Ed Page, President at Relations Insurance Service, joins Broker Buddha CEO Jason Keck for a conversation about how he uses culture to organize a fast growing empire and shares a great story about how his agency helped an agricultural client get the coverage they needed to stay in business.
Find more about Relation Insurance Services here
Jason Keck: I've just wrapped up an exciting show today with Ed Page, president at Relation Insurance Services. Ed tells some great stories during the show about what they've done to help one of their Ag clients out in California: a pretty unique approach to helping a company stay in business. I really appreciate his focus on company and culture and people as a way of growing.
Relation is amassing an empire of agencies as they go on an M&A spree right now, and that's keeping culture together when you're acquiring organically; it's tough. I think it's critical that someone like that is putting culture as a priority for the organization. I really enjoyed the show today, and let's kick it off. Here we go.
Hi, and welcome to another episode of The Enlightened Agent: the podcast that brings you conversations with top insurance professionals and industry leaders. My name is Jason Keck, and I'm joined today by Ed Page, president at Relation Insurance. Ed, welcome to The Enlightened Agents.
Ed Page: Thanks. Great to be here today.
JK: Good to see you again, Ed. We've been chatting and talking over the years, and you and I've gotten to know each other pretty well, which is exciting. I know you're famous in some circles out there, but on the off chance that our listeners haven't come across you or your story, can you tell them who Ed Page is and what you do today?
EP: I am Ed Page. I'm president and COO of Relation Insurance. If you're not familiar with Relation, I think we're in the top 30 insurance brokerages; we're growing so quickly, I don't know where we are on the list at the moment! We've already done about 12 M&A deals this year, and I have a great pipeline of stuff that's continuing to grow.
A little bit about us - we're a classic, mid-market brokerage firm with operations throughout the country. We're really excited about growing the business and doing some neat things.
JK: Awesome. So you're president and COO. COO is one of those exciting roles where you get to do a lot of different things in the business. What are a couple of things that have got your attention these days? And what's got your mind share?
EP: Dealing with all the growth that we have is a huge part of our mind share. We have literally doubled in the last two years. Think about managing that growth. And it's going to continue for the foreseeable future.
My focus is making sure that all this stuff works operationally, but a larger piece of that is driving the culture of the organization. I have a firm belief, and Joe Tatum - our CEO and my partner - has a firm belief as well that culture is really the thing that drives a great operation. If you have that - if you create that - all the other stuff will come.
We're focusing on making sure that it's a great place to work. People are excited to come in every day, and we have to keep that going as we're bringing on all these new people in these new acquisitions. We have to keep what we think is a pretty great culture the same. And that's what we're focused on.
JK: I love that concept - culture and people. If you listen to Aaron Rogers, it's all about people these days. If you listen to the ESPN recording from him, that was pretty entertaining. But obviously, in the last year, culture is not so easy to do when everybody's remote. What have you guys been able to do to make Relation a great place to- I was going to say come to work, but I'm not sure people have been coming to work. What have you guys been doing to keep people engaged?
EP: It's been challenging for everybody what we've coped with last year. And so much, I think, of having a great culture and a great place to work is the people that you work with and having interactions with them. As much as Zoom is cool, it's not the same as getting face-to-face. It just isn't.
We tried to be pretty creative about it. We had a number of town halls throughout the year where Joe and I and others would get on doing relatively small groups to talk about anything. One of the funny things that came up was that I got a dog over the course of the pandemic, and one of the things was, what kind of dog did I get? Everyone was going on that journey of seeing my dog, Kobe, who's now almost a year old, grow up.
So doing funny things like that to connect with people was one of the things we did, and yeah, I think it's worked out well, but there's nothing like getting feedback face to face. We're beginning to do that now. We had our first big meeting of the year, maybe about a month/six weeks ago.
JK: In person?
EP: Yeah, in person. We had socially distanced protocols: we were in a big room and all that, but we probably had about 80 people together. It was great to get together. And we have another meeting scheduled in another couple of weeks. So we're beginning to get back together and form those personal in-person relationships, which I think are still key.
JK: Yeah. One of the things we've been experiencing is that half of our team has dogs, and they tend to show up on most Zoom calls. If they're not on somebody's lap, they're in the background. There's been a lot of dog culture going around and then kid culture - the idea that your kids can barge in or interrupt, and it's not so awkward anymore. What a pleasant change. You had this classic sort of separation of work and personal life, and now they're, in a lot of ways, deeply integrated. You get to share your work family with your home family. I've found it to be great and really good bonding for everybody involved.
