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Silicon slopes

A niche focus allows this Salt Lake City agency to compete with the big guys

By Dennis H. Pillsbury

Diversified Insurance Group, Salt Lake City, has a very lofty goal. "We want to be the best professional service provider for each of our clients," says Managing Partner Spencer D. Hoole, ARM, CIC. Not the best agency, but the best professional service organization. To accomplish that goal, the agency does much more than just sell insurance. Its goal is, quite simply, to protect the assets and shareholder value of each of its clients and business partners. Insurance is just one of the tools the agency uses to help clients manage risk.

Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, the agency was created when Spencer D. Hoole, ARM, CIC, and Joe Henriod, ARM, AAI, acquired the business of Aon Risk Services of Utah. Spence and Joe were running the Aon office up until the acquisition.

"Our hope was to combine the best of two worlds—the world of the small, independent agent, with its autonomy, entrepreneurial spirit and close ties with customers; and the world of the large broker, with its huge resources and professionalism," Spence comments. Clearly, the agency did not have the financial resources of the large brokers, so it could not be all things to all people, but "we could emulate the large brokerage expertise by focusing on certain niche areas and becoming experts in those fields," he continues. "Both Joe and I had extensive experience with technology companies, so that was clearly one area where we would focus our efforts." Spence had helped develop and run Aon Technology Group and Joe had spent 15 years with ITA Insurance, a specialist in the information technology industry, until it was acquired by Aon in 1996.

One step better

Spence adds that the agency was able to be even better than the big brokers because of its structure. "Being privately held lets us focus on client needs first. We don't have to worry about satisfying stockholder appetites for continuous increases in quarterly results. We are able to take a long view and focus strictly on the best way to serve our clients. We don't have the name recognition of the large brokers, so we have to provide the deliverables. And we do . . . every day."

The result has been that the agency has produced growth that would be the envy of major brokers everywhere. It started business with about $30 million in premium and has seen that amount quintuple in its first 10 years to reach more than $150 million in premium this year. Property/casualty premiums account for about 75% of the total, with most of that coming from commercial lines, although personal lines for high net worth individuals represents an important niche area. In addition, the agency entered the employee benefits field a few years after its founding. That now accounts for about 25% of premiums.

"We are highly specialized and very technically oriented in certain niches," Spence points out. "And it is this focus that allows us to outperform the market in terms of service. We measure our success in one very important way—retention—and our retention with our client base is extremely high."

The horizontal model

"Our agency's model is that each one of the 50 people who work here is an equal," Spence points out. "This flat model allows us to innovate quickly, since everyone is involved in finding solutions for our clients. That's been one of the biggest parts of our culture and one that has allowed us to be more efficient, which allows us the time to be more consultative with our clients.

"We were able to emphasize this advantage to our clients back in 2005 when we decided to send out a holiday gift that would differentiate us from our competition," Spence remembers. "We decided to send a book of the year. The requirements for the book are that it needed to have been published in that year and had to be a book that would help our clients perform better in their business. The first book, by happy coincidence, was The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. In it, he emphasized that flat, legacy-free companies can compete better because of their ability to innovate more quickly. Each year, since then, we have picked a new book to send to clients."

The agency targets fairly large risks, which puts it in direct competition with the large brokers, so "we need to be better in those niche areas so our clients and prospects can choose us," Spence points out. "Oftentimes, the easy route for the risk manager or treasurer or whoever is responsible for risk transfer decisions is to place the business with a known commodity, an entity that will be known in the C-suite. Our job is to provide an alternative that is so attractive that they will give us an opportunity and then, once we are their broker, to perform so well that they never want to leave.

"And, as we grow and become better known, our ultimate goal is to become the first choice of companies in the technology and life science fields, as well as other niche areas on which we focus," Spence continues. "We are primarily dealing with companies that are scaling rapidly, doing lots of transactions, including venture capitalists, portfolio managers and so on. We have to be nimble to keep up with the constantly changing environment in which they operate. We can't just sit back and say, "This is the coverage you need." We have to get to know them intimately, so we can put together a unique program for their needs. And our success is evidenced by the fact that of the last 18 IPO companies in Utah, we insured 16. That shows that we are indeed becoming the agency of choice for these growing companies and that they are recommending us to their friends and business associates."

E3—Educate, entertain and evangelize

"We practice an E3 approach to client relationships. We want to educate them about our business and share important information that will help them succeed in a user-friendly format. We want to entertain them by being fun people to deal with, so they look forward to seeing us, not chagrined that we are coming. And we want to evangelize on their behalf so that they succeed and, in the process, turn them into evangelizers for our agency. We have experience in large claims and have turned many clients from lukewarm supporters to raving fans after they see us in action. Most of our business comes through referrals."

While education is part of what each person in the agency does every day when they meet with clients or prospects, it also is provided through seminars sponsored by the agency on a variety of subjects. And, of course, the books of the year are part of this effort. The agency also has been a sponsor of The Summit Director and Officer Training Conference, for which Diversified is a founding member, along with a number of other professional service organizations. The conference will be held December 1 and 2 at Utah's St. Regis Deer Valley Resort Hotel.

In addition, in its most recent educational innovation, the agency has partnered with several professionals in law and accounting to offer an entrepreneurial marketing course to C-suite individuals in conjunction with the BYU Marriott School of Mana-gement. It is a five-week course with classes every Thursday morning at one of the sponsors' offices. "We've put together a good curriculum in an entertaining manner," Spence says. "The course will introduce C-suite individuals to high level entrepreneurial marketing techniques as well as provide them with an opportunity to network with their peers in other companies. We've had great response to this effort. This is a continuation of our ongoing effort to try to take things to a different level."

Industry and community involvement

Diversified is a member of TechAssure, a nonprofit organization of independent agencies that specialize in the technology, life sciences, digital media, and venture capital industries. Each member represents a specific region. The organization gives members global reach and coordinated training. "Our clients benefit from the fact that we can draw on the collective intellectual property, experience and risk management tools of the professionals in this group," Spence points out. "Our own capabilities have been expanded by our interaction with other members of the group who share best practices, benchmarking and purchasing clout."

The agency also supports numerous community organizations that make the Salt Lake City region a better place to live, as well as increasing opportunities for businesses to grow and prosper. The agency is an active member of the Employers' Council and the MountainWest Capital Network. It also sponsors the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the National Association of Corporate Directors Utah Chapter, the Utah Technology Council and the Wayne Brown Institute. Agency employees also sit on the Guadalupe School's Board of Directors and support the school through donations of time and money to help fight poverty through education.

"We are constantly evaluating where we are and how we got here," Spence concludes. "We look at our strategic advantages and base our growth plans in those areas. At the same time, we stay away from those areas where we don't have a competitive advantage." It's a formula that clearly is working and why we at Rough Notes magazine are proud to recognize Diversified Insurance Group as our Marketing Agency of the Month.


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