Louisiana firm is a family of five diverse
companies with home grown talent

By Thomas A. McCoy


Tommy Huval (second from right), chief executive officer of The Huval Companies, Lafayette, Louisiana, with his wife, Velma (far right), accepts the 1998 Marketing Agency of the Year award from Tom McCoy, editor-in-chief of Rough Notes and Nancy Doucette, senior editor.

It's been exactly 300 years since the French first arrived in Louisiana, and that anniversary, called Congres Mondial, is being celebrated throughout 1999 by Louisianans. Much of the strong French influence in the state today has come from the Acadians, French speaking people who originally came from the East coast of Canada and later became known in Louisiana as "Cajuns." One modern day Cajun, Tommy Huval, CEO of The Huval Companies of Lafayette, Louisiana, has an extra reason to celebrate this year. His firm has been named the Marketing Agency of the Year by the readers of Rough Notes. Laissez les bons temps rouler. (Let the good times roll.)

The Huval Companies won by receiving 34% of readers' ballots in the heaviest voting in the 10 years that the award has been presented. The second and third place finishers from last year's cover stories had 20% and 19% respectively.

Tommy's first reaction? "We're thrilled." So thrilled, in fact, that he decided one celebration was not enough. First, Tommy and his wife, Velma, attended the award presentation in the Rough Notes Company's home city of Indianapolis. Then a month later the agency hosted an award presentation encore, a "down home" crawfish boil for all 60 staff members, their spouses, the insurance commissioner of Louisiana, other business partners and Rough Notes executives.

"We wanted everyone who contributes to our success to be part of this achievement," said Tommy.

The Huval Companies was founded 25 years ago in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana (current population, 7,000), when Tommy's father and uncle purchased a firm that was producing $35,000 in revenues. Tommy joined the agency five years later, while still in college. Today The Huval Companies is an insurance conglomerate which includes a retail agency, a professional liability wholesaler, an employee benefits TPA, a fee-for-service risk management company and eight branch offices handling small commercial and personal accounts. Annual revenues exceed $5 million.

Guests at the Marketing Agency of the Year award dinner included the Rough Notes editorial advisory board (photo at left), other agents and Rough Notes executives. The editorial advisory board members include (standing from left) John Love, AH&T Insurance, Leesburg, Virginia; Dennis Pillsbury, Pillsbury Enterprises, Denville, New Jersey; Dennis Hilton, Cheney Insurance Agency, Damariscotta, Maine; Ron Pitcher, Pitcher Insurance Agency, Palatine, Illinois; and Don Malecki, Malecki & Associates, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Seated left to right are Martin Van Horn and Lois Van Horn, Athens Insurance Center, Athens, Georgia; Wendy Bourdeau, Al Bourdeau Insurance Service, Farmington Hills, Michigan; Max Zimmerman, Zimmerman & Company, Liberal, Kansas; and Henry Bechard, Bechard Insurance Agency, Nashua, New Hampshire.

Tommy explains his business philosophy by describing an old tradition of Cajun store owners. "When a customer pays for his goods and is leaving the store, the owner throws a small item into the customer's bag at no charge--candy, a piece of fruit, whatever is at hand. As the owner places the item in the bag, he says, 'lagniappe.' That's a Cajun word meaning 'something extra.' That's what we try to do at The Huval Companies every day, provide something extra, exceeding our customers' expectations."

The way Huval executes its philosophy of "something extra" is part traditional and part revolutionary.

First the traditional. Large numbers of Huval staff members have grown up in their local area, known as Acadiana, where some French is still spoken. Like Tommy, they remain proud of their heritage and committed to the communities in which they live. Although Lafayette itself is not small (population, approximately 100,000) and The Huval Companies has an increasing number of customers in other parts of the state, there is "small town" pride among their staff members at all levels.

This drives staff members to go the extra mile for a customer. Dennis Landry, who manages the agency's branch office operations (and who has known Tommy since the first grade of elementary school), tells of a recent Friday night when one of their branch managers received a phone call at home at 11:15. It was a client wanting to ask something about a life insurance proposal appointment scheduled for the following morning. "In some of our rural area locations," Landry explains, "customers expect that kind of service."

Understanding local needs is just as critical to Cost Management Services (CMS), Huval's risk management division. "Whether we're doing just claims management or full TPA services, the asset we provide is local claims service and loss control," explains CMS President Jack Bienvenu. "With our experienced staff (adjusters average 28 years of experience; risk managers average 19), we have a pretty good hold on what the political, judicial and economic climate is here locally. This gives us an advantage over an insurance company person who comes in from outside to provide these services.

