The call to become an insurance agent is different for everyone.
For Matthew Ostrow the call to become an independent agent came via social media. Thirty-year old Ostrow entered insurance just five months ago after a recruiting firm contacted him directly on LinkedIn. Today he is business development manager with Widerman & Co. Inc., based in Haddonfield, N.J.
The timing was right, Ostrow says.
“It was perfect timing because I had just started looking at switching careers,” he says. Ostrow had spent nearly nine years working at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which hired him shortly after college graduation. After working in sales and management for the international car rental company, Ostrow had the business and sales skills needed to make a change but he wasn’t sure where to go.
After speaking with the recruiter, Ostrow became intrigued. He did some research on the insurance industry and was soon matched up with Widerman & Co. Inc.
“I think it was a good match,” he says. “I really like their focus and that they want to remain independently, family-owned and operated.”
Widerman & Co. is a not a large agency — about 25 employees — but it is strong and committed to the independent agency structure, something that appealed to Ostrow.
Perhaps the most appealing draw was the agency’s promise of commitment to his growth through a dedicated mentor.
“That was really one of the selling points for me to come here,” Ostrow says.
According to Insurance Journal’s Young Agents Survey 2014, 79.2 percent of respondents feel they have benefited from having another agent as a mentor during their career.
Ostrow was paired up with Dan McCutcheon, vice president, strategic development. “He has over 40 years of experience, and while he doesn’t know everything he knows a lot and has seen a lot. He’s committed and that’s his main focus — to help teach and guide newer producers,” Ostrow says.
That commitment to growing the next generation of sales producers through education and training comes from the top, he says.
“It’s something that the principals see as being very important to the success and growth of our firm,” Ostrow says. “I work very closely with my mentor. We have regular meetings throughout the week. We have a general meeting every Monday and we set up meetings throughout the week to address different insurance issues. He’s been invaluable and I think a very important part of my learning process.”
Aside from his mentor, Ostrow participates in outside insurance training courses and webinars and is working on the Accredited Advisor in Insurance (AAI) designation from The Institutes.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 50 percent of the insurance industry’s workforce is above the age of 45.
Understanding what motivates young people to decide on a career as an independent agent is critical to the survival of many agencies nationwide as the agency workforce continues to age, according to David Coon, senior vice president of The Jacobson Group, a global provider of talent to the insurance industry.
“Employers are finding themselves faced with a lack of incumbent talent to fill the pending skills gap and are unprepared to face an increasingly competitive recruitment marketplace, ” says Coon. “To combat this pending skills gap and ensure the continued success of organizations within the insurance industry, companies must focus on engaging and recruiting young professionals and recent graduates.”
Finding and recruiting young professionals into the independent agency channel is the hard part. Once they are in, they tend to stay.
According to Insurance Journal’s Young Agents Survey 2014, 86.3 percent of young insurance agents consider insurance as a permanent career choice, and 44.7 percent say they are “very confident” they will one day be an agency owner.
While some young agents dream of ownership in their future, others start as owners from day one.
For Aaron Levine, owner and founder of LG Insurance Group based in Long Branch, N.J., doing business his way seemed like the only way.
While attending graduate school, Levine worked part-time as an independent sub-producer for another insurance agency. That’s all it took for him to know that he wanted insurance as a permanent career — at 27 years old.
“I had explored a couple of different options, including a career in commercial real estate, retail leasing. But at that time, from 2006-2008, the market bottomed out and I wasn’t making any money,” Levine says.
He thought: “Insurance is a product that everybody needs and it’s almost recession proof. I figured I’d be safe going into insurance and if I get in while the market is down, then I’ll reap the benefits when the market heats up.”
Working for another firm didn’t sit well with Levine. “I decided that I wanted to put all of my energy into the business but it would have to be on different terms, as in my own terms,” he says. “I’m now in fifth year of business and started with a book of exactly zero.”
Building an independent agency as a new, young agent, wasn’t easy, he admits. Finding the right network and markets has helped.
“I got very lucky as I was connecting with markets,” Levine says. “I was very lucky to have some good mentors to help me along my way within the wholesale arena.”
