Peach State partners: Georgia agencies
build a winning team
Georgia Agency Partners has a proud history and a sunny future
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
If you love college foot- ball—and especiallyif you follow the actionin the prestigious Southeastern Conference—you know that the state of Georgia boasts two of the 2012 season's Bowl-winning teams. The University of Georgia Bulldogs finished the year with an impressive 12-2 record and defeated Nebraska 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl, and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets beat the USC Trojans 21-7 in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
Independent agencies and brokerages don't have a Bowl Championship Series, but if they did, Georgia Agency Partners would definitely have made an appearance when the top teams competed on New Year's Day.
Established in 1995 as South Georgia Agency Partners to serve as a marketing mechanism for carriers, the organization was renamed Georgia Agency Partners (GAP) in 1996 when the five founding agency members decided to expand throughout the state. By 2002, GAP had grown to 12 member agencies, and it held at that number until 2012 when four new agencies came on board. Today GAP is made up of 16 independent agencies with 34 locations, 87 commercial lines producers, 52 personal lines producers, and combined property/casualty premium volume of $252 million.
Before establishing Georgia Agency Partners, the principals of what would become its founding agencies considered whether to join an existing national aggregator. Ultimately the agents decided to go their own way so they could retain their independence and build an organization based on shared values, culture, and goals. GAP members do not compete among themselves and are dedicated to maintaining an atmosphere of trust that allows them to freely exchange ideas and experiences.
GAP's highly successful aggregation model maintains control of carrier relationships at the agency level rather than centralizing this function. This approach supports close relationships at the local or regional level that enhance each member's ability to write and retain quality business.
Georgia Agency Partners is itself an agency that holds contracts with regional and national carriers. A partnership with ARM International and Gallagher gives members access to facilities for the placement of large or complex risks.
GAP's members are accountable to each other for meeting agreed-upon levels of production, growth, and profitability. Each year the executive committee selects a member to serve as chairman for the coming year.
New ways to grow
From the start, the members of Georgia Agency Partners concentrated on achieving growth by maximizing carrier relationships, and their efforts produced impressive results. Carrier partnerships are at the heart of agency growth and profitability—but they are not the only way to grow.
"Until a couple of years ago, the group focused primarily on aggregation with carriers and on expense reduction," says Meredith Rominger, executive director, who joined GAP in 2010. "This strategy has proved to be highly successful in building strong partnerships with national and regional carriers and also in forming relationships with vendors and service providers. Some of these carrier relationships date back decades to when a member agency was established."
More recently, Rominger says, "Our member agencies began to explore additional ways of maximizing resources, such as sharing intellectual capital to help each other grow. The key question was: How can we compete with larger brokerage operations and regional agencies that have resources that our individual members might not be able to offer, but that we could provide as a group?"
As a first step, Rominger says, GAP partnered with Scott Addis of Addis Intellectual Capital to develop a proprietary sales process called Risk Assessment 365. "We've retained a consultant to provide claims analysis services to our members, and in the near future we plan to hire a specialist and bring this function in-house," Rominger says. "We're also exploring the feasibility of establishing our own captive."
Yet another new initiative is GAP University, which GAP is developing in partnership with Addis. "This idea started when we collaborated with Scott to create Risk Assessment 365," Rominger explains. "We decided to ramp up our efforts in the area of education, and we established GAP University to be a resource for sales training and coaching, young producer development and mentoring, and similar initiatives. We've partnered with a vendor that is providing the platform for GAP University, which in addition to internal education and training will offer loss control and safety programs and other client-focused resources like Webinars and an online library."
Member agencies also benefit from a consolidated premium finance agreement with First Insurance Funding and consolidated resource agreements with service providers like Omnia®, SeaPass, Vertafore®/ReferenceConnectTM, Webcetera®/EZLynx®, XDateTrak, and Zywave/ModMaster®.
High fives from members
When you ask a member of Georgia Agency Partners what he likes best about belonging to the group, he has a hard time deciding what to put at the top of the list. Scoring high with everyone are marketing power, shared values and goals, and access to a trusted sounding board of seasoned agency veterans with whom to share ideas, experiences, resources, and strategies.
Preston Moss is vice president and account executive at Blanchard & Calhoun Insurance Agency, Inc., which was established in 1919 and is located in Augusta, Georgia, home of the legendary Masters golf tournament. Moss is a past chairman of Georgia Agency Partners, which his agency joined in 2000.
