Brad Hosket, Principal and Managing Partner at Hosket Ulen, joins Broker Buddha CEO Jason Keck for a conversation about upgrading their tech stack during the pandemic, his love for the business, and the value his agency gets from the Keystone independent agency network.
Learn more about Hosket Ulen here.
We had been using Salesforce for a digital program - we actually had a renter's insurance program that catered to my previous life to fulfill a need for property owners. We've built to fill a void, and we were using Salesforce. Being the total green individual in the insurance industry, I came in and logged in on agency management systems. I was asking, where's this? Where's this? Where's this? And they said, 'Oh, we don't have any data.'
To be a client-facing organization and all about relationships and to have very little of that information at our fingertips, we used to use Salesforce as a pure sales tool from a client relationship management perspective back in 2013. At the time, there was really no way for it to become your "management system."
We recently had three agency management systems due to acquisitions, so we are consolidating and going to more of a platform base where Salesforce will be the backbone of our site. But obviously, there are a lot of vendors and folks that we're integrating to create one experience. But the key is that the platform is there with Salesforce.
JK: That's the value of Salesforce - it's open, and you can plug in other systems and solutions. I totally get it. We were on with another agency, Gregory & Appel, a couple of weeks ago, who's doing the same thing right now - they're re-platforming on Salesforce. I'm curious. I asked Christina what are the things that it's missing? Because you always start down that road, and then you realize there's one thing that my management system did that I have to recreate here. It's just really hard.
There's a lot of stuff you can do, but then there are some things that are hard, so you miss them, and you're either stuck dealing without them for a little while, or you're cobbling together solutions. Does anything come to mind around that?
BH: Well, you know, it's interesting that you asked that because when I came in, being totally green to this side of the business, I asked a lot of questions - why do we do that this way?
It's the process - we do this next.
Well, because that's what the system says we do.
But I don't understand. Does the underwriter want us to do that? Does the client want that? What's the reason for that?
And most of our people said, 'I've never really thought of it that way.'
The unique thing about being a small agency that has grown is a lot of our people are new. I think some of the problems in our industry are if you've had employees who've done it for 30 years the exact same way every day. That's a hard thing to break - someone's behaviors. To your point, Jason, about - what are those things? We kid that we didn't even use our management system effectively, so the bar was very low. It's not like every one of us did it the same way. We had a lot of people running their desk their own way. They all got into the system with the same end result, but everybody would be out there in a different direction.
The big change we've made is really asking ourselves why we do what we do, what information we really need, and really focusing it all on the client experience because, ultimately, that's what we're here for. What we found is some of our most talented people, people that we would put up against anybody in the industry with their knowledge and expertise, were doing things, and we couldn't imagine why we were having them do those things. When you really got into the weeds, and they said, 'I do this, then I click, and then I email.' I said, 'My goodness, we're missing the boat here.' Our total direction has been - there are a lot of sportspeople in here - we always said that we want our shooters to shoot and our rebounders to rebound.
DG: I was waiting for the basketball reference.
BH: We take it back to the things that we understand. How do we get the people doing their highest and best?
JK: How do you get those people to change? Is it, 'Hey guys, stop. Get ready for change.' Almost like a total mindset? You have to just be prepared to change. You have to wipe out all this history of doing the same thing over and over again, and that's hard.
BH: I think the biggest thing is being able to have something to replace it with. You've got to be able to see it. When you go from OS system to OS system, you say, how do we do step two in the new system? But when you build a new process, take somebody who maybe is very, very talented. Say to them, 'I want you to do that on all of these accounts,' not just "the book of business" that you serve as a story - your clients and the communication of where it all comes back to and being one team. If you have somebody who's an expert at a specific coverage line or has a tremendous amount of background with a specific vertical or client, they want to work with them. They would prefer that because they're good at it - it's human nature. 'I've been doing this for ten years. I know these inside and out.' How do we let those people work on the things that they're extremely gifted at? And how do we still get around them? And that's really been our focus with the platform is to let people perform at their highest and best.
