Marketing Agency of the Month
From sprinter to iron man
Veteran insurance people start century with a bang
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
When Steve Nesbitt started S.S. Nesbitt & Company,
Birmingham, Alabama, in 2000, he was joined by two other industry veterans, who
all seemed intent on disproving the adage about being unable to teach old dogs
new tricks. Steve had been an underwriter with USF&G and then worked for
the brokerage firm of Hilb Rogal & Hobbs (now part of Willis). Selina
Simpson also came over from HRH and Bill Lyle was with Home Insurance Company
before joining the agency.
"It was really kind of fun in those first few years with the
three of us just developing new business," S.S. Nesbitt President Steve
remembers. "We were fortunate to have a few nice sized accounts that moved with
me when I left HRH, but, in general, we didn't have to worry about renewals or
claims, we just had to get out there and sell."
Steve adds, "I think we were all relieved to get out from under
the red tape that is always part of a large corporation and get back to what we
loved—developing relationships, getting referrals and helping people put
together a risk management program that served to differentiate us from our
Selina Simpson, vice president and founding partner, helped this
endeavor by entering an underserved market—all aspects of student
housing, including construction. That became the agency's first niche. Selina
has continued to develop her expertise in that market and today is considered
one of the foremost individuals in the area. In fact, other bond underwriters
call her and hire her to review documents.
That niche has continued to grow, and in 2004 the agency hired
Claire D. Wright, vice president of operations, to help with claims management
in that niche. Claire had been a risk manager with one of the agency's larger
clients that built student housing. In 2008, she transitioned to agency
operations and marketing as the agency's growth necessitated a larger
Two years after the agency's founding, it had reached $1 million
in revenues and it was clear that more people were needed. Winn Kelley, senior
vice president-commercial lines, joined the agency from HRH in 2002, bringing
with him 21 years of experience and a strong knowledge of the construction
Steve continues, "We started out with a philosophy that we later
learned was the Purple Cow philosophy. Being the new kids on the block, we
realized that we had to differentiate ourselves in some way and it wasn't going
to be price or markets, since nearly everyone had access to the same companies.
It was going to have to be our ability to put together a program that
recognized the unique nature and risk management needs of each of our clients.
"We were working on just what that would mean when I ran into
Scott Addis (president and CEO of The Addis Group and Addis Intellectual
Capital, LLC) at a Chubb Insurance Company meeting. He was giving a
presentation on his Organic Growth Engine™ (OGE) and it resonated perfectly
with us. We signed up to become OGE members and started to add the pieces that
weren't already part of our efforts."
Developing staying power
S.S. Nesbitt had proven that it could compete in a sprint, but
the next phase was developing the endurance to run a marathon or, perhaps more
correctly, a triathlon where a host of different disciplines are needed to be
successful. OGE—with its six integrated systems—provided the
framework for the agency to achieve high closing ratios for new business as
well as consistently high retention rates for current business. (For additional
information on OGE, see the "Beyond Insurance" column in the December 2007
issue of Rough Notes magazine.)
One of the key ingredients of the S.S. Nesbitt approach is
consultative selling where "we sit down with clients and prospects and
regularly review their insurance portfolio to determine if it continues to meet
their needs," Steve says, "while at the same time finding ways to reduce the
overall cost of risk transfer for the client. Our ultimate goal is to transform
the agency in the eyes of each client from a seller of insurance to a key
business partner for each client."
One example of the success of this approach is the Coosa Valley
Medical Center, located southeast of Birmingham. S.S. Nesbitt Risk Management
Consultant and Agent Jeremy Long reviewed the hospital's insurance portfolio
and recommended changes that better protected the hospital while reducing its
overall costs. By identifying and mitigating problem issues involving workers
compensation exposures, the agency was able to reduce the hospital's workers
compensation costs by 50%. Thanks to these efforts, the agency became the
center's exclusive risk management partner in 2006. And Coosa Valley Medical
Center CEO Glenn Sisk makes it clear that this was the start of an ongoing
"S.S. Nesbitt has helped ensure that Coosa Valley Medical Center,
which is the largest employer in our community, will be here long term," Glenn
comments. "They want to make sure we are okay today, and they also want to make
sure we are okay 10 years from now. The S.S. Nesbitt team has done an
outstanding job of providing a level of comfort that we are doing everything we
need to do, reducing our risk and helping us ensure that our costs are
maintained at an appropriate level."