EP: Yeah. That was one of the first things we did. We said kids are welcome. Pets are welcome for all calls, and that's been really helpful. I still remember the first time we said that, and literally, I swear, half the people have brought out their dogs and cats and were showing them to everybody! It was really cool to be able to do that for people to show another side of themselves.
JK: That's a great way to bond. You're more than just what you do every day; you're your whole life, your family, and everything involved around that. As COO, you're probably wearing many hats and doing many things. What do you love most about what you get to do with Relation?
EP: I would probably put in two different camps, so my favorite thing is always going to go back to people. So my favorite thing is when I hit the ground, go to offices, meet with people and hear what's going on. I hear the challenges, which I do want to hear because my job is to make those challenges go away, but I also hear about the stuff that's going well. That's the part I love the most about my job.
The other part I love is getting all the technology and systems in place to do neat things. I'm an engineer by training, so I'm a data geek. I really love getting data analytics and being able to put those in place so we can make better-informed decisions for ourselves. We can help our clients make better decisions because I think that's key in the industry overall, and I just love that stuff.
We're spending a lot of time building dashboards and getting data. We've got a data warehouse, and we're using Power BI if you're familiar with that? It's a Microsoft product to do data visualization. We're spending lots of time with that, which we're really excited about getting some cool insights from.
JK: Yeah, you're talking to another techno data geek over here, so I can appreciate that. It's funny; I just did a post on LinkedIn and, five years ago, there was no insurtech. Now there's in some ways too much insurtech and, unfortunately, not much of it talks to each other.
A lot of people want to know what they should use. I'm curious as to what you guys are using. Power BI is one thing. How do you go about picking tools and getting the data in the places you need to? Do you guys do it all in-house?
EP: First of all, it's a big challenge. There's all these different data, all these different systems, which is why we built the data warehouse. The idea was that we knew we had to get this data from different places. We use Microsoft Dynamics for our sales management, and we primarily use AMS360 on the AT manager side. We're also using EasyLinks since we have been partnering with a bunch of former nationwide agents that use that system and AgencyZoom - there are a lot of those guys and gals that use that as well. So data is coming from many different places, and we want to get that holistic view. That's why we built a data warehouse - so we can pull the data in from those disparate sources and then get a common view of it. And I'll be honest. Do we have that perfectly worked out? No, we don't.
JK: Yeah. I knew you'd be lying if you said you did.
EP: Yeah, we don't, but we're making really good progress. And I think that in another, probably six months, we're going to be really cooking with grease, as I like to say. But I like where we're going and where we're at. I can't see everything all the ways I want to see something. Sometimes I've got to go to a dashboard and a dashboard there, but we're doing a decent job of getting it pulled together. We've got an internal team - a business analytics team - and that's what they're focused on doing: getting data and visualizing that data. And we're growing and expanding that team as we're growing and expanding the business.
JK: When I was at Shazam, we had this problem with metadata matching and data cleansing. In the music space, using metadata was like a "thing," but in insurance, with data mapping and cleanliness, it takes it to the next level in terms of the complexity of solving that problem.
So you've taken on a pretty significant effort there, and if you're making progress, then hey, good for you.
EP: That's the cool thing I love about the visualization tools. It shows you when your data's messed up. You can see it visually: 'Wow, that doesn't make any sense! Something's gotta be wrong in the data.' It's also a great way of helping you clean up the data when you can see much better what's going on. That's been a part of it as well. We've got a lot of legacy businesses that we've had, and frankly, our data's not always been as clean as it should be, but now you can see that, and we can pack that in a much more laser-like fashion. We're cleaning it up a lot faster.
JK: We had another guest on the podcast who said, when they finally got to that point, they realized that the top industry that they work with was uncategorized. He was thinking, 'We've got some work to do here.'
One of the things we like to talk about with our guests on the show is their career progression and how they got to be where they are and what they're doing. I'm curious, what are some of the more notable or significant events from your career that have helped you land where you are now? You've got a tech or an engineering background, and now you're president of operations. Tell me a little about the journey.
EP: Sure. I'm like everybody else. Just like you, you're not an insurance guy, and now you've gotten into insurance. It's that same story where I stumbled into insurance, not knowing what a great industry it is. And it really is a great industry once you get into and understand the dynamics of it.