"When we go in to provide loss control services," he adds, "we know the corporate culture of the client. So we can work in partnership with the client. They really appreciate that approach."

CMS serves moderate to large businesses, including a concentration in agriculture, food service and manufacturing firms, as well as public entities. Apart from the revenue which it generates, CMS also provides another important dimension, Bienvenu points out. "We help The Huval Companies to be seen as more than a vendor. CMS allows The Huval Companies to go beyond selling an insurance product, so the organization is more like a trusted advisor. To me, that's where an agency needs to be."

Agency year.4 Photos at left, from top: Walt Gdowski, CEO, Rough Notes Company; Lois Van Horn (left) and Nancy Doucette; Jon Moore, United Insurance Services, Indianapolis, Indiana; Mark McClellan, national sales director, advertising, Rough Notes (left) and Ron Pitcher; Henry Bechard and Wendy Bourdeau.

What's revolutionary about The Huval Companies is the multiple company structure established approximately four years ago and the autonomy which each company has. And, we might add, the youth of the CEOs--average age 37.

"Each company has to stand on its own," says Denny Bass, who heads Benesys, Huval's employee benefits administration company. "I'll help my own brother companies, but none of us knows each other's business as well as we know our own. As long as each of us takes care of his own company, we're all going to be successful. I can't depend on someone else to take care of my responsibilities."

For one of the Huval Companies, Insurance Programs Inc. (IPI), independence from the rest of the Huval companies takes on special importance. As was pointed out in the Rough Notes April 1998 cover story, before Huval established IPI, its professional liability wholesaler, in 1991, Huval executives visited with retail agents with whom IPI might do business. They knew that the agents would be concerned that by doing business with IPI, these agents would be providing information about their clients to IPI and that IPI might turn around and provide this information to Huval Agencies.

"We needed to reassure them that we would never use this relationship in any way that would be adverse to them," says Tommy.

IPI's record speaks for itself. It currently does business with some 120 agencies throughout Louisiana, and since 1993, when Jon Ransonet became CEO, IPI has grown from $1.4 million in premiums to the current level of $4 million. This business--written on doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects and other professionals--produces more than $250,000 in revenues with two and one-half staff members. Most of IPI's business comes through the other agencies, but one class is written direct.

Further emphasizing IPI's independence as a member of The Huval Companies, Ransonet says, "The Huval Insurance Agency doesn't do very much professional liability business with us. Some agencies in the Lafayette area do more than Huval does."

Benesys, Huval's employee benefits TPA, has been a dramatic success, having nearly doubled (to 7,900) the number of insured lives it handles in the last two years. In 1998 its revenues grew by 50%. The average account size for Benesys is about 320 employees. Among its prominent accounts are the McIlheny Company, makers of Tabasco products, and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, which has approximately 1,000 employees.

Benesys CEO Denny Bass, who joined the company two years ago from a competing TPA, says, "Our mission is to be the best TPA for single employer groups that choose to partially self-fund their health care benefits."


At right, Tom McCoy, Tommy Huval and Velma Huval gather before the Agency of the Year dinner in Indianapolis.

05p100a.jpg Photos left: Dinner guests discuss industry issues. From top: Donald Malecki; Left to right--Martin Van Horn, Dennis Hilton and Rough Notes sales director Eric Hall; Tommy Huval; Walt Gdowski (left) and John Love.

"We start, prior to a proposal, by analyzing the utilization patterns of the group and deciding on the right network for the employees." Cost is an important issue, Bass says, and one that isn't always sufficiently addressed by companies which are self-funding. "If a company were in a fully insured plan with a traditional carrier, their costs would be constantly monitored. We figure with a self-funded plan, it's their money, so we want to be just as vigilant about costs. We design a plan to encourage employees to use providers where we can obtain preferred pricing."

Bass attributes a large part of Benesys' growth to what he calls the "direct accountability" of its claims managers and enrollment people. "When a phone call comes in from a customer, it isn't answered by a CSR, it's answered by a claims analyst." Three senior claims analysts have an average of more than 10 years of experience, and one claims manager has 18 years' experience.

