Building a dream
Starting with little money and little English,
Efrain Ferrer builds a $12 million premium agency with
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
|Efrain Ferrer is CEO of Strong Tie Insurance Services Inc., based in Bell, California.
We’ve all heard stories of how an agency was started from scratch—at the kitchen table or in a spare bedroom, in a tiny cubicle or a few hundred square feet of office space. Seven-day workweeks, pleading with carriers, cold-calling jitters ... and finally, the first sale that made all the blood, sweat, tears, and toil eminently worth it.
If you think this sounds like hard going, try starting an agency when you have no money, no knowledge of insurance, and little fluency in English.
That was the challenge that faced Efrain Ferrer when he came to this country 14 years ago from Cuba by way of Panama. Desperate to escape the Castro regime and experience freedom, Ferrer paid $2,700 in 1989 for a work visa to Panama, where he labored selling fish on the street. “In Panama, fish have to be fresh,” he says. “Before they buy, people look at a fish’s eye. If it’s clear, they know the fish is fresh.”
In 1991, at age 29, Ferrer achieved his dream: With help from a Miami-based organization that assists Cubans who want to emigrate to the United States, he obtained a visa to enter the U.S., settled in Miami, and began preparing to become an American citizen. “People who were born in America or England or France know what it is to live in liberty,” Ferrer says. “We Cubans must leave our country to find liberty. I was very hungry to have freedom and to build a new life for myself.”
Today Ferrer is the owner of Strong Tie Insurance Services, Inc., which is based in Bell, California, and has branch offices in five locations: one in Bell, two in Los Angeles, one in Riverside, and one in Van Nuys. The $12 million premium agency writes primarily personal lines and recently began moving into the commercial market, focusing on restaurants and transportation risks. Ferrer himself owns a franchised Mexican restaurant, so he’s familiar with the exposures of that class.
Network of support
For a newcomer from Cuba, getting adjusted to life in the United States is a challenge even in Miami, which has a large Cuban population and offers new immigrants a host of services and support. “I had to learn a different language, a different system, a different culture,” Ferrer says. In this endeavor, he had the assistance of his countrymen who already had made the transition. As a culture, Cubans form and maintain extremely close ties, whether they are in Cuba or the United States. “We are more than friends; we are brothers and sisters,” Ferrer explains. “We try to help each other.” Newcomers rely strongly on this close-knit community as they adjust to life in a new land. Once a new immigrant has established himself in this country, his priority is to help relatives and friends from Cuba enter the States.
Why, after a spending just a short time in Miami, did Ferrer decide to move across the country to California? “Miami is a very big city,” he says. “I thought I could do better in a small city in California. I put my queen-sized bed in the back of my commercial van and started driving to California. It took three and a half days to get there, and every night I slept in my van.”
Bell, where Ferrer established his agency in 1997, is a small city located outside the Los Angeles metroplex. He chose Bell because his aunt lives there, and he stayed at her house for a year before moving into a home of his own. Until 1997, he drove a battered 1981 Buick Skylark with dented fenders. “When I went to a dance club, I parked my car as far away from the building as possible, so none of the ladies would see that it belonged to me,” Ferrer recalls with a chuckle. “I would wait until everyone else had left, and only then would I walk across the parking lot to my car.”
The road to success
|The agency van is a veritable moving advertisement.
Needless to say, Ferrer didn’t arrive in Bell and immediately open an insurance agency. Like his journey from Cuba to the United States via Panama, his road to agency ownership was paved with colorful adventures—and no small measure of very hard work.
Ferrer’s first job was working in a warehouse. Next, he says, “I decided to get a commercial driver’s license. After driving for a few different companies, I thought I would buy my own truck and see if I could make more money as an owner-operator.” If he owned a truck, Ferrer knew, he would need to purchase insurance. “When I talked with a broker, he told me that insurance would cost me $6,000,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t want to own a truck; I want to sell insurance.’”
With no experience, no license, and no money, Ferrer knew he couldn’t open an agency right away. “The idea was planted in my brain,” he says, “and I knew I had to gain a lot of knowledge about insurance.” While continuing to drive a truck, he began to work part time for an agency in East Los Angeles, creating flyers and other promotional materials, delivering applications, and handling other tasks. “I like marketing, and this gave me a chance to learn about the business,” he says.
While he was driving a truck, Ferrer was thinking ahead to the day when he would start his own agency. “I knew I had to pick out a name,” he says. “I was making deliveries for a company called Simpson Strong-Tie that makes structural connectors and anchors. I liked the name Strong Tie, and I wrote it down. I didn’t want to call my agency Ferrer Insurance,” he explains, “because that would limit me to the Latino market. I wanted to be able to grow by attracting all kinds of clients.” He adds with a laugh, “When people heard the name Strong Tie, they thought I had a big agency. They didn’t know it was just one desk and one person.”
|As business has grown over the years, so the Strong Tie agency staff has also grown.
Having chosen a name for his agency, Ferrer says, “now I had to design a logo.” (See the logo in the top photo on this page.) It’s designed to convey an image of strength and enduring connections, reflecting both the closeness of family and the commitment an agency makes to its clients. The logo’s red, white, and blue color scheme expresses Ferrer’s pride in being an American.