My background is that I was originally an engineer by training. I decided I didn't want to be an engineer, so I went off to business school. I then went to Bain & Company and did strategy consulting for a good long time. I actually worked in a lot of cool technology companies mostly, and then I started a company with a bunch of business school guys.
I was lucky enough to sell that company, but unfortunately not for a great deal of money, so I still had to keep on working.
JK: Exits and exit - put the feather in your path and move on, man. That's amazing.
EP: At the time when we sold, which was in the early 2001 timeframe, when the world was falling apart, just selling was great. Then I gradually got back in the operating roles and became an operating guy for private equity-backed companies. I worked in all kinds of different industries: the ATM industry, forestry, gaming. And after, I was at a company on the ATM side - we had a successful exit.
I met the guys that owned - at the time, it was Ascension, which was Peter's name for Relation - I met those guys, and they invited me to come to help and join Joe Shannon. He was their CEO in what was then a turnaround. I'm a turnaround guy. That's why people hire me - typically when things aren't going great. It was going a lot worse than I thought, and we had our work cut out for us. Joe is a fantastic guy. It was tough and rewarding because when we came on board, which was about eight years ago, there were lots of great people, well-intentioned, but it just frankly hadn't been managed and put together well.
It was a great opportunity to, again, build that culture and build one company - put the right things in place. We got the company to a really great place, and now it's just coming again. It's humming, and we're having a great time. Those first few painful years are now paying dividends, and it's going great. It's been a great journey.
JK: That's amazing. How would you characterize the size of the company when you joined versus where it is now?
EP: I would say we were somewhere in the 60 to 70 million range. Now, we're in the $200 million range, and it will probably be tracking close to 300 in the next 12 months or so. We're going pretty quickly.
JK: And how was it then? What was it like when you first came in? How much of a difference are we talking about when you first joined to now?
EP: In terms of growth?
JK: I'm curious; you came in eight years ago.
EP: So, as I was saying, when I came in eight years ago, we were about 60 or 70 million, something like that.
JK: Okay. Got it.
EP: So now we brought into the 200. For the first few years, frankly, we were shrinking.
JK: Yeah. I was going to say - it was heading in the other direction.
EP: The wrong direction. And as you know, in the insurance business, it's hard to shrink; you've got to work at it! But we were able to turn that around and start getting some growth going again, building the culture up, getting things integrated together, and building a platform.
In 2019, we changed private equity partners and went from Parthenon Capital, who were great supporters of us, to Aquiline Capital, who have been great capital partners as well. I think it shows how much we changed the company and what a strong platform it is now. It's just been a rocket ship ever since then, and it's going to keep on going.
JK: Awesome. I'm happy to hear that, and it sounds like you've been on a really good journey. I'm curious; you've been in insurance for eight years now. What do you think has changed since you joined, and what do you think still needs to change?
EP: I think it's an industry with a lot of change. Technology is clearly something that's shifting the industry - more and more of it. We talked about analytics being part of it.
You see more and more automation happening overall and more and more stuff happening online, fewer paper processes, all that stuff. And then I think there are also two cultural shifts.
It used to be that the whole sales process was that a guy comes around and takes you out to play golf, does all that schmoozing stuff, and gets your business. And there's still something to that. We deal in relationships, that's why the company is called Relation. You have to have those long-term relationships, but it really is much more about the data and analytics and being able to drive a cost curve down through those data analytics that we think is a differentiator.
You're seeing the type-typical sales person shift from being less, 'I'll just bring your fruit basket and take you to golf and all that. I'll still probably do some of that, but now I'm bringing charts and data that shows you how I'm going to save you some money.' It's a different way of looking at things.
The other thing is there's a great demographic shift. Frankly, a lot of people are aging out as they're retiring and moving on, and now you're getting more and more young people coming into the business, which has also gone along with both of those things. Young people like technology, and they're also more data-driven, so that's helping to drive the data portion of it as well.
I think it's a great time to be in the industry. I wish I was 20 years younger. I think it's a great time to come in. If you're a younger person, liking technology, and wanting to drive change, it's a great place to be.
JK: Yeah, I wish I had discovered the industry sooner. Not that I didn't enjoy what I did earlier in my career, but I think the opportunity here is just extraordinary. Talent is actually a hot topic in the industry, and it sounds like you guys have been able to recruit some young talent. Are there any tips and tricks for people out there who are focused on that?
