Jason Angus, Chief Operating Officer at The Hilb Group, has been described as a, "...no-nonsense, get-things-done marketing executive." He cuts to the chase on a lot of topics during this interview, and his conversation with Broker Buddha CEO Jason Keck and host Dean Gemmell covers everything from cosmetic surgery coverage to, "...the tyranny of the urgent."
Learn more about The Hilb Group here.
Dean Gemmell: Hey there, Jason. We're back with another episode of The Enlightened Agent. Great to see you. We just finished up a terrific conversation with Jason Angus of the Hilb Group - he's the chief operating officer there. There was lots of good stuff out of Jason, wasn't there?
Jason Keck: Yeah, Jason's great. I got introduced to Jason almost four years ago now from somebody else in the industry, and he's got a fantastic personality and a lot of character. He's got a lot of really interesting experience in this space.
DG: He had a lot of interesting things. One of the things that struck me was how they focus on their own associates first, almost as the customers. If they're good to those associates, that translates to the end client.
JK: Yeah, I think that made a lot of sense. I also really enjoyed his story about his first product in the cosmetic surgery space, which I thought was an interesting way into the insurance world.
DG: Yeah, that was a great one. There was also a good line in there, 'tyranny of the urgent.' People will catch that in the conversation. With that, let's get right to it.
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 Broker Buddha, CEO Jason Keck. Hey there, Jason.
JK: Hey Dean. Good to see you again.
DG: And our guest today is another Jason who also happens to be the chief operating officer at the Hilb Group. Jason Angus, welcome to The Enlightened Agent.
Jason Angus: Hey, thanks, Dean. Jason, it's great seeing you again, even if it is on another Zoom call.
DG: That's how we all meet these days. Jason, let's start with you and your current role. Besides being the chief of all things, operational, what does your job require?
JA: That's like the most candid of questions that's sometimes more difficult to respond to, but really, we look at ourselves as a growth company. After an agency joins us, my job is to help them grow. Quite simply, that's supporting our producers, our staff, and the agencies and helping them drive a little bit more accelerated growth than they usually have.
We are very growth-minded, and in every part of the business, whether it's the agency itself or individual producers, we really believe that, when they join us, they've got to be better off than they were on their own. That's our measurement of success or failure. If a producer comes on board with us, they've got to be able to sell more insurance and make more money with us than they could have on their own.
We really try to align our resources and our investments and support around it. Sometimes that's getting out of their way; sometimes providing better technology and investments, and sometimes, it's more market access or expertise. It's not the same case each and every time. My job is spending a lot of time identifying how we can support our agencies and our people.
JK: Your agency was acquired by the Hilb Group almost ten years ago now.
JA: Yeah. I refer to it as a watershed moment. The greatest thing the company ever did. Of course, my counterpart, Jud Elliott, head of M&A, has a whole different take on that. He says if you can't produce, there's always a job for you at corporate. Here, I ended up as the chief operating officer, which shows you my sales ability. I joined in 2011 - actually, it was the second acquisition. Like a lot of them, we weren't for sale. We had no desire.
We started the business in 2007, which was great crystal ball foresight into the financial markets of 2008, but we grew crazy quick. We were looking to get to the next level. I knew some of the executives here in Richmond, and they said that kind of growth is great, and we'd really love you to help us help these agencies grow. That's more or less been my role since.
JK: You had a pretty niche agency back then. What was it you guys were selling?
JA: I always say I wasn't bright enough to do a lot of different things. I had to get really focused on a few areas and try to do those things very well. We had a plastic surgery product that we built through Markel Insurance, which was great. We did deliveries, taxi cabs in tertiary and secondary markets, and bed-and-breakfasts. We had a couple of these niche programs that we built out. We were mostly focused on about a 28-state area.
JK: That's amazing. Believe it or not, the not-so-intelligent approach of doing simple things is actually the best way to grow a business, as I'm sure you've learned.
