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Game changer: How Cleves Delp is building the agency of the future

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He’s built it. And, boy, have they — from clients to young producers to other advisors — come.

Cleves Delp has taken his father’s agency from a small firm focused on helping affluent clients with life insurance to a multi-business behemoth with offices around the country. Today, Toledo, Ohio-based TDC Companies still targets the wealthy — but it helps them with everything from life and high-end property and casualty insurance to investment and retirement planning.

What’s more, Delp has also worked to position TDC for success despite an uncertain landscape for many insurance agencies these days. He has skillfully maneuvered TDC into the digital age without losing the high-touch customer service the company has long been known for. He’s brought in ample talent to help run the much-larger business, including several young producers he’s made a point of mentoring. And he’s joined up with Lion Street, an innovative advisor-owned distribution company.

It’s no wonder then that TDC has $4 billion in in-force death benefit, manages $1 billion-worth of assets and has grown from 20 employees to 91 in just the last five years.

“I’ve just marveled at Cleves’ ability to build a business,” says Royce Imhoff, head of business development with Lion Street and former president of AIG’s Affluent Markets Group. “For him, it’s not a short-term deal. It’s really about building something for the future. I think he wants to sustain the legacy that his father built and he feels a sort of responsibility — that he owes it to his clients and all the young people he’s brought up in his organization — to really build it out and pay it forward.”

A reluctant heir

Delp didn’t want anything to do with that family legacy a few decades ago.

In 1986, as his senior year at Michigan’s Hillsdale College drew to a close, Delp started to apply for jobs at several insurance and financial services firms — none of which were owned by his dad.

“I interviewed with seven different companies and received offers from six of them,” Delp says. “My father asked if he could extend an offer as well, and I kind of flatly refused that offer. I wanted to go out and do something for myself.”

What changed his mind? A meeting with his college advisor, who had spoken with Delp’s father, and suggested this: “He told me, ‘It’s as wrong to go into the family business because it’s the family business as it is to not go into the family business because it’s the family business,’” Delp says. “And that was it. I decided to accept my father’s offer.”

Delp graduated on a Saturday, started his career the following Monday and never regretted his choice. “It was awesome,” he says. “My dad did a phenomenal job of training us.”

And after a few years, Delp’s father started gradually stepping aside to let Delp take the reins. “He literally would position himself so I had to step in to fill the void,” he says. When the time came for Delp to fully take over for his dad, “it was a non-event,” he says. “I’m not sure anyone really noticed.”

Equally seamless has been Delp’s expansion of the company over the last several years, gradually adding group benefits, investment advisory services and, more recently, high-end property and casualty insurance to TDC’s product mix. To help manage the growth, the company has split into several mini companies under the TDC brand: TDC Life, TDC Risk Management, TDC Benefits and TDC Investment Advisory Services.

And while Delp says he often hears from advisors who think branching out strains a company’s credibility, Delp says the move has actually allowed TDC to leverage it. “That’s a hang-up advisors have got to get over because it’s in the advisor’s head, not the client’s,” he says. “If your clients think you’re smart and trust you, then they think you’re smart and trust you, and that’s true whether you’re advising them on investments or life insurance.”

For more tips from Cleves Delp, see: How to attract (and keep!) affluent clients.

In that vein, Delp has worked to build partnerships with roughly 300 CPAs and other advisors around the country, helping them offer more services to their clients while creating a massive referral pipeline for TDC’s various companies.

“Essentially, we fit ourselves around these advisors and provide expertise where they can’t,” Delp says. “Typically, we’re brought in as a subject-matter expert, so we come in with a lot of credibility, and that’s a big deal.”

A few of those advisor partnerships have led TDC to open offices in Phoenix, Houston and St. Louis to better serve the advisors they work with in those cities. “It was a matter of folks pursuing us, where they were interested in leveraging our particular business model, and that’s what really drove the growth,” Delp says.

Reputation matters

Those advisors are likely seeking Delp out because he and his staff have worked hard to build and cultivate a best-in-class reputation for TDC.

Delp is “fanatical about customer service,” Imhoff says, and it shows. TDC is such a large organization in part because Delp works to ensure the company can not only sell to clients but also service them.

“We have folks who do nothing but underwriting, who do nothing but policy design, who do nothing but marketing,” Delp says. “When you want to compete in the affluent marketplace, you need to build a real firm with real specialists. The secret is to surround yourself with great people who do what they do very, very well.”

TDC client Don Scholl, president of Syracuse, N.Y.-based PurEnergy LLC, a company that serves independent power plants, has experienced that service firsthand. After meeting Delp through Imhoff several years ago, Scholl has gradually moved investments, his company’s 401(k) plan and employee benefits, and some property and casualty insurance over to TDC.

“Cleves is extremely dedicated, extremely focused,” Scholl says. “And it’s not just him. I think everybody we’ve worked with there has been great. He just has a great group of professionals.”

When they’re not focused on customer service, many of those professionals are working on marketing efforts, another major focus at TDC. “There are few firms in our specialty that spend what we do on marketing,” says Delp, whose company runs ads in magazines like Worth and hosts out-of-the-box client appreciation events, including a recent visit from Carl Richards, author of “The Behavior Gap.”

Those efforts extend online, as well. TDC has set up a clients-only portal site and has a presence on most social media networks, despite Delp’s initial reluctance to use networking sites.

“I like to say my mid-life crisis, instead of buying cars or boats or things like that, was getting on Facebook,” he says. “I kept poo-pooing the idea, and I heard myself sounding like an old man. ‘Who needs the Internet? Who needs fax machines? Who needs technology?’ I didn’t want to be that guy.”

See also: Social media: Look, we’re doing it!

Once Delp got over his social media phobia, he changed his mind. “The value of the technology is, 1) it’s a great way to stay in touch with existing clients, and 2) it’s a great way for people to vet you,” he says. “People go online to check you out, and you need to be there.”

Poised for the future

Delp’s forward thinking with social media extends to other aspects of his company, including his decision to make TDC the second firm to sign on with Lion Street, a financial services firm that’s owned by its advisor users.

Delp says he likes the company, founded and run by several longtime industry heavy hitters, because it removes the “they’re taking my money” problem producers often have with intermediaries. “Essentially, we’re paying in to a company we own,” Delp says. “You don’t ‘go’ with Lion Street; you become an owner. You literally buy in.”

And that buy-in means advisors have a voice at the table. “We get to choose what resources we want them to build out instead of having them come to us saying, ‘These are the resources we built out,’” Delp says.

Delp, who sits on Lion Street’s board, apparently isn’t the only advisor who finds this model appealing. In its third year, Lion Street now works with about 70 firms.

Lion Street’s focus on cultivating young advisors in a graying industry — the company has a “Young Guns” study group — also impressed Delp, who has spent a lot of time hiring, mentoring and promoting young advisors at TDC as well as supporting youth initiatives in his local community.

Delp serves on the board of trustees at his alma mater, Hillsdale, and recently brought several local institutions together to build a multi-million dollar baseball complex at Toledo’s Central Catholic High School.

The father of five says his work with young advisors is more about cultivating young talent than grooming a successor at this point — he’s only 49, after all — but should something happen, Delp’s confident his company would be in good hands.

“I take a great deal of pride in knowing that, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, the practice wouldn’t miss a beat,” Delp says. “Because whatever success I’ve enjoyed, it’s in large part due to the people I’ve been able to attract and keep around to partner with me. They’ll keep this going, even after I’m gone.”

For more producer stories, see:

A career change gone right

A victor, not a victim

CPAs can sell


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