Needless to say, this has led to a number of referrals in the
medical field, and that has become an area of specialization for the agency.
Niching leads to referrals
"We have always been a generalist, building relationships with
all businesses in the area," Winn notes. However, "Whenever we do a great job
for a particular business, this often results in referrals that grow into a
niche specialty for the agency."
Another example of this is the country club business. Winn worked
with one of the young producers, introducing him to his country club. It was
love at first sight. The young producer became involved in the Club Managers
Association and "now he's writing country clubs and dinner clubs all over the
state," Steve points out.
"That pattern has continued with other new producers," Steve
adds. "We expect them to start out cold-calling, but point out the advantages
of developing a base for referrals. And the successful ones see the wisdom of
that approach, as well as the fun in working with a business that you really
enjoy. Another one of our young producers has focused on coastal business.
We're only about four hours from the ocean. He's parlayed his interest in that area
into a specialty writing condo associations, many of which are located along
The tail wagging the dog
Winn points to an interesting change that has taken place in the
way the agency markets and cross-sells its products. "Property and casualty is
really no longer an entry point. The soft market means that prospects rarely
have experienced any pain in that area. Fortunately, we have a strong presence
in the benefits arena that came to us when we purchased ANB Insurance Services
in 2007. I constantly get referrals from our benefits team to provide the
property and casualty coverage for their clients and prospects.
"Of course, the key to this is the fact that we use the same
consultative approach in benefits that we use in property and casualty so that
new clients quickly view our agency as part of their team and look to us for
all their risk transfer needs," Winn goes on to say. "One of our successes was
our ability to work with Blue Cross to bring our clients a better deal. And
that was a real coup since Blue Cross controls about 90% of the market in
Alabama and writes nearly all its business on a direct basis."
Winn continues: "To further develop this area, we recently added
an HR specialist who came to us from a 1,000-employee company. She writes a
monthly HR newsletter that we send out to clients as well as consulting with
clients that need HR backup. We also have added an RN who is helping us with
wellness. The first three calls we made after she joined us resulted in the
clients signing up with her to develop a wellness program. It's really helping
us get a foot in the door and then it's only a matter of time before we're
writing the entire account."
Today, the agency has reached $10 million in revenue, with 61
employees. More than half of the growth was organic, while the balance was the
result of acquisitions of three agencies in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The 2007
acquisition also resulted in branches in Georgia and Florida. Steve proudly
notes that the agency "enjoyed 9% organic growth last year—a year that
was very tough for many in the insurance business."
A good corporate citizen
The agency supports a number of local charities through
participation in a big walk to raise money to fight juvenile diabetes,
fund-raising for Restoration Academy, and working at the Pig Iron BBQ
Challenge, which is a huge fundraiser for the Children's Harbor. Last year, the
agency hired a professional BBQer, and employees dressed up as Disney
characters to entertain the children at the BBQ. Children's Harbor supports a
campground on Lake Martin in Alabama for terminally ill children and also
supports the Family Resource Center, which is adjacent to the Children's
Hospital in Birmingham. The Resource Center provides all types of services to
families who are basically living at the hospital while their children are
While the agency operates as an independent agency in its
dealings with clients and insurers, it is owned by EBSCO Industries, a
family-owned private company that has 43 different industries within its group.
Rough Notes is proud to recognize
S.S. Nesbitt & Company as its Marketing Agency of the Month. It has shown
itself to be a true partner to its clients, its companies and its community.