It's hard. It's a ton of hours, but one of the huge keys to that is that we've added two team members who are not in production or in service who are strictly based on helping build our systems and who can speak the technology language. So when somebody says, 'I need it to do this,' - going back to your point - 'Don't forget, I need to be able to do this one feature,' they can say, 'Okay, we'll get a third party that will do that for us, or we can build out our platform to do that.' We don't want to just turn our back on critical elements
JK: I need you to do this, and now you can't do it. Sorry!
BH: It's a technical industry, but I think the light bulb has gone on. Don't get me wrong - anytime you change, it's terribly difficult. And human nature is a tough thing to change, but I think people are having fun and seeing that they can do more of what they enjoy and less busy work.
JK: It sucks when you've got a system, and all these years, you've been wanting to do it differently, but you can't. So you give up, and you just do it the way the system forces you to do it. And then all of a sudden, you're saying all those things you've wanted to do, oh wait, that's possible now! Then you get excited, and then, as you said, they get to do the things that they're good at doing and want to do - not just moving paper or data around.
BH: I think, typically, the other problem with our industry is there's a ton of solutions out there, and insurtech has provided a ton of tools. But just because you buy a tool doesn't mean that you use it properly or can actually use it for good. I think too often, the person who makes the decision to buy it heard that there's a need, so they buy it. No one really implements it or puts it into play correctly, and then nothing's really gained out of it.
So all of a sudden, at the end of the day, you have this stack of technology things. You ask the people, do you use that and they say, 'No, I haven't logged in there in six months.' And you think - that's costing us!
JK: That's like my kid's toy box. There are all these toys, and they literally forget that they're all there. They just want the new shiny one, then they move on, and then you pile it with junk.
BJ: Exactly! Our vertical is very unique because, at the end of the day, there's always a lot of tools out there that you can get that can satisfy some of those things. I always kid people with; just because I have a gym membership doesn't mean I'm in shape. Just because you bought the tool doesn't mean that all of a sudden, you're using it to its full potential. We're trying to really ask ourselves: do we need that, do we use it, does it fulfill our needs? The answer to the why of everything. If we need it, absolutely - let's put it into the stack and let's have it be one of our components, but if three other softwares do the exact same thing, why do we have that one?
And it's so hard and slow to do because the second you get into one of those meetings, you're going to get a client call and say, 'Hey, I got an issue. Have you got a minute?'
JK: I get that as well.
DG: Have you mentioned coming over from real estate to insurance and how there was a dearth of young people in the business at the time? What do you say to someone young who's contemplating the industry, and how do you get that young person into your agency, to maybe have a better agency basketball team, because you're younger - whatever it takes?
BH: No, I'm well retired - just to be clear on that. It's one of those things. I've listened to your podcasts, and I think it's always funny because no one ever says, I grew up; I went to high school and decided I was going to major in risk management and college and got out and got a job in insurance.
I think the greatest part of this industry is it's all based on relationships. So if you really enjoy people and you have relationships and enjoy building relationships, I tell people all the time, I've never found a better business. I have tons of friends that are still in real estate. It's a big sexy chase, and there's a big deal, it hits, and it's over. The dust settles, and then you've got to go find the next one. It's a very different process. This is something that, if you want to build a career, this is a wonderful career.
JK: I wish I'd found it sooner. I was in tech for 20 years, and I would've scoffed at the idea of entering the insurance industry for so long. I was young, hip, and cool, and then I got here and thought, wow, this is so cool - in a totally different way. I'm dead serious. I was in music and media apps and that whole thing. It was fun, and it made me feel important. But the engineer in me, who loves to solve problems, found the space and thought, oh wow, there's a lot of opportunity here.
DG: And a lot of problems to solve!
JK: A lot of problems to solve! The extrovert in me who likes being around people realized that the personalities in this space are extraordinary. Whether it's the conferences or wherever you go, the people in this space are fantastic people. They're good people. They're very different from tech people. Tech people are twitchy and awkward and want to talk about things. They have strong personalities, and it's a different space. I love tech people, don't get me wrong, but the personalities you meet in this space are just fantastic. I'm with you on it.