EP: Part of it is that you have to make it a place that younger people will want to work. First of all, making it a great place to work for everyone is important, but great people want to work with other great people - it's a thing that feeds on itself. But also, if you look around your office - what does it look like? Does it look like an old type of environment? Does it look young and vibrant with open lighting and open seating and those types of things? We've consciously tried to make our offices not look like your grandfather's company but more like a Google or an Apple office.
Now I'm not trying to go totally to that extreme - that's probably a little bit far for us. But having open floor plans, lots of white light coming in, common spaces, and trying to be more of a collaborative type of environment or workspace - that's been a part of shifting the culture and getting more younger people wanting to come work with us.
JK: I think that goes a long way. I'm picturing myself as a college grad showing up to an interview in, like you said, your grandfather's office versus in your insurance office, looking like Apple or Google, I'd be like, 'Hey, this place looks great. I don't really know what I'm going into, but I'd come here every day.' I think the space and real estate are probably not invested in enough in this industry. I like that approach, okay.
What else needs to change then? We talked a little about how things have evolved. What needs to change in the industry, agents, carriers, insurance in general, any thoughts about that? What are you hoping will happen?
EP: I just think they have to realize the world is changing. And there are a lot of people saying, 'This is the way that we do it. This is the way we've always done it.' And that's probably not going to be the way it should be done in the future.
Be open to changing your processes. Completely think of things outside of the box. And again, not to keep on focusing on real estate, but that's a great example. The pandemic showed that people could work remotely. How do you navigate that? I don't think it's the answer to have everybody completely remote, but it's probably not the right answer to have everybody in the office all the time, like we did before, either.
So, how do you navigate that and figure that out? I think the companies that are able to be flexible in a smart way will be more successful. I think there are things like that in all aspects of the business. In terms of, how do you get payments in the door? How do you get payments out of the door? All the processes.
JK: Yeah. And do you accept checks anymore?
EP: Yeah, exactly. In a lot of places, that's how it's done: the invoice comes in, and the check goes out. How do you get into the more modern way of looking at things? I think that's what the industry across the board needs to do.
The other big thing I was saying - and this is going on with you as well. Consolidation. A lot of the smaller players are getting gobbled up by the bigger players. And I think it's going to be harder and harder for the smaller guys to compete against the bigger players.
JK: Yeah, no question. That's an industry trend that we're seeing continue across the board. Change is hard, though. This is something I've learned in the industry. As we come in, obviously with what we do, we're inviting people and agencies to do things better. Coming in from the outside, I thought, why wouldn't you switch from emails, phone calls, faxes, and PDFs to a nice, intuitive online interface? The reality is that people are comfortable with the way they do things. Do you guys have a change management program there? Do you have a program office? How do you go about instituting the changes that you make? Do you have any secrets or tips?
EP: I think for us, again, it goes back to the culture. The culture that we try to espouse is we're always trying to do things better, so that really pushes things. We also set goals for ourselves: 'Hey, we want to get to this point by an X amount of time,' which forces the thing to happen.
For example, accounts payable is something that we just put a new system in at the end that we're working to make that even better. We can look at the data and see how quickly we're paying things and if it's fast enough. We're paying some things past their due date. We can look at the data and see that we have to do something different.
I think that's how you do it. You have to create targets and then hit the targets, and then the organization will come along because it has to.
JK: Goals are a great way to drive behavior. Managing those goals requires good culture and good leadership. It's one thing to set goals; it's another to see them through and make sure everybody's goals ladder up to the bigger goals. I like the data-based approach. We often talk about how we help agencies get applications back faster, and then people ask, 'What's the turnaround time?'
Normally I said, 'Nobody knows! Nobody's doing email analytics.' It just doesn't exist. Anecdotally we know we're successful. The nice thing is that we are tracking all of this stuff, and we have data to show that applications are getting back really fast. And you could see it light up on their face - it's way faster. The idea of putting systems in place to be able to track metrics, which then ladder up to your goals, is an important part of that. Awesome.
Ed, one of the things that we talk about on every show is stories about what agents are doing to help their clients. That's really the whole purpose of the show - to elevate the perspective that the industry has on insurance agents because I think they do some amazing things that don't get enough credit. The podcast is called The Enlightened Agent. Enlightenment is defined as the state of having knowledge or understanding. We talked a little bit before the show about an event that happened with you guys, which I thought was a really powerful story. I'm hoping you can share that event with the audience.