JA: Some people can do it very well. When I looked at it, I didn't have 20 years to figure it out. We often also look at that with producers. When they really specialize in an area, we find that they tend to grow a little bit quicker. Even when we take up a green producer, somebody new, it's much easier for us to find somebody who can sit across the table and talk business than it is to worry about insurance.
I've got some tremendous coverage experts and great insurance people, but we still look for people that can sit across and say, Dean, tell me about your business and your new clients. Tell me what's going on. When we can identify the things the clients are concerned and worried about, we can try to find ways to partner with them a little better.
JK: Smart. Yeah. I wonder if the transition process has changed in the last ten years for a company getting merged into the company.
JA: Well, it's always changing. I would say that it didn't exist because we really weren't integrating into anything. So that aggregation model where we acquired a bunch of disparate businesses has evolved. Our agencies are coming together, and they're supporting each other. I was saying this the other day to a group of producers - we've made more money by getting people together and breaking a little bread than some of the greatest technology investments we've made. They are really exciting and help us from an efficiency standpoint, but this is still a people business.
When people come together, and they say, Jason, tell me what you do. They help each other out, and they start working together. We find that they tend to grow more, and they may warm up.
DG: This is when I slide in and say it's relationships empowered by technology, Jason.
JA: That was a nice little softball pitch to you.
DG: You just laid that out for me. Real quick, tell me what the plastic surgery coverage was. I'm just interested.
JA: Essentially, it started from a cocktail conversation. A guy I knew was a plastic surgeon, and we were just talking shop. He said, "You know what I worry about?" and I said, "Tell me what you worry about." He said, "I did a breast augmentation two days ago. I worry that I'm going to get a call tonight, and the patient's running a fever. It's not a big complication, so we'll get them into the emergency room, open them up, hit them with antibiotics, and clean it out. But it's an uninsurable event because it was elective surgery. They're going to get hit with this uninsured bill from a hospital and be upset because they didn't understand it - they didn't read the forms. Now I've got to deal with it - either I pay for it out of my pocket to make it go away, or I've got to negotiate." And I said, "Well, you know, there's probably an insurance solution to this; let me think about it." I had a great relationship with some senior executives at Markel. They have a really good history of loving to dip in at an early stage and products, and they're a pretty innovative company. We knocked it around and quickly built a product. It worked really well.
JK: Was the product for the patient or for the doctor? Or both?
JA: It was interesting. The product was called Cosmetic Protect. We actually insured the doctor. Normally you can't have insurance - you can't have a transfer of risk - without the consideration of the premium. But there was no risk until the patient. We built a technology platform, and the doctor would enroll their patients. As soon as the patient was enrolled, there was a charge to the doctor, and then the doctor would do it. They could buy the policy. There was no cost to it, but it was only done on a variable basis on each patient. It was an individual policy, written on a group chassis.
DG: Let me just say, 'tell me what you worry about' is a great opening line for any agent.
JA: Well, sometimes I can go into more of a couch session. Insurance can't solve all those problems. Listen, it's a great business, but we can't figure out some of those things.
JK: A couple of weeks ago, we had an insurtech CEO on the podcast who is basically spinning up products - that's his whole thing. Basically, what you did then, his whole play is he's building up almost a digital MGA around niche products. He learned from you, and ten years later, he's taking a technology-based approach.
JA: God bless him. Hopefully, he's making more money than I did on it!
JK: I think he's off to a good start. Speaking of technology, you're now the COO and former CMO there. How is technology playing a role in operational and marketing strategies and then your company?
JA: If it's not our largest initiative that we've got going on, it is definitely a high focus. We're very acquisitive, like a lot of people in our space. We probably look at it a little differently than some of our peers, but technology is an area that we really think helps our people do their jobs better. We try to break it down quite simply. We're supposed to be a sales organization, and we're supposed to work with our clients, but we're doing all of this stuff that our curators are pushing to us that prevent us from doing our core job. They prevent us from doing what our people like to do and what they want to do. They want to be the enlightened agents, and they want to work with their clients on their clients' issues.
