not a get rich quick career, says Meghan McGarry, a 30-year-old commercial account representative for Marshall & Sterling Inc. in Leeds, N.Y., an Insurance Journal Top 100 Agency.

O’Connor adds that patience is important to being a successful agent. “The toughest thing about being a young agent is remaining patient enough to let the course of time work in your favor,” he says.

“There’s really no shortcut,” to success, according to the Louisianan. “Young agents just have to realize that there’s a little bit of a curve there that they are going to have to be willing to fight through; but once they do I think they will find it’s well worth it.”

The first five to 10 years as an independent agent will not be a “cakewalk,” says 30-year-old Joel Geddes III, at the Modesto, Calif.-based Capax Insurance. Geddes, who has been an agent for five years, is a third generation insurance professional, following his grandfather and his father, Joel Geddes Jr., who is CEO of Capax today.

Despite growing up in insurance, Geddes never thought he’d enter the profession. “It’s one of those things that you see your parents doing and it didn’t look appealing,” he said. As Geddes explored other business career fields, he soon found that insurance offered impressive opportunities for a high salary and advancement potential.

Geddes has accepted the reality that it will take time to build a good career. “But once you do, it can be very good to you,” he said. “You are going to put in a lot of time and a lot of extra effort up front, but after you get past that point it will be worth it.”

Steve Parkhurst, 32, has only been in the insurance industry for a year. Previously, Parkhurst had a successful six-year career in the mortgage industry but “got out at the right time,” he said. After that, he landed a position selling small commercial accounts at Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Heffernan Insurance Brokers, also an Insurance Journal Top 100 Agency.

As a new insurance agent, Parkhurst admits there’s a lot to learn and young agents have to be dedicated if they want to succeed. “You have to put in extra hours,” Parkhurst says. “You can’t just stick to the 9 to 5,” he added. Despite the long hours, Parkhurst has no complaints, except the endless industry jargon he’s not yet accustomed to.

Helpers at Heart

Parkhurst most enjoys helping his clients, making sure they have the coverage they need. In that sentiment Parkhurst is typical of today’s young agents, who identify helping others solve challenges as among the major reasons they like being an independent agent.

“I love helping people and this is a great way to help people,” says Marshall & Sterling’s McGarry. “On a personal level you are helping them protect their homes, their vehicles, their family. On a business level, you are helping them protect their livelihood.”

For Brewa M. Kennedy, owner of Today’s Insurance Solutions in Orlando, Fla., working as an independent insurance agent has allowed him to focus on great customer service. Even though owning his own business comes with its challenges, Kennedy says he has found it to be “much more freeing” than working for someone else. “I can approach business the way I want to,” he said.

Insurance was not his first career. Kennedy, 33, became an independent agent only after years of service in the airline industry and then a brief stint as a captive agent with Allstate. After just six months as an Allstate agent, Kennedy decided “very quickly that in the Florida market it was not in the best interest for the agent or the insured” to write only with Allstate, so he terminated his contract with the national insurer. Then he opened up his own independent insurance agency.

Kennedy admits, “it’s been hard” but he has learned a few lessons along the way. “It’s my first time owning a small business and my first time working in the insurance industry,” he said. To top it off, it’s his first time managing people.

Challenges abound, especially in the Florida insurance market, Kennedy says he sees opportunity where most would not.
“It is a little bit scary (right now), I won’t lie,” he admits, “but at the same time millionaires are made in times like these.” Kennedy sees his opportunity in the Florida personal lines property market where he’s ready and able to take market share from fleeing national carriers.

Eye on the Future

Despite the economic recession, most young agents continue to be optimistic about their future. According to the IJ survey, 85 percent feel very optimistic or optimistic about their own career as an agent.

Young agents also have high hopes for the future of the independent agent system — some 82 percent are very optimistic or optimistic.

Young agents are also confident in their ability to grow market share — 73 percent reported being very optimistic or optimistic.

McGarry believes that now is the perfect time to help existing clients and gain new ones. “I think people are looking to us more than ever to help educate them about what they need and what they don’t need,” she advised. Since many people are looking to cut back on extra coverages now, it’s more important than ever for agents to make themselves available, she says.

Capax’s Geddes agrees, adding that constant communication with his customers is a must. “I think one of the best things a young producer can do is to just stay in contact with your customers and let them know what’s going on in the market.”

When the economy improves and people begin to start up new businesses, young agents need to be ready, advises McGarry. “Young agents need to position themselves accordingly and be ready because opportunities will start presenting themselves and you want to be prepared to meet the challenge.”

Independence Through Teamwork

While the tendency is for independent agents to stress their independence and go solo, a team approach can be very valuable to producers who are new to the industry.

“When producers first come in, instead of handing them the Yellow Pages and saying, ‘You are on your own, go hit the streets,'” more agencies are pairing a younger producer with a more seasoned producer, maintains Joey O’Connor, vice president of Daniel & Eustis LLC, based in Metairie, La., and chairman of the Big “I” Young Agents Committee. “I think that alleviates a lot of frustration and the inclination to say, ‘This isn’t going to work for me, I’m going to quit.'”

Joel Geddes III, a 30-year-old agent at the Modesto, Calif.-based Capax Insurance, says being part of a selling team has helped him generate new business, although his partner is not an older veteran but rather a fellow young agent.

Geddes, who has been an agent for five years, says about a year ago he and his partner decided to team up to get new business. “Being a young agent is all about building your book and if you are not out there proactively marketing, cold calling, building relationships, then you are not going to get any new business, especially in today’s market,” Geddes said. So the two producers decided they would be able to encourage each other’s marketing efforts better as a team. “The encouragement has been really good,” he said.

“We go out and do team selling especially with the larger accounts. Team selling seems to do very well with the larger customers,” Geddes explained.

Geddes says the team splits everything.

Another benefit, “We are able to be very frank with each other. … The ability to be candid is a very valuable asset.”

Gaining credibility in the eyes of clients who may be 10, 20 or even 30 years older is a challenge for any young salesperson.

In addition to teammates, there are many resources to help younger producers succeed more quickly, notes O’Connor. The Big “I’s” Virtual University is one example. There are also many national education and training programs for new producers.