To Christopher Sullivan, a perfect world is one in which insurance agents would be viewed in the same light as attorneys and accountants. Sullivan, a risk management advisor with Powers Insurance and Benefits in Clayton, Missouri, says insurance is just as crucial to a business’s longevity, yet is often looked upon as a commodity rather than a value-added service. And agents are doing it to themselves, he says.
Just four years into an already lucrative insurance career, the 28-year-old Sullivan loves his job, even though it wasn’t his first choice. Thanks to a financial crisis and a conversation with his cousins, Sullivan was able to transition into the insurance industry with relative ease.
In 2009, Sullivan had finished an internship in a financial advisory practice. He had just earned a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, and he was positioning himself for a career in finance. Having come from a legacy of salesmen — his father, grandfather, and four uncles were all in sales — it was a no-brainer what his career would be.
Yet timing is everything. A year before Sullivan graduated, the recession hit the financial services industry. Jobs were disappearing and the industry was in crisis.
So he talked to cousins who were independent agency owners. They convinced him to give insurance a shot. Sullivan thought it would be an easy way to segue into the financial sector. “Everyone needs insurance. If today’s market is tough, you at least have a way to get in the door with insurance. Then down the road, you can explore something else.”
Even in his short career, Sullivan has already done some of that exploring. His first job in the industry was with State Farm. He’d seen a business plan for becoming a State Farm agent and it intrigued him. He contacted the company and “I suddenly had more opportunities than I thought I’d have. So many State Farm agents wanted me to learn and manage their book of business. I ended up working for one of the largest books of business in Missouri.”
Turns out it was a great move. Within three years, Sullivan was the most tenured employee in the agency. Also, he says it was a great learning experience, and he learned how to manage the book of business, fill a pipeline, set appointments, manage clients and more. “I did everything for the agency except write the payroll checks.”
He also managed retention. During his tenure, Sullivan says the agency had an unheard of lapse and cancellation ratio of less than 10 percent on nearly 8,000 policies. State Farm, he says, provided a great opportunity for him to learn and grow a business.
The independent life
Still, Sullivan felt his career, while flourishing, had limitations. “State Farm was a fabulous company, but if the business didn’t fit within State Farm, I couldn’t help people. Then my name wasn’t what it could be. It was more of a ‘Chris is your guy if’ scenario. You had to fit the cookie-cutter situation.”
Like a true salesperson, he decided he’d rather sell his name instead of selling an insurance brand. He explored various options before deciding his talents might fit better within the independent agency structure. Yet not any agency would do. So Sullivan approached his job search much like he does his client prospects – he networked for a year, interviewing several places and looking for that right balance of product offerings, support and long-term approach to business success.
Plenty of coffee and beers later, Sullivan found the best fit in Powers Insurance and Benefits out of Clayton, Missouri. There, he specializes in commercial risk management consultancy – 90 percent of his business. His clients are companies that need risk management, but don’t have the resources to have one on staff. He says Powers “operates like one of the big guys, but is a family-owned business.” In fact, until recently, Sullivan was the only risk manager there who didn’t have the Powers last name.
The company has two locations and 20 employees — just the right size for Sullivan. What he likes best about Powers is a shared vision: “They believe in the big picture, which is why it’s such a great fit. Everyone in town is hearing our name and hearing about our growth.”
That big-picture view is exactly what Sullivan feels is his strongest attribute and a primary reason he’s been so successful so quickly. “Early on, I saw the big picture. My biggest success is I know when I engage with a business, what value I bring to their table, how much I’m helping change this industry.”
Sullivan says, too, that part of being successful is being persistent and building those bridges. One of his prospects, a large property management company, took three years to land. Initially, he says, the client wasn’t interested, nor was he too polite in saying so. Still, he followed up regularly. Eventually, the client called on Sullivan, who earned the business.
More recently, he’s been nurturing one account for a year. If it comes through, it will be his largest to date. Even before he’s signed the multi-state, multi-location client, he’s shown his value in uncovering a number of exposures. Plus, he’s built a rapport with the CEO. “Even if it doesn’t make sense this year, I’ll always have an opportunity to work with this business because of the relationship I have with this CEO.”
Also, he’s transparent about commissions. His reasoning: if you know what you’re paying for, you’re more inclined to utilize the service, which he believes is the best way for clients to get the most for their investment.
Yet Sullivan says he faces some significant challenges. “My youth,” he says. “If someone is going to hire me, someone is going to get fired, and that someone probably has gray hair. They’ve probably forgotten more than I know.”
He’s combatted objections to his youth by having the big-picture conversation with clients. Plus, unlike many of his peers, Sullivan, who will marry in October, has a family, including a stepson, to provide for. These responsibilities, he says, limit the amount of time he can put into the job. “I just can’t work until eight at night. I have to make good use of my time.”
Beyond personal challenges, he sees an industry-wide challenge that many agents aren’t addressing. “So many of them are doing business on a transactional basis,” he says, by putting the emphasis on cost savings. “It’s commoditized our business. We’ve devalued ourselves.”
Instead, he sits with clients and goes over better options. With Powers, Sullivan says they focus on long-term engagements with clients. “We get to know them, they get to know us.” If the relationship makes sense, he says, he’ll then share the company’s proprietary process for boosting client results.
That’s how it should be, he believes. He has a message for all agents: “We have so much value to bring to the business.” Plus, he can’t stress enough knowing where you’re going and putting the effort into getting there. “I am where I am today because of persistence. I have a goal in mind, and I know I have to get up every day and work toward that goal. It’s a long-term race.”