Marketing Agency of the Month
An old agency with new ideas
New Jersey agency builds on niches and unique opportunities
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
The Braunsdorf Agency in Westfield, New Jersey, was a typical local agency when James (Jim) L. Johnston purchased it in 1979 from Clyde H. Fitch, father of a high school classmate who has been Jim's friend now for more than 50 years. The agency has a history that dates back to 1903, when the Braunsdorf Agency was established. It became Couch Braunsdorf Insurance in 1984 following the purchase of John A. Couch Agency. That was the largest of a number of agency acquisitions, as Jim led the agency's efforts to grow through the purchase of mostly small agencies that needed help with perpetuation. In 2003, the agency moved its headquarters to a 33,000-square-foot facility in Liberty Corner, New Jersey.
Jim decided to acquire an independent agency after working three years with a direct writer, where "the older guys, trapped by large books of business, advised me to go out and establish my own agency," he recalls. "Clyde sold the agency to me and continued to work with us for 13 years." At the time of the purchase, gross commission income totaled around $75,000.
Today, the agency has 115 employees with branch offices in New York City, San Francisco and Red Bank, New Jersey, and sales offices in Pittsburgh and Charlotte. Gross commission income last year was $20 million with anticipated revenue of $24 million this year. Early in 2013, Assurex Global, the world's largest group of privately held commercial insurance brokerage firms, invited Couch Braunsdorf to become a shareholder/partner.
While acquisitions helped fuel some growth, at the same time, Couch Braunsdorf was busy producing new business and hiring producers. The goal was to find and develop niches where the agency could create a competitive advantage by building expertise and strong relationships.
An early niche opportunity came with the Couch Agency, which had a long-established relationship with New Jersey attorneys, including a book of lawyers professional liability business. In order to successfully penetrate the niche, Couch Braunsdorf brought in people with expertise in the field, including Larry Evans, from Aetna, and Jim Fitzpatrick, an attorney and friend of Jim Johnston, both of whom joined the agency in the early 1980s.
The agency's effort to penetrate the lawyers professional liability market has been so successful that Couch Braunsdorf was appointed a program administrator by Zurich Insurance in 2010 to offer the insurer's lawyers professional liability coverage in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. This was followed by an agreement with Zurich in 2012 to offer the coverage in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. This year, New York was added to the agency's authority with Zurich.
Early on, the agency started to investigate ways it could build on this strong center of influence. In addition to attorneys, the agency also had several established relationships with banks and realtors. And what coverages do they not only have in common, but essentially control? Title insurance. So the agency added a Title Division in 1995, a unique move for an independent agency in New Jersey.
During July 2002, an NYSE-traded commercial bank commissioned Couch Braunsdorf to design, implement and manage an insurance agency/brokerage subsidiary. The operation ran profitably and was later absorbed into a larger bank.
Broadening what direct writers can do
Another opportunity came around when a major direct writer decided it wanted to reduce its property insurance exposure in New Jersey. Rather than wait for the company to leave thousands of potential policyholders stranded, Couch Braunsdorf met with the insurer and developed a plan to take over new business—a program that would allow the direct writer's agents to round out and retain accounts by placing the property coverage with Couch Braunsdorf. These policies were referred to Couch Braunsdorf by the direct writing agents and then marketed to various insurance carriers. That program has grown to over 55,000 property policies coming from approximately 200 of the direct writer's agents.
Once again, Couch Braunsdorf had to find the expertise to handle such a high volume of policies and wound up bringing in a 21-year-old consultant, Eric Wistrand, to set up an automated system allowing the agency to handle policies in real time and also produce extensive monthly reports to program partners.
"We have the underwriting authority so we needed an automated system that communicates with the insurance company's platform allowing for real time capability and no duplicate entry. It's a sophisticated system. Eric is a whiz and we were fortunate to convince him to join the agency as our IT director and a partner," says Chief Operating Officer Jim Buccini, who brings extensive line management experience from outside the insurance industry.
"Eric is a unique blend—a computer genius and also an excellent businessman who understands what it takes to satisfy customers' needs and our insurance companies' underwriting appetites. He also speaks Mandarin," Buccini adds, leaving unsaid the fact that the agency clearly is thinking of ways that this ability might lead to additional business.
And more come along
That first partnership with a direct writer opened up additional doors five years later, when a company that specializes in financial, life and health business approached Couch Braunsdorf to provide a facility for commercial property/casualty business on a countrywide basis.