BH: If you enjoy people and you enjoy solving problems, we have solutions in our name for a reason because, at the end of the day, that's what we provide for people. Insurance has got a kind of a negative stigma. Somebody is always going to sell you something, or they're going to wear you out. It's funny; my wife worked as a nurse for a plastic surgeon. If we go to a cocktail party, she is the most popular person there because everybody's got ten questions they want to ask her. If I want to get out of the conversation, I'll just tell somebody I sell life insurance, and I can watch how quickly they pivot out of that conversation. But it's interesting; the stigma that's been placed on people.
JK: We need to connect you. We had Jason Angus from The Hilb Group last week. He started his career with an insurance product for doctors who did cosmetic surgery. He joined them in both - he ended up selling his agency to The Hilb Group and carried on. He managed to merge the fun part of cosmetic surgery with the fun part of insurance, and he's done well for himself. You talked about the relationships in the space and how that matters. You guys have been involved in the Keystone insurance group for a while now. I've heard about Keystone; I read about it, and I feel like it was visible at a lot of the conferences when we went to them. What does that relationship look like? What do you guys get from them, and what do they get from you?
BH: One of those negative connotations of Keystone insurance group is it's an aggregator, but, ultimately Keystone is set up very differently than many of the other aggravation players currently in that space. Keystone is typically invitation-only. There's a mold of an agency that fits, and the Keystone relationship for us has been fantastic because of several reasons. It allows us to be much larger than we currently are when we need to be; with a risk management division, claims division, HR attorneys on staff - we have resources that we wouldn't normally be able to afford in our current size.
There are some tech initiatives now around some aggregation of our data of about 300 or so property and casualty-focused insurance agents - I'll misspeak, and I'll get a call after someone listens to this - but I want to say in 14 states and growing. The interesting thing about Keystone is the partners are the shareholders in freestyle. So Keystone doesn't own the agents; the partners, being the independent agents, we own the stock in the company. We have a vested interest in seeing the success of Keystone.
The number one thing that we've gained from Keystone, me especially, has been the intellectual capital of partners. I can send out a message, and I can have a partner from North Carolina who I've met at a conference once, or he remembers me and says, 'Hey, we write a ton of those, call me.' There's much more of a collaboration and a partnership where people treat each other as true partners.
Two agents who represent the same carrier don't treat each other the same as two Keystone agents. I treat them as an extension of our agency. If you get into a risk that's unique or get into a claim that's odd or different, then you need to talk it through, or to have some more horsepower on an account, we've got unbelievable resources: three-and-a-half-billion dollars in premium. There's always somebody else out there, and I think the biggest difference is that they usually want to help. They usually say, 'Call me. Let's talk about it.' Absolutely. We do a bunch of that.
There are the friendships and the companionship, and you find your group in any group. There's been an emerging leaders group that I was intimately involved with for many years. I think I'm starting to get too old now to be emerging. I've got friends from all over the country that I will text and call on at least a weekly basis who are doing the same thing. We are in a different market, so that collaboration is invaluable.
JK: Nice. You talked about maybe expanding out of the emerging leaders category. One of the things that I find comes up a lot in general conversations with agents and agencies is the concept of succession. You're still a young guy and will hopefully want to retire someday and pass things along. I know your father was the one who originally helped start the agency. What are your thoughts about succession in general and for other agency owners out there listening? What do you think about that? I'm curious.
BH: Yes. It's a great question.
JK: Is it too early to ask that question?
BH: No, no! I guess I'm on the other side of that right now -I'm trying to be other people's succession planning solution. I'll definitely be that. I've got a six and a nine-year-old, so I feel like I'm still in the first half, hopefully, of my career, but to be fair, you always have to be replacing yourself and having that next generation coming.
It's interesting because my father was actually not in insurance his whole life. He got in about four years before I did. He was retired and decided to do this. That was a strong urging for me, saying, 'Man, I would've done this.' I was living through the 2008 market correction in real estate, but I said, had I known then what I know now, this is what I would have done.
We kind of looked at this opportunity; he got into the business, and then I came in and joined him. The focus on private equity in this space - I would call it the middle market of the independent agencies - is just vanishing. The mid-size, well-run gross engine agencies are disappearing.
JK: They're getting gobbled up?
