Marketing Agency of the Month
A pride of entrepreneurs
Hire people with passion and then get out of their way
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
We have our gaggle of geese and our murder of crows, but I couldn't find any word that is used to describe a group of entrepreneurs, so I borrowed from the king of beasts and decided on pride. It seems to fit. And it certainly fits the way that Glenn Montgomery and Wayne Fick feel about the people that are part of the team of entrepreneurs who serve the clients of the agencies they co-founded—Brownstone Insurance Agency, Inc., and Murphy & Jordan Insurance Agency, both located in Norwell, Massachusetts. As its name implies, Brownstone specializes in providing insurance for brownstones and other multi-unit buildings, while its affiliate, Murphy & Jordan, handles the personal lines needs of people living in those buildings.
"Our agencies are built on having the right people and products and doing things the right way," Glenn says proudly. "The employees are so invested in the entrepreneurial spirit that they are constantly coming up with new ideas and better ways of doing things.
"We have both an idea board and a failure board where our employees share thoughts on better ways of serving our clients and also share the mistakes they have made and what was learned from those mistakes. There is no blame. Failures are just as important as successes, as long as you learn from them. And when you have a group of people who really care, like we do, that's what happens. They take pride in the successes of other members of the team and learn from each other's mistakes. And they love solving problems.
"So that everyone sees the results of their efforts immediately, we are completely transparent on a real-time basis," Glenn continues. "Everybody knows how the agency is doing and where each person is in terms of meeting their goals. Each person sets their own goals, with input from management, and receives incentives for meeting those goals."
The initial problem
Brownstone traces its roots back to 1973 when John Cassara started the agency in New York City after having trouble finding insurance for his own brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. As far as John was concerned, the trouble grew out of one serious flaw in the way brownstones were underwritten. Underwriters were looking only at the building (most of which were older, had flat roofs, were in transitional neighborhoods, and had multiple tenants) and were either denying coverage outright or charging very high premiums. But John knew his neighbors and friends and knew that they cared about their buildings and planned on maintaining them. He believed that you needed to underwrite the owner of the building. That would give you a better picture of the risk involved. And, if you found that there were a large number of responsible owners and tenants, it would also give you a strong indication of which "transitional" neighborhoods were headed in the right direction.
In 1982, John approached like-minded insurance professionals, Wayne and Glenn, with a desire to start a similar agency in the Boston area. "He allowed us to start our own insurance agency in our own way, using his philosophy of insuring the people rather than the building," Glenn remembers. "We found a company that believed in the concept and started going door to door and neighborhood to neighborhood."
"It was a tough act to follow," Wayne adds. "We quickly found that the program for brownstone buildings was not enough. We also needed a program to handle the traditional, personal lines risks of the people living in the buildings. That's why we started Murphy & Jordan."
Created by agents, for agents
"Both Glenn and I were traditional agents before we started Brownstone. So we developed the program with agents in mind," Wayne notes. Brownstone operates as a program administrator for its brownstone program. "We have full underwriting authority because our company believes in our underwriting philosophy of only insuring what we call 'house-proud' people," Glenn adds.
He continues, "We offer quick turnaround. An agent only needs to fill out a two-page application and send us a picture of the property from his cell phone and they'll get an indication or a price for coverage within 30 minutes. If we can write the property, we can send them a policy that day as a PDF or, if they're old school, we'll send them a paper policy."
"The 30-minute indication and 24-hour policy issuance is the result of always asking ourselves: 'Why can't we do that?'" adds Scott Thatcher, who joined the agency in 2002 from MBNA, where he was a business analyst. He currently serves as the agency's chief operating officer. "When I joined Brownstone 10 years ago, technology was under my belt. One thing I noticed at my previous company and at Brownstone was the huge amount of paper generated and how that meant that we really couldn't process a policy within a day. So, the first project I undertook was turning the agency paperless. That single decision really paved the way for where we are today." The agency boasts revenue per employee of $330,000, well above the industry average, with approximately 75% produced by Brownstone and the balance coming from Murphy & Jordan.
Making it work
However, it didn't just happen. "After we went paperless," Scott remembers, "things didn't go exactly as planned. Even though everything became electronic, everyone was still running to the printers to get printouts of information so they could compare it with what they were working on on their screen. We stopped that by having everyone go to three screens (with a minimum screen size of 20 inches). And that made the difference. I was amazed at how successfully the transition went."
Technology also has played an important role in keeping the agency running during a catastrophe. "When we lost power last year for four days because of a hurricane, we were prepared," Scott continues. "Essentially, we have been on the cloud for years. We also had a generator for back-up power. So we were back on line in 30 minutes and had no disruption of electricity. If we hadn't planned ahead, we would have been unavailable on days that were critical for our clients. That's when the most claims happen. Agencies have to be prepared.
"In addition, technology also has allowed us to keep in touch with our clients 24/7 through whatever media they want to use. The tools and technologies we've pushed for allow our clients to interact with us via their iPad or iPhone, for instance. If agencies are just now getting on board with technology, it's really too late already."
Elizabeth Cincotta, director of new media and customer communications, adds, "We believe it is essential that we communicate with our customers in their own time on their own turf. That means that we need to be on Twitter and Facebook with educational and informational offerings that help clients and potential clients make informed decisions. We always lead with education, presenting ourselves as experts in our field. And all of our marketing is permission-based so we have to make certain that it provides meaningful information that the client or prospect will actually ask to see.
"Another key component is that everything is done in-house so that our marketing is more personal to us," Beth continues. "We also monitor the social media sites to make certain that we aren't missing concerns of our customers. Recently, one of our customers tweeted a concern about roof repairs. His wife was expecting very soon and he was worried the roof wouldn't be fixed before she had the baby. We expedited the claim and made certain the repairs were completed before the baby came home."
Social media for social good
"Facebook has been very successful for us," Beth says. "We have about 3,000 fans and have retained 85% of them from 2010. Our site features information about local events and, in 2010, we used it to help a local family that had been devastated by cancer. We heard about the struggles of the Cazeault family in Kingston following the death of their mother from cancer and the father's diagnosis of cancer. So we started a 'We Like to Help Campaign' where we promised to donate money to the family in exchange for every new 'Like' we received on Facebook. Our goal was to donate $2,000 and we reached that within 24 hours. So we raised the goal to $10,000 and met that in 23 days."
Last year, the agencies decided to bring that helping attitude in-house, while still continuing to donate to worthy charities. "We agreed to contribute $1 to an employee's favorite charity for every hour of exercise they completed," Glenn says. "By the end of 2011, our employees were more fit, having worked out 4,857.5 hours. And local charities saw their receipts increased by $4,857.50. It was a win for everybody.
"I'm really proud of what Scott and Beth have done and continue to do to keep our agencies ahead of the curve," Glenn concludes. "We have a Web site just for the brokers with whom we do business, we're getting involved with a new social media site called Pinterest that has attracted people who are interested in brownstone architecture, and they're probably working on stuff that I don't know about yet. In fact, I'm really proud of everyone at the agency. That's one of the best things about our organization—everyone works hard and is passionate about what they do. They're all leaders; we don't have any followers."
And Rough Notes is very proud to recognize Brownstone and its affiliate, Murphy & Jordan, as our Marketing Agency of the Month.