EP: Yeah, sure. So one of the first businesses that we bought, actually before my tenure, is a company called Pan-American out here in California, where I'm based. It has a 75-year-old history, primarily in workers' comp in Ag as its specialty.
If you want to do Ag and, in California, workers' comp, most likely you're talking to us. We're an 800-pound gorilla in that space. How we have differentiated is we give differential services to our clients. Now you have strong carrier relationships; we have a loss control team that's bilingual focused on that - it's a free service that we provide, plus claims management as well. It's been a great business for us. Also, one of the things that I really like about it is it's a business where a handshake and looking somebody in the eye matters. It's really old school in that way.
We have a client that is a large farm labor contractor. They're basically the hands, arms, and legs out in the fields, picking, cutting, and managing the crops that people are growing. It's a key part of the agriculture business.
We had a guy who had a business with millions of dollars in payroll and hundreds of employees. Unfortunately, he had a number of issues, and claims occurred. So his X-mod went through the roof. Because of his X-mod going through the roof, his worker's comp insurance was going to go through the roof. If it didn't come down, he was going to go out of business. It really was that - if he had to pay that amount, it wasn't going to work.
JK: So his premiums were going up-
EP: They were going through the roof. Based on that, he literally said, 'I'm going to have to shut my doors if I can't do something about this.' Because we understood the business and understood what was going on, we could look at it, and we saw that it was more of an anomaly, the challenges that we were having. We also were able to put in a good loss control program to drive those claims down over time. It's a company-owned captive that we've primed to keep it very exclusive. It's only the best performing Ag clients that we put in that captive.
You could worry about that - if there are losses-
JK: I was going to say - you took your best performing and matched them with some of your risky ones, well, perceived risky.
EP: It's in a captive, so it's not affecting the other companies, but we're covered, so it's not an issue where he's going to affect their risk.
JK: Got it.
EP: We also knew that he was going to be able to drive that down over time because we put a program in place. We can see what's happening with the claims. So it's a case where we had a little bit better insight, data, and analytics, so we could see what was going to happen. That was about five or six years ago.
If you fast forward five or six years, his claims have calmed down. He's been in the captive, and he's actually been able to get dividends out of the captive, which has been fantastic. It's worked out great for him, and it certainly worked out great for us. It's a case of where, if we hadn't been able to do that with him, there'd be hundreds of people out of work. So it's fantastic we were able to do that.
I love that story. In the insurtech world, there's so much focus on small commercial automation - go online and get a policy. I think what's lost in that is stories like this. These large or mid to large part of America-type businesses are never going to go online and buy a policy from a computer. Not only that, but they need somebody to advise them. Sometimes they get into some pretty hairy situations. It sounds like this is one of those.
I aspire to be a much bigger company than we are now. I'm sure my insurance requirements will get more complex, and I'm sure I'm not going to have any idea what to do with them when the time comes. So it's awesome that agents like you guys exist and that you were able to help out this guy and his business. Good for you, and thanks for sharing that with me and with the audience.
EP: Yeah. Sure.
JK: Ed, this has been another enlightening conversation, if you will. I really enjoyed having you on the show. Before we wrap up here, is there anything you'd like to say or share with our listeners?
EP: I'm excited about being in the industry, but I'm even more excited about the stuff that our company is doing. I think it's a special place at a special time, and the growth that we're having isn't happening by accident. But the thing that excites me, and I get notes on here from people all the time. I think it's really a great place to work. And that's what is important to me.
I really view that as my life calling - making sure that the places that I touch have that special feeling and people are excited to come into work every day. I think we're achieving that, and I think that's why we're having the success we're having. I’m just thrilled about it and excited about the future.
JK: Well, congrats on that success. I think the company is lucky to have you at the helm. Obviously, the growth that you guys are seeing is no doubt being driven from the top. You're inspiring the kind of activity that is driving those results, so congrats on that.
EP: I have to comment on that. It isn't being driven by Ed from the top; it's being driven from below the top. There's a whole host of people that are making that happen. I won't name all the names, but we have got a great M&A team, a great integration team, and a great finance team who are working long hours to make sure that we can bring this all together. I'm leaving out people, but it's a team effort. They bring me along for the ride, honestly.
JK: No doubt. You can't do it all yourself, that's for sure. Congrats on that, and thanks again for being on the show. I look forward to seeing you in person sometime soon, I hope.
EP: Yeah. Looking forward to that. Absolutely.
JK: Thanks, Ed. Take care.
EP: You too.
Monday, July 5, 2021