How does Tommy Huval oversee such a diverse multi-company organization? In this era of niche marketing, some management gurus might question the wisdom of trying to sell personal lines out of one-employee branch offices at the same time you're selling risk management and employee benefits services for multinational companies.

One reason that The Huval Companies has thrived on its diversity is that Tommy realizes he must focus as much as possible on long-range strategic decisions and not become too involved in the day-to-day operations. The job of coordinating everyday operations falls to Chief Operations Officer Glenn Landry.

And because no two Huval companies are really in the same business, it's a challenging job. Consider, as just one example, the technology requirements. Benesys, CMS and The Huval Agencies each have different needs. "Each company has cutting edge technology," says Landry. "Huval Agencies operates with a Redshaw System, Benesys has state of the art claims management software linked to RIMS and CMS uses Risk Master software from Dorn Technology."

Despite the diversity of the Huval Companies, some common functions can be handled centrally. One of the changes brought about by The Huval Companies' 1993 reorganization (see April 1998 issue) was to create Huval Management Company which handles human resources, accounting functions, mail and other back-office functions for the various companies including the branch operations.

"Our CSRs in the branches can spend almost 100% of their time servicing customers' needs," says Dennis Landry, "because the processing of paperwork such as renewals from companies is all handled in Lafayette at Huval Management Company."

Tommy Huval, one of three majority stockholders and CEO, has received guidance in strategic planning from Roger Sitkins, a Florida-based agency management consultant. "Once a year," says Sitkins, "Tommy brings his entire vertical growth management team to Florida and they discuss issues involved in what we call 'forced vertical growth' which is growth that results from figuring out new ways to do things."

But the vertical growth discussions don't end there. Every Monday throughout the whole year, the vertical growth team--which includes CEOs of several companies, plus Tommy, Glenn Landry and Scott Angelle, a producer of corporate accounts--meets for two hours to discuss issues of concern to all of them.

The weekly vertical growth team meetings, which run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with lunch sent in, provide the various CEOs with a sort of outside advisory board. "It's been a tremendous help," says Denny Bass. "One week we may talk about Benesys, another week CMS or the Huval Agencies. Each of the CEOs understands his own company better than the others do, but sometimes you get your best ideas from someone who isn't doing what you do every day."

Tommy is so serious about his need to leave day-to-day operations in the hands of his management team that he tries to spend Wednesdays at home concentrating
on long-term planning for the organization. "Too many agency owners are so busy working in the business that they don't have time to work on the business," says Sitkins. "By staying home that one day, Tommy deals with the strategic planning that so many agency owners neglect."

What does the future hold for this diverse organization which has come so far in 25 years? Glenn Landry talks of capitalizing to a greater extent on the cross-selling opportunities between the various Huval companies. Some geographic expansion also seems likely since Benesys and CMS already have moved into other areas of Louisiana, and the branch offices that handle smaller accounts already extend some 60 miles.

Whatever the individual steps The Huval Companies takes to grow, the diversity of its various businesses can help insulate them against the soft pricing market. The organization has the further advantage of a young management team and young stockholders. And perhaps most important, it's obvious when talking to Huval employees that they all expect to provide their customers with "something extra."

The readers of Rough Notes have made an outstanding choice for the 1998 Marketing Agency of the Year. *


The Huval Companies celebrates with staff and special guests at the crawfish boil near Lafayette, Louisiana. Center photo at top includes (from left) Dale Huval, a producer and stockholder; Patrick Huval, who founded the agency; Kathy Pontiff, a Huval stockholder and director of human resources; Tommy Huval; Tom McCoy and Walt Gdowski of Rough Notes. Photo at top right: James H. Brown, insurance commissioner of Louisiana, discusses the state of the industry. Photo at lower right: Tommy Huval thanks his staff.

Agency year.7

Center photo left (from left): Roger Sitkins, The Sitkins Group, Fort Myers, Florida; Tommy Huval; Chris McVicker, The Flanders Group, Pittsford, New York.

Photo lower left (from left): Denny Bass, CEO, Benesys; Jon Ransonet, CEO, Insurance Programs Inc.; Dale Huval; Tom McCoy of Rough Notes; Jack Bienvenu, CEO, Cost Management Services; Tommy Huval; Dennis Landry, CEO, Huval Insurance Agencies, branch accounts; Kathy Pontiff; and Glenn Landry, chief operating officer, The Huval Companies.

Agency year.3

The staff of The Huval Companies

©COPYRIGHT: The Rough Notes Magazine, 1999