Levine also joined the Strategic Insurance Agency Alliance, or SIAA.
“I got connected with the SIAA group and with that connection I was able to get education and market access to all the markets that I needed to be successful,” he says. “Without them I don’t think I would have succeeded without that market access and the education that they provide.”
Levine says LG Insurance Group, which is part of the New Jersey Agency Network, an SIAA master agency, has been able to grow with the help of SIAA and also grow independently through direct carrier appointments.
LG Insurance now has two full time employees and one part-time employee aside from Levine.
As his agency grows, Levine says he won’t be cutting ties with SIAA.
“I’m pleased with SIAA and the New Jersey Agency Network,” he says. “I’ll continue to grow with them throughout the years of my career.”
The Right Roles
Not every young professional is suited for the role of sales producer. And not every agent wants to become an agency owner. That doesn’t mean there’s a lack of employment opportunities for others to excel in the independent agency channel.
“If the insurance industry truly wishes to attract this young generation of talent, we must focus on educating young professionals, recent graduates and prospective students on the many opportunities a career in the insurance industry can offer,” according to Jacobson’s Coon.
One young agent that found her niche outside of sales and agency ownership is Rachel Dobbs, marketing coordinator of Sihle Insurance Group based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., an Insurance Journal Top 100 Agency.
Dobbs, like many in the industry, fell into a career in insurance by “accident.”
“I got into insurance accidentally,” Dobbs says, who also serves as a member of the Florida Agents Insurance Association’s Young Agents Council.
While in college, Dobbs worked as a bartender in a local restaurant. An unexpected closure of the restaurant led to an unemployed Dobbs. A friend who worked for a personal lines agency asked Dobbs if she wanted to work for her agency — and so she did.
“I found I really liked it and just stayed there,” Dobbs says. She began taking insurance courses while finishing her regular college workload and became licensed as an agent in 2005 at just 21 years old.
Nine years later, at 30 years old, Dobbs has found her niche in the agency world, she says.
“As the marketing coordinator for Sihle Insurance Group I work on select, key commercial accounts, those over $100,000 in premium,” she says. “I work with all of our carriers and with our 80-something sales people to find the best markets to quote various accounts. Essentially it’s connecting the dots.”
In the beginning, Dobbs says, youth delivered a small hurdle when it came to credibility, but it was easy to overcome.
“I work more as an account manager rather than a direct sales person and I found it [youth] difficult in that relationship because when you first meet a sale person and they are told that you will be handling their book of business, but they see a young 20-something — they are like ‘I don’t think so,'” Dobbs says. “I’ve had some issues with that but found they were pretty quickly overcome by learning how best to communicate with those people as well as showing what I can do.”
According to the IJ survey, 76.4 percent of respondents feel they have to work harder to gain the confidence of clients. The vast majority of young agents (95.4 percent) also reported that success in this business is mostly about building relationships.
She’s considered moving to a more traditional sales role in the agency, but doesn’t think it’s for her. “I think there is a pretty specific personality type for sales and I don’t really have that,” Dobbs says.
For Dobbs, connecting the dots for large account insurance transactions is a good fit, for now.
“I interface with clients on the accounts that I control, which are the key agency accounts, and then the other side of that is working with marketing reps and sales people on market coordination,” Dobbs says.
The position suits Dobbs’ personality and passion for knowledge.
“I’m the kind of person who always likes to learn new things. The beauty of insurance is there is always a client with a different exposure, there’s always a law change, always something to learn. I’ll never come to the place where I’ll know everything,” she says.
After all, there’s never an end to the unusual risk that needs an agent’s attention.
“I’m always going to get that weird risk,” she says. Figuring out the legal issues, the contractual liability issues, the risk management, and working with clients to see where their exposures lie — and how best to cover those — that’s what drives Dobbs’ passion for insurance.
About the Survey
Insurance Journal’s Young Agents Survey 2014 polled more than 400 young agents nationwide on their opinion about the industry, their agency, and how they feel about being an insurance agent. To view the full report with charts of survey data, download the April 7 issue of Insurance Journal magazine.
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