The Changing face of the Independent Agent
A new business model for a new generation
Careful planning and social networking have boosted Amy Bryan's five-year career
By Elaine Tolen
When Amy Bryan opened Bryan Insurance Agency in New Windsor, New York, in 2004 at the age of 22, she had no clients, no carriers and no track record. What Amy did have was a well-prepared business plan. “The first thing I did after deciding to start an agency was to research and write a business plan,” she remembers. “I opened during a hard market; many people told me I was crazy. I guess ignorance is bliss,” she laughs. “I don’t go halfway into something, so I was fully committed to starting the agency.”
Amy wasn’t new to the insurance industry—her grandfather, father, aunt and uncle spent their careers as captive agents. Since Amy was 13 years old, she had worked at her dad’s State Farm agency during school breaks, doing customer service work and handling claims.
Amy attended State University of New York at Oswego, not interested in pursuing a career in insurance. After graduating in 2003 with degrees in graphic design and marketing, she worked in the graphic design department of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. “I loved the creative work, but I really wanted to run my own business and work directly with people,” she explains.
“It was actually my dad, Bruce Bryan, who suggested I become an independent agent,” Amy says. “He thought the independent business looked more creative; you get to design individual coverage packages for customers and think outside the box to solve risk management problems. Dad also recognized that the independent side offers both agents and clients more flexibility in products and services. All of this appealed to my creative bent.”
When Amy embarked on her new career in 2004, the hardening market wasn’t the only challenge for independent agents in New York. During that time, then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer began investigating insurers and brokers for alleged bid rigging, and attacking the practice of contingent commissions. Add to that the intense competition in New York, and you have the makings of a difficult climb up the insurance career ladder.
Undaunted, Amy used her business plan to seek agency appointments with insurance companies. “Because I had no history to share with companies, the business plan had to be comprehensive and make companies feel confident about doing business with me,” she explains. “I included demographics of the area where the agency would be located, description of the competition, marketing plans, and expected growth, among other things.”
A friend of Amy’s suggested that she call the Professional Insurance Agents of New York (PIANY) to obtain E&O coverage for her new business. “The very next day, I attended my first PIA meeting—a regional conference—bringing copies of my business plan to hand out,” she recalls. “What a jump-start that was for me. I met so many agents and company people that day.
“I was so green,” Amy laughs. “I met a company rep who asked if I was a wholesaler or retailer. I said, ‘What’s a wholesaler and what’s a retailer?’ I never feel stupid asking questions, though; I keep asking until I understand.” She says that most people—especially company underwriters—have been very helpful in providing guidance and information in these early years of her agency’s operation.
At that first PIANY event, Amy met the president of Associated Mutual, a regional company, who appointed her that day. “I didn’t quite know what to do. I asked him, ‘Do I come to you?’ and he patiently answered, ‘No, we come to you.’”
With that appointment under her belt, Amy was able to more easily get appointments from other companies. “I am so grateful Associated Mutual gave me a chance, and it was a chance,” she laughs.
Growing from scratch
Amidst some friendly family rivalry, Bryan Insurance and the family State Farm agency sometimes collaborate to better serve their customers. When she first started the agency, Amy says her focus was on commercial lines. “Since my dad’s agency handles mostly personal lines, the State Farm agents could send customers to me for commercial coverage, without fear that I would try to lure them away.”
In the last few years, the Bryan Agency has become 65% personal lines, due mainly to the phenomenal growth of Orange County, New York, where the agency is located. “We’re an hour north of New York City; people can live affordably in a nice town yet work in the city,” Amy explains. She has been able to tap into the many new home buyers and business owners from this housing boom.
Besides Orange County, the agency writes business further downstate in New York, as well as in New Jersey, Connecticut and Georgia.
In addition to Amy, agency staff includes a full-time producer/CSR/ “everything” and a part-time CSR/administrative assistant who work in the main office, and a full-time producer in another office about 15 miles away.
Amy’s hiring philosophy—which she says she acquired from her dad—differs from that of many agency owners. “If I hire someone and they only stay one or two years before going to another agency, that’s okay because I’ve helped perpetuate the industry,” Amy states.
“Insurance is a big and varied industry, and there are a lot of directions in which a person can go,” she continues. “If I can bring someone in who has no insurance background but likes people, I can teach him or her the technical part.”
A new kind of marketing
Amy’s progressive attitude might have something to do with the fact that she is from “Generation Y,” the group of Americans born between 1980 and the mid-1990s. These “Millennials” are also accurately called the “Net Generation,” because they’re the first generation to grow up with computers and technology. Understanding how these consumers think and respond, Amy successfully uses technology to reach this group, especially through social networking.
Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are just a few familiar names whose possible uses are not totally understood by many Baby Boomers. “Younger consumers shop for everything online, from toothpaste to clothes to vacations to insurance. They haven’t dealt with an agent or broker and don’t understand why they need one,” Amy says. “Marketing to any specific age group means working with them on the level where they’re comfortable.”
Amy says she uses Facebook and Twitter mostly for consumer education. “My Facebook page started out as a personal thing and took a natural turn into a professional way to communicate with insureds and potential customers,” she explains. Twitter and Facebook icons make it easy for people to use these media to contact her.
Through these social networking tools, Amy draws younger people in by explaining coverages and insurance concepts in laymen’s terms. She has a Facebook group called “Bryan Agency Group” for discussion.
“I don’t give specific coverage advice through Facebook, but this is a starting point with many clients and potential clients,” she says. Technology can go only so far, though, Amy acknowledges. “I love for people to come in to the office to talk about their insurance needs.”
While a Facebook page can include photos, videos, games and a variety of other fun things, Twitter is a service that allows users to create short, text-based messages (called “tweets”) that are supposed to answer the question: “What are you doing?” Amy explains, “I’ve used Twitter to explain renters insurance and to give defensive driving updates.”
Besides reaching both current customers and potential customers, Amy says these social networking sites are a convenient way to network with other insurance professionals. For example, an agent in California used information from one of her tweets for his insureds, giving her credit for it.
LinkedIn is a business-oriented social networking site featuring contact details of users and other people they know in business. An example of how this networking tool works: A Starwood employee and former co-worker found Amy on LinkedIn and saw that she knew an employer with whom the Starwood employee was applying for a job. Amy was able to provide a reference and, since there was already a connection between the employer and Amy, the referral was a solid one and enhanced the hiring process.
The insurance community
As mentioned earlier, when Amy’s agency was being launched, a friend suggested that Amy attend a Regional Awareness Program (RAP), sponsored by the PIA of New York. RAPs are one-day conferences that usually include a mini-trade show, educational sessions, panel discussions, award presentations and networking opportunities. The PIANY sponsors three of these conferences during the year, held in different parts of the state.
After that first PIANY meeting, Amy joined the association’s Young Insurance Professionals (YIP), through which she has established invaluable relationships with other young producers, association staff and board members, and company people. If starting a new career from scratch in a different industry just five years ago hasn’t been challenging enough, Amy has immersed herself in the PIANY and YIP, serving on a variety of committees, including government issues, business issues and recruitment.
In 2008—just four years after becoming an independent agent—Amy became chairperson of the NY-YIP board. According to Kim Voelker, director of the Young Insurance Professionals Department for the PIAs of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire, “Amy has a ‘no-nonsense’ leadership style that is refreshing and dynamic.
“She is not afraid to experiment with new programs and member incentives and often finds creative solutions to the organization’s budget challenges in this rough economy,” Kim continues. “NY-YIP continues to thrive with solid membership and growing involvement. Because Amy is the age of our target membership, she understands how to market to them intuitively.”
Carl Abramson, who works at Associated Mutual and serves on the YIP board with Amy, says that her professionalism and other-centeredness have garnered the respect of her peers, clients and company reps. “People can see that Amy’s attitude is ‘It’s not about me,’ so when she speaks, people listen.”
And no respite for Amy—this year she is also serving as chairman of the Hudson Valley RAP in October.
To others who want to start their own agency, Amy says two things are very important: “networking and creating a business plan. That was the foundation of my agency.”
Amy adds, “At times you get frustrated, but you just have to keep pushing through.” As a result of that perseverance, most of Amy’s new clients now come from referrals. “But don’t worry about getting referrals,” she suggests. “Take care of your customers and the referrals will come.”
Amy believes that working in customer service at her dad’s agency years before has allowed her to better understand the client’s perspective. “Customers are buying a promise, and they have to trust you. Whether the claim is large or small, it has the same effect on the client. That problem is the most important thing to them at the moment, and it should be to you as the agent also.
“You have to be committed to finding the right service, the right product for the customer,” she continues. “Remember, you’re not just selling insurance. Clients may come into the office with an insurance issue, but they really come to talk about everything else,” she muses.
Combining her creativity and business sense, and taking advantage of social networking has been a successful strategy for Amy Bryan in these first five years of her career as a producer and agency owner. It’s not hard to imagine continued success for many years to come for this young insurance professional.