"A major advantage of belonging to GAP is the aggregation of our premium volume, which enables us to obtain better deals with our carriers," Moss says. "We also can negotiate better pricing with our vendors and service providers.
"Another benefit that may be even more important is the opportunity to network with our GAP partners," Moss asserts. "It would be hard for me to call an agency owner across town and ask for opinions and advice, but in GAP we can do that freely. In fact, we do it daily; we have an e-mail network that is used not only by the agency principals but also the marketing people, the producers, and the CSRs. Everyone in an agency can use the network to find a market or a vendor."
Another key advantage of belonging to GAP, Moss observes, is that the organization takes a measured approach to expanding its membership. For more than 15 years the group consisted of just 12 agencies, and it was only last year that four new agencies were accepted as members.
"We're extremely selective," Moss says. "If you want to join GAP, you have to be thoroughly vetted. We want agencies that think the way we do and have the same values and work ethic. An agency must share our commitment to helping our fellow members and to achieving GAP's objectives."
The Norton Agency, based in Gainesville, Georgia, has been a GAP member since 2000, and its president, Robert Norton, is the third generation of his family to manage the agency; he also is a past chairman of GAP. The agency has a total of 13 offices, of which 11 are in northern Georgia, one in Alabama, and another in South Carolina.
"Initially what Georgia Agency Partners allowed us to do was stabilize our market situation," Norton says. "Back in 2000 there was a lot of merger and acquisition activity among agencies, and the big agencies seemed to be getting even bigger. As a result, the smaller agencies had a hard time negotiating price with carriers, and a lot of demands were being placed on us in the way of volume commitments. Joining GAP helped us move to more solid ground in terms of markets, and to grow from a small fish to a bigger fish."
Aggregation initially was the key advantage of becoming a GAP member, Norton continues, but, like Moss, he soon discovered another benefit. "We realized that we had friendly voices to talk to. Ours is a very competitive business, and you never want to ask a competitor how he does something—but we are able to ask our GAP partners. We share information not only about markets but also about our internal operations and how to make our agencies work better. It's like having a mini-board of directors to talk with about agency management ideas."
As noted earlier, the founding members of Georgia Agency Partners explored the possibility of joining an existing national aggregator and ultimately chose to form their own group.
"There are many aggregators out there, and we looked at a number of models," Norton says. "Most of them are run by an executive team outside the membership. We run our own shops every day, and it would be hard to give someone else the power to run our organization. Having the keys to the car was important to us, and our organization is run by our members. Before we decide to do anything that will affect the group, we all have to agree on it."
The Waites & Foshee Insurance Group has been a member of Georgia Agency Partners for 10 years, and its president, Hal Foshee, finds a lot to like about belonging to the group.
"First and foremost, we are a very close-knit group, and we are truly partners," he says. "That facilitates the sharing of a great deal of information that typically you would not share from a peer group standpoint. We talk about operational issues, like how you compensate your staff or how another member is managing work flows. GAP serves as a sounding board for these and many other issues, and when one member raises a question, it's likely that another member has already been down that road and can share his experience."
GAP members also benefit from sharing information in another area, Foshee points out. "From a coverage or technical standpoint, the intellectual capital that exists among the principals of our agencies is invaluable. Each of us can draw on that capital to help put a deal together for a client or to get information about a particular market or risk from an underwriting specialist in that area," Foshee says.
With 16 agencies and 34 locations around the state, Foshee comments, Georgia Agency Partners essentially covers the map of the Peach State. "This allows us to share information about local markets and economic conditions in various parts of the state," he remarks. "It also helps us qualify prospects and decide whether we want to write a particular account."
Aggregation was the key goal for the founding members of GAP, and it continues to be a significant driver of the organization's growth and success. Initially, Foshee says, "We didn't join GAP to gain access to markets; we already had just about all the markets we needed. Since we joined, however, we have picked up a few markets, including Selective, which is a very franchise-oriented carrier with a small agency plant. GAP has a contract with them, and it's been a very successful partnership."
"A very successful partnership"—that seems like an excellent way to describe the bonds of trust, respect, and shared values that connect the members of Georgia Agency Partners. Stay tuned: This team is bound to take home the trophy from the Bowl Championship Series.