BH: Yeah. Those are the sexy ones for the big acquirers to go after. We get a phone call once a week. I'm more so saying we want to create a culture and a team where somebody says. 'I've got an option to do that, but I want to be a part of this. This is more fun.'
I don't know what that looks like for me or my people. A lot of independent agents I've found are extremely connected to their people. They've built this company with these same people, so they're very, very concerned with what's going to happen to their team if they decide to retire.
We would love to be that solution for more and more folks, and I think that's partly back to that platform - we have a way to bring something different to the party. But we obviously can't compete with the likes of some of those acquirers. Some of their technology and systems are super impressive, and it's just a different way.
JK: We've talked to many of them. That's part of what I do every day and every week. They're all still figuring it out. There's room for innovation and differentiation, and we've seen the ones who have been successful. There's not a single playbook. If you can develop a playbook that works for you, you're going to jump past some others, and you're going to create opportunities for scale and growth. There are all kinds of ways to finance M&A and access the companies you want. If you've got the infrastructure to be able to scale, that's key. And I think you guys are doing the right thing right now.
BH: We're having fun building and growing it; that's the fun part for me. The team we're putting together is the most fun part for me: having more like-minded people. You call it 'work' every day, but when you enjoy being around the people that are coworkers to me, their teammates, that's fun.
JK: The succession will take care of itself when that happens; there'll be opportunities there. That's awesome.
BH: There's always the fallback. There are always people with a checkbook that want you every day. I'm kidding!
JK: Build a good business. If you get a good option, consider it and make a decision.
BH: We've got a lot of things on our roadmap that we would like to get done first; we're looking at a long horizon. I think there's a lot of opportunity in our space to be who we are and what we're doing and to be a little bit uniquely different. We're super excited about the growth opportunities.
JK: Good. Before we started recording, we were talking about some of the great things that you and other agents do for the businesses out there to really save their bacon. One of the questions I like all of our guests to talk about is related to who we are and our brand, Broker Buddha. It's based around the concept of enlightenment, and obviously, our podcast is called The Enlightened Agent. Enlightenment is defined as the state of having knowledge or understanding. I'm curious if there are any stories you can share about either you or your agency in an enlightened situation where you helped a company and helped them out of a tough situation.
BH: My foray into the business was from real estate, so I've purchased insurance. I had a very different perspective when I got to see how brokers worked, who were trying to sell the products to me: what they focused on and how they positioned the entire arrangement. At the time, renter's insurance was something that the state of Ohio was really strongly encouraging that you had in your lease.
It was something that was a nuisance to all property managers because if you had to require it, then you had to go track it down. You couldn't demand they buy it from you or from an outlet that you preferred they buy it from unless you paid for it.
JK: The state was mandating that the property managers-
BH: It was strongly encouraged.
JK: Okay. Got it.
BH: So the form leases from the division of real estate and so forth, we all had that you should require it. But no property owner wants to go track it down, and no leasing agent at a community ever wants to go track down your DEC page to give you your keys to your apartment. So, one of the first things that we did was create a platform to solve that for tenants who were renting apartments.
We created a digital environment where it could go through the total point of sale, from start to finish. It satisfied the property manager. We really did it to satisfy the property owners and managers to get one of those nuisances checked off their box. It was also a risk transfer for them because a lot of their losses are caused by tenants, and if they don't have insurance, then guess who pays for it - the property owner's insurance policy.
We've had many instances, but we had one specifically where there was an apartment fire, and the chief operating officer of the company called me and said, 'Hey, I get it. The light went on for me.' I said, 'What's that?' He told me that there was a young lady who was in her nightgown, in the leasing office with the fire department. She said, 'I don't have any clothes. I don't have anything in my apartment.' There was a fire in the adjacent unit that was not her fault.
She lost everything, and they said, 'Oh, don't worry, the Red Cross is here, and they're going to put you up for a couple of nights.' She had a renter's insurance policy, which then actually allowed her to get back on her feet. Even something so simple as just going to the store the next day to get clothes, to be able to go back to work when you lose all of your personal belongings. The property management team came to me and said, 'we never really understood any of that. I didn't really understand it, but I get it now.' So there was a human element. They also had about a million-and-a-half dollar loss to their building, and they got a new building to be replaced too. But, the insurance went from the property level, $25 million property, all the way down to a single tenant.
