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Marketing Agency of the Month

Experience + business plan + execution = success

This Atlanta agency reached $6 million in revenue in five years

By Dennis H. Pillsbury

When William E. Underwood III founded Ironwood Insurance and Employee Benefits, Atlanta, in 2007, he was starting from scratch. All he had was his own broad experience in the insurance business and a carefully constructed business plan that emphasized his idea of creating an agency of owners that would be focused on providing great service to its clients. Not surprisingly, this would be accomplished by bringing in the type of people who shared this vision, who had a proven track record of service first, and who were willing to work hard to make the agency successful.

Today, the agency has proven that the model works. Revenues for this year should hit $6 million and the agency now employs 23 people, of whom eight are owners. “Ownership is built into the producer plan,” Will points out, adding that “we are working on a plan for ways to recognize non-producers with ownership. Currently we have one non-producer who is an owner.”

Prior to founding Ironwood, Will had been with Palmer & Cay. However, he had “always wanted to build something from scratch so I started working on a business plan for a new agency.”

That plan was a very important document that allowed Will to raise capital, as well as attract insurance companies to support the new agency. In addition to providing very specific revenue goals, the plan focused primarily on attracting the type of people who would be needed to achieve those goals and aligning everyone's interests.

“Every person at the agency is there to support clients,” Will says. That includes people in management. “They all are producers or customer service people first and managers second, so they see the management position as being supportive of the agency's primary goal, which is to serve clients.”

The plan also makes it clear that the agency is built for the long term and will remain privately owned. “That part of the plan was the main factor in being able to attract the type of talent that we have here today at Ironwood.”

Insurance company confidence

Scott Dalton, senior vice president and Southeast regional manager for Chubb, the first company to provide a contract to Ironwood, agrees. “Will came to me with his story and his business plan. We had a lot of confidence in his plan and were honored to provide a contract.

“I have known Will for a long time,” Scott continues. “We had a significant relationship with Palmer & Cay and I worked closely with Will during that time. I knew that he followed through on commitments. It was a combination of the person and a viable business plan that made us comfortable. And it's worked out great. In five short years, Ironwood has earned its way into our Commercial Cornerstone Program. That is strictly a performance-based designation, which means that Ironwood is an elite performer for Chubb.”

This confidence in the new agency was echoed throughout the insurance community. “We were supported by the entire Atlanta carrier marketplace,” Will says. “They were all willing to support our efforts, knowing that it would take more than three years for us to meet their expectations.” (In fact, Ironwood turned the corner in its third year, as it reached profitability.)

The third ingredient

Of course, while capital and company appointments are key, the critical third ingredient is people who can bring in and provide excellent service to clients. Will was soon joined by Matt Lovein, who worked with Will at Palmer & Cay. “Will was the practice leader in my specialty, which was private equity firms,” says Matt, who today is a senior partner at Ironwood. “We worked very well together and I was ready to move on. Joining Will at Ironwood was the easiest decision I ever made.

“I had worked with Will enough to know that this was where I wanted to be. I'd always wanted to be involved in building something from the ground up and knew that would take a combination of hard work and the right people—and Will is one of those right people.”

The agency quickly developed a reputation for excellence that was based not just on its treatment of clients, but also on the fact that right from the start, it was a good corporate citizen. As part of the business plan, 1% of top-line revenues go to charity and that started right away, even before the agency began to realize a profit. “I wanted the agency to do the right thing immediately,” Will notes. “This is a good thing to do for the community we serve and indirectly has helped us grow our business as we have become known as a company with a heart.”

He continues, “We also wanted to have the kind of reputation that would attract the best talent as we grew. Once those people were on board, we supported their efforts by providing the best back-up for their efforts, either internally or externally. In addition to providing all employees with a BlackBerry® and a laptop, we have established relationships with very high-end key resource groups, including a relationship with an international broker that is a full-time dedicated resource for us. We also have an independent environmental resource and, internally, a workers compensation claims person who helps our clients reduce their claim costs with sophisticated risk management and mitigation techniques.

“These resources allow our people to approach sophisticated buyers and offer solutions that surpass those 'supposedly' provided by the large brokers. In fact, this allowed us to land a Fortune 500 account that operates in 25 countries. We are able to successfully manage their global insurance needs.”

Building on its success

While Ironwood had built a strong team to handle the most sophisticated risk management solutions for property/casualty clients, it had only ventured into the world of employee benefits by partnering with a benefits agency. In February 2011, that changed. Mark Conner joined the agency as managing partner of Ironwood Benefits Advisory Services. Mark had been part of the benefits community since 1995, as a partner at Dominium Benefits and Hamilton Dorsey Alston, an agency purchased by Wachovia in 2001.

“I was intrigued by the challenge of building my own practice,” Mark says. “We had worked together before and decided that it made sense for us to get together. I managed to bring in a fairly nice book of business and have doubled the size of the practice in 18 months.

“We're definitely looking at this as a growth area and we have recently added another experienced benefits producer and account manager. I am very pleased that the agency's property/casualty clients are telling us that the service by the benefits department is unparalleled.”

New opportunities

“All sorts of opportunities have opened up,” Will points out. “Cross selling has become very important for us. It's a classic one plus one equals three. Our sales force is actively engaged in building relationships where they listen to clients to determine what their needs are and how we can help them. We don't approach a client with a fixed agenda, and that helps us find areas where we can grow.

“We learned very quickly that our clients wanted to improve the lives of their employees by introducing wellness programs so we added a wellness person to our staff to provide that value-added service. Also of concern to many of our clients was the best way to manage their relationship with employees. Many of them did not have a full-time HR person. We have partnered with a payroll and HR consulting firm to distribute their products and services to our clients and other businesses around the country.

“This is all part of our effort to stay on the leading edge,” Will concludes. “Our relationships with the business community as clients and advisory board members makes it possible for us to intimately understand their needs and respond quickly. That has been the key to our success and what helps shape our future as we revise our five-year plan every year to make certain that our long-term objectives mesh with our clients' needs. We're in this for the long haul and that really is the only way to make certain we're successful and continue to grow.”

In many ways, the independent agency system is unique in that it allows anyone willing to work hard and develop strong relationships to succeed and prosper. But it takes careful planning and a lot of energy. Ironwood Insurance and Employee Benefits is a prime example of how successful an agency business can be when it puts all the ingredients together. Rough Notes is proud to recognize Ironwood as our Marketing Agency of the Month.


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