Also a proud new American is Ferrer’s mother, who has worked hard to help him achieve his dream of owning an agency. “My mother came here from Cuba in 1994, and she became an American citizen,” he says. “She was a teacher for 30 years in Cuba, and here she became licensed to be a day care provider in our house. In those early days, I worked in my agency from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and went to my trucking job from 4:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. I came back to my house, slept a few hours, and got up at 9:00 to open my office.”
In 1997 Ferrer bought a commercial van and had his agency’s name and logo painted on the sides. “I drove all around the community, handing out flyers and getting my name known by potential clients.” Eventually, he says, “Everyone came to know my logo. That monkey has done a good job for me.”
Power of independence
|Originally from Cuba, Efrain is proud to be an American citizen. This picture hangs behind his desk, celebrating the freedom that he enjoys in the United States.
After several years of driving a truck while developing his insurance business, Ferrer decided he was ready to become a full-time agent. “When I started in this business, I realized that independent insurance agents have huge power,” he says. “We have more power than millions of dollars in advertisements could give us. People came to my little office from 50 or 60 miles away because they knew me from East L.A. and they trusted me. That’s why I love being independent,” he says with pride. “Like coming to this country, being independent gives me freedom.” As a new American, Ferrer takes nothing for granted in his adopted country. “Behind my desk I have an eagle with its wings spread, flying to freedom,” he says solemnly.
As an independent agent, Ferrer says, “I work to build my agency and to acquire more knowledge so I can use it as a tool to help my clients.” In the Latino market, Ferrer is able to help newcomers to this country, educating them about the need for insurance and the kinds of coverages they should purchase. “Living in America is very different from living in Cuba or Panama or Puerto Rico; in this country, there are a lot of rules,” he chuckles. “If you own a car or a house or a business, you have to have insurance. We teach people what they need to know.” When people are new to the United States, he observes, “Sometimes they don’t have money for a car or a house. A couple of years later, they come back to my agency and when I ask how they’re doing, they say ‘Great! I have a house and a car,’ or ‘I have my own business.’ They remember what I told them about coverages, and they say, ‘Now I need this insurance.’”
In the insurance business, Ferrer points out, “there is always something new to learn. I read trade journals, and I really like Rough Notes. For me, reading it is like taking a vitamin pill every day.”
Ferrer initially struggled to find markets for his new agency. “If you’ve worked for an insurance company as a producer or underwriter, it’s easier for you if you decide to become an independent agent,” he says. “But when you come from a different country, you don’t have that advantage. For me, getting companies was very hard. I thought, ‘I have my license, two shirts, some socks, a copying machine—but no companies.’ I was afraid I would have to put every client into the assigned risk plan.”
|Vicente Ortiz, CEO/President of Tacos Don Chente, looks over plans for a new restaurant in the franchise that Efrain will own.
At this point, Ferrer said, “I was fortunate to meet some people who could be mentors—general agents. They are beautiful people, and they do a very good job of helping you when your agency is small. I got appointments with a couple of GAs like Arrowhead and Reliance.”
Establishing relationships with general agents helped Ferrer build his business and his credibility. In February 2003, his efforts were rewarded when Strong Tie Insurance Services obtained an appointment with AIG. “We write a lot of business with them,” Ferrer says. The agency also represents Progressive Insurance and the Infinity Group for personal auto coverage. Strong Tie Insurance recently has begun to target restaurants and transportation risks.
“Many Latinos own restaurants and transportation businesses,” Ferrer explains. To place restaurant business, Ferrer uses insurers and general agencies with which he has built strong relationships: Bass Underwriters LLC, Business Alliance Insurance Company, Unifax Insurance Systems, and Yates & Associates. General agencies like Yates also have markets for trucking risks. “When you have a new agency, nobody wants to give you an appointment for commercial vehicle business, especially long-haul trucking,” he says. “We go to our friends at the general agencies. They are a very important tool for us, and they are helping our agency grow. They are loyal to us, and we are loyal to them.”
Other commercial risks Ferrer plans to target include car dealers, hotels, body shops, beauty salons, construction companies, liquor stores, carpet cleaners, electricians, shopping malls, and mini-markets.
More strong ties
As an independent agent who belongs to and serves the Latino community, Ferrer is an enthusiastic and active member of the Latin American Agents Association. (The LAAA was profiled in the February 2004 issue of Rough Notes: “Se habla Seguro.”) Like other trade associations, the LAAA represents its members’ interests through its relationships with insurers, state insurance officials, and the California legislature. The association also offers agency staff training seminars, and its well-attended monthly meetings provide members valuable networking opportunities. Ferrer serves on the LAAA board of directors and is currently vice president of the association.
Confronting—and surmounting—obstacles that are virtually unimaginable to most native-born Americans, Efrain Ferrer has built a stable, successful agency in a highly competitive market. Strong Tie Insurance Services is thriving because of its owner’s dogged persistence in the pursuit of his goals. “People didn’t understand why I would drive a truck for 12 hours and talk about owning an agency,” Ferrer says. “I would tell them: ‘I have a plan, and I am building my dream.’” *
For more information:
Strong Tie Insurance Services Inc.
Web site: www.strongtieinsurance.com
Latin American Agents Association
Web site: www.latinagents.com