That was one of those light bulb moments where we were kind of solving for the property owner and to make our offering more complete, but you realize there was a real human element there.
JK: I bet the tenant probably wouldn't have gotten the insurance if you hadn't made it easy for them too. That's one of my guesses. Or, maybe they would have.
DG: The solution you provided was the platform that made it simple for the tenant to pay.
BH: Exactly. And that was the key: a little education if you so chose to watch or listen. It's that big brother mentality of 'I have to have it - but I don't really know what it is.'
It's intangible until you need it. Typically the best insurers are people who have had to use their insurance because they understand the value. Anytime anybody's been replaced back to where they were, even a better position than prior to the loss, they see the value all of a sudden.
That's one of our toughest things - adding value. If someone's never used their insurance, they see it as an expense. That's just a line item and sometimes a nuisance.
JK: I love that story, though. We all hope that we never have to use our insurance, so it does feel like a line item and a nuisance. But it's really important that people understand and remember that shit happens, right? You don't want to be caught out. You want to work with somebody who you can trust, who's going to get you as much as you need, but no more than you need - you're not going to spend too much. It's always hard to thread the needle about getting exactly what you need, and nobody can predict the future. You guys had a good program in place, it sounds like, for both the company and the individuals, and it sounds like everybody won.
BH: Ultimately, at the end of the day, losses happen. When you say, well, the good news is we've got you covered, now let's just go to putting everything back to normal, and no one's hurt. Those are the best outcomes. Once again, that's providing that solution, and the more people you can do that for, you grow, and hopefully, they become advocates of your style and your team.
That's really what I've enjoyed so much about the business is that insurance can take you about anywhere too. It's amazing. I know too many people, so I ended up bringing in things where everybody says, 'I've never even heard of this, where did you find them?'
DG: That's the common refrain people say they get involved in so many different businesses and so many different things that it's interesting.
BH: I think if you have a passion for figuring out what people do and if you're curious by nature, you really get deeper into what they have. A lot of times, you'll uncover things.
I'd say, 'How'd you guys protect that?'
They say, 'I don't know. I only buy insurance programs.'
'You have a huge risk there! Why don't you come and see me this week?'
That's where a lot of those discussions start. It's just trying to figure out what people have done. I love talking to people who've built wildly successful businesses because they all have such amazing stories. That really drives a lot of my energy. It's so much fun to be around people. I worked for two guys in real estate who'd built just an absolutely amazing company. So I have that wildly curious and 'why not us' mentality. It's just such an incredible industry to be in.
DG: Well, Brad, it's been a pleasure to spend some time with you in this virtual pandemic way, but we really appreciate having you on the podcast. If there's anything else you want to add before we let you get back into what looks like some grim weather out there in Columbus, just let me know.
BH: No. I think the snow has melted from our April 21st unexpected snowstorm. I appreciate it. Thank you guys for asking me to be a part of it.Dean Gemmell: Hey there, Jason, it's time for another episode of The Enlightened Agent. We just finished a great conversation with Brad Hosket out in Columbus, Ohio. I really enjoyed it. What did you think?
Jason Keck: Brad's great. I met him a couple of years ago at a conference. He's got a ton of personality, a ton of energy, and I've been excited to get to know him better. I heard some really good stories from him today.
DG: It was great because we talked to a lot of people, and I loved hearing about people with a lot of experience in insurance, but he came from another industry and brings some fresh takes to this business that he may not have had if he'd been in it his whole life.
JK: I think, like a lot of our other guests, he's got a really good story around what he and his agency have done to help some people who use insurance, which is exactly why we do this.
DG: He had a great story that people should hang in to the end to hear because it was a good one. I also think I'd like to work for the guy - he seems like a good guy!
JK: He emphasizes fun and culture, which is something we do as well. When I'm done here, Brad, we'll be giving you a call, right?
DG: Well, with that, let's get to our conversation with Brad.
Hi and welcome to another episode of The Enlightened Agent, the podcast that brings you conversations with top insurance professionals and industry leaders. I'm Dean Gemmell, and I'm joined again by the Broker Buddha CEO, Jason Keck.