Then a year later, a West Coast-based direct writer that wanted to expand east of the Mississippi asked the agency to handle some of its personal and commercial lines business in the East.
Couch Braunsdorf is currently in the process of implementing coverage solutions for several additional direct writing carriers. With these new relationships Couch Braunsdorf continues to allow the direct writing carriers and their agents to better serve their customers. "We've become a solution for these companies nationally," Felix Ganz, chief underwriting officer, points out. Ganz, who carries the CIC, CNE, CRM, CLCS, CRIS, PLCS and RWCS designations, added, "The carriers have selected us because of our ability to efficiently, accurately and quickly respond to their needs."
Responsiveness pays off
Needless to say, the agency has a well-defined and flexible disaster recovery plan. And that came into play when Superstorm Sandy knocked out power across New Jersey. With its backup diesel generator, Couch Braunsdorf was up and running almost immediately. And it was a good thing, because the agency had to handle 23,000 claims calls resulting from that storm.
"Our companies and our systems performed incredibly well," Chief Executive Officer Joseph S. Mignon, CLU, ChFC, CEBS, says proudly. "We had very few service complaints arising from those calls. But most importantly, of course, was how well our people handled the crisis. Our employees called clients from their personal cell phones after we hand-delivered call lists. We also posted claims processing information on our Web site."
And while the agency was busy handling its own claim volume, it also opened its doors to other local agents who were unable to get back up and running. A number of agents who needed power, phones and Internet, used Couch Braunsdorf offices in Liberty Corner and Red Bank.
"It was vitally important for the industry to help people restore their lives as quickly as possible," Mignon points out. "We were only too happy to help other agents make certain their clients were reassured that their coverage was in place and their insurance companies would be responding as quickly as possible. The insurance carriers did incredibly well after Sandy. If you look at the record of closed claims and the low number of complaints, you really do have to be proud to be working in this industry. It is during crises like these that the industry proves to be at its best."
The youth movement
In addition to attracting well-respected industry veterans to comprise its executive team, Couch Braunsdorf is highly focused on attracting young talent. "Our IT director, Eric Wistrand; our CFO Jason Schlenker, CIC, CRM; and James P. Johnston, producer, are three of the outstanding young people we have attracted to our agency," Richard S. Van Cleave III, chairman, says. "We have a young, enthusiastic staff who understand that listening to our customers is their primary duty.
"Our people spend a large percentage of their time here," Van Cleave points out. "It's incumbent on us to make this a rewarding and interesting place to work. This includes providing breakfast and lunch prepared by a full-time agency chef as part of a comprehensive benefits package.
"Young people today want jobs where they can help people and feel good about what they are doing. And we're happy to report that our people find just that kind of environment at our agency. Our agency offers in-house programs that enable our staff to obtain additional industry certifications at no cost to them."
Like nearly every one of our cover agencies, Couch Braunsdorf has found a unique way to succeed, taking advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities that being an independent agency offers. Rough Notes is proud to recognize the agency as this month's Marketing Agency of the Month.
Couch Braunsdorf's Executive Team. Seated from left are: Richard S. Van Cleave III, Chairman; and Joseph S. Mignon, CLU, ChFC, CEBS, RHU, REBC, Chief Executive Officer. Standing from left are: Lawrence Evans; James L. Johnston; and James Fitzpatrick, Executive Vice President.
Seated foreground is Eric Wistrand, IT Director, whose custom-made systems produce detailed monthly reports on some 75,000 policies. With him are (from left): James P. Buccini, Chief Operating Officer; Jake Schlenker, CIC, CFO & Commercial Lines Manager; Christopher M. Baker; Dolores Ciuffo, Program Manager; and James P. Johnston.
Couch Braunsdorf has found a unique way to succeed, taking advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities that being an independent agency offers.
The Title Department includes (from left): Linda Vasi; James Fitzpatrick; Paul S. Brown, Esq., B.A., M.A., LL.B.; Robert C. Kermizian, Vice President, General Counsel; Lisa Nissel; and Marie C. Tabor, Manager, Closing Services.
Joe Mignon (right) and David F. Noyes, Director of Finance, meet with agency client Steve Polanish, (center), Chief Operating Officer for Griffin & Howe, a retailer of fine and collectable firearms, specializing in shotguns.