JK: Hey Dean, it's good to be back. It's great to be here.
DG: Yeah, right there in the Broker Buddha pandemic headquarters again. I'm glad to have you here. But our guest today is the principal and managing partner at Ohio-based Hosket Ulen, Brad Hosket. Welcome to The Enlightened Agent.
Brad Hosket: Thank you for having me.
DG: Brad, let's start with where you are, what you're doing right now in your role at your agency.
BH: Well, right now, I'm just trying to grow an independent insurance agency in Columbus, Ohio. We have locations in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio as well. I'm just trying to figure out where the world's going to take us here, day by day. I'm excited to have more face-to-face interaction and see what the world will bring us next.
DG: And you guys acquired an agency, right? Just before the pandemic or during the pandemic?
BH: We did. We actually sent out our welcome to our new member of our team. Jeff joined us and folded his agency in, and wanted to be a part of our agency on his way out the door. We sent out an invitation to a party, and the whole world shut down. Needless to say, that was interesting. I think he was here ten days before we closed our office by governor's orders. But it's actually been a lot of fun. I think that looking back, he would probably say he was fortunate to have a bigger team than a two-person shop.
JK: You said earlier you were trying to figure out where the world is going. What have you learned? I'd like to know, and I'm sure other people would like to know what's happening out there.
BH: If you have employees and carriers, you hear all the reasons why we can't grow or win every day, and the pandemic has been the number one reason. Um, the way we look at it, me especially, is this has been probably one of the greatest opportunities for us in my career in insurance. Some people put their heads in their sand and didn't know what to do next, other people said, let's wait and see, and then we said, let's go. Let's keep rolling.
I live on Zoom teams; you name it. I've talked to Jason many a time in this manner. Trying to be out there and be unique and different gives just as much opportunity now to differentiate yourself in a highly competitive marketplace.
DG: There's that political saying: never miss the opportunity that a crisis creates. It applies to business as well.
BH: Fortunately for us, in the crisis, if you will, we maintained a hundred percent of our employees. We've had tremendous retention of accounts. We've actually hired five new people since the pandemic started, which is also unique. We have one employee that I've never met face-to-face, which is something that I never thought I would say would happen. We have a lot of virtual meetings and calls, but it's odd to have someone on our team in a small, independent agency where I've never met them face to face, but, hey, we just keep rolling.
JK: Did you guys do any special projects over the last year during the pandemic? Was there anything that you said, 'This is the catalyst for doing X or Y?'
BH: It's funny. I joined Agency One in '13. I would say we were a very stereotypical independent insurance agency with an agency management platform, legacy systems. I can't say that we were much different than most of our peers. We grew very, very quickly, and sometimes, when you're in gross mode, you don't necessarily stop to work on your business.
JK: Everybody was following you. Is that what happened? You showed up, and the next thing you know, the business is flying.
BH: I'll take credit. I think it was a result of a lot of good things happening in energy. This was the year that we sat down strategically. We were talking in '20 that '21 was going to be the year that we were going to change our platform that we run on. We needed to have a platform that we could triple again. We have quadrupled since 2013 at premium volume. And we said we need to have a platform that can enable us to do that again. We're not in that place. We had a lot of 2020 initiatives that were held on where are our people going to be and how are we going to do this?
But for 2021, we've decided we're going to try to grow every way we can, but we're going to really reinvest in our systems, platforms, and the way that we do business. I would say that we're working way more than we ever have because so many of these additional initiatives are on the table. It's definitely exciting. The key is that we can see the benefit and why we're doing it.
JK: Yeah. I want to hear more about that. I know you guys have adopted Salesforce as a platform. Have you, have you given up your management system? Is it gone, or are you still holding on to get the data? I thought it was one of those things, like, we've got to keep paying for it for another year just to keep the data.
BH: It's funny. We're a unique group. My background was in real estate prior to the insurance industry. I was the risk manager for a large real estate developer in the Midwest. I thought I wanted to someday make a run at doing something on my own. I had been recruited by insurance carriers to try to persuade me to get into the industry where there are not as many young people, it seems. So I finally made the jump.