Instead, we're doing all this transactional, heavy data entry work that just bogs down the system. This is where we really look at technology, whether it's from your agency management systems to robotics process and automation, through thinking about that whole customer cycle from lead generation all the way through to binder and servicing. But then also diving into the analytics and understanding the data. What are we selling to whom and why, and how do we create those opportunities?
Even that story from the insurtech MGA looking at products, or my experience of doing some of that. It's a unique opportunity, when we've got 3 billion in premium running through it, to find those opportunities and how we can help our clients more. That's understanding how to make coverage more consistent and build a better product that works for them.
You can only do that from really understanding the data and that opportunity, and that goes into making sure you've got uniform data going into it. We're approaching it from a multi-pronged approach, but also efficiency and a sales and growth aspect.
JK: Clean data is really hard in this space. That's one of the things I learned coming in. Similar things have different names. It's very difficult to structure that information, and it's incredibly difficult to report against it. Are you guys actually taking that information and going back to carriers, as you did before, to help build products? Or are you still just in the process of getting the data?
JA: Obviously, that's a massive opportunity. Traditionally, the relationship with your carrier partners is they say, "We want you to go sell more of our products," and you say, "Great, what product?" "No, this is our whole list of them." And then you say to the broker, "Well, which ones are you really good at?" And they struggle with that. Now and then, they come to you and say, "We're really excited about writing HVAC contractors in the mid-Atlantic. How much do you write? Where and with whom?" As a broker, we say, "Great question. Let me go and ask that 112 times and I'll come back to you."
We typically both suffer from that data void to be able to have a more concrete discussion on how we can drive more sales to our carrier partners. Two years ago, Ricky, our CEO, stood up in our big leadership conference and said, "If we look from an industry standpoint, the number one industry that we serve is called unmatched." We've got to get better at it. What happens is the tyranny of the urgent. We're running around doing a million things all the time, and you don't have any consistency.
Our service staff is working as hard as they can to try to satisfy all of these demands. It's even worse in a hardening market right now because there's more demand for understanding renewals and explaining them to customers. They're just having to do so much more work that we forget the basics of trying to say, "This is that data consistency that we need as an organization."
Part of the area for that IT spin is that we've been recruiting and hiring a lot of traders to support our people. The only way they know how to get through the work is by cutting corners. That's okay, but as we become a larger organization, we can't do that anymore. You can't ask them to slow them down because they don't have any time, so you've got to come together to help support them.
JK: There's a company in the BrokerTech Ventures accelerator that is trying to solve this problem right now. What they highlighted is that with big companies, it's pretty clear what they do. As you get into the small and medium-sized companies, they don't fit into one category. I can imagine an agent thinking, which one do I pick?
Part of the answer is I want to pick the one that's going to get the best rate. On the other hand, if the carrier doesn't agree that you picked the right one, then maybe the coverage doesn't apply. It's not just a matter of getting it right. Figuring out how to categorize them is a non-trivial problem.
JA: What happens is that everybody is then working on an uncoordinated tech solution. The carriers were saying, "We've updated our website; it makes it much easier." We represent 700 and some carrier relationships. When you're trying to go to market, based upon that size and understanding that market appetite, it becomes quite a big challenge, and they've got certain tech shortfalls. We had a large carrier that shall not be named that. If you put sprinklered on the form, it got rejected. If you clicked unsprinklered, it went through.
JK: You want more risk?
JA: Our agents said, "I don't think this is right." It went up, and they said, "Oh no, it's right. Our forms have been checked." We said, "No. We need to talk to somebody that understands this is not working." Finally, we're able to help them get a change made. But that's the scary stuff that's happening out there.
JK: They're losing business that whole time. It's a good thing you brought it to their attention. I think they owe you one on that front.
JA: I didn't get paid more for it, but that's a different story.
JK: But you should have.
DG: I love that expression: tyranny of the urgent. It's great. It's like a higher-level 'hurry up and wait' thing.
JA: That's right.
DG: You mentioned earlier that when you sold to the Hilb Group, you actually weren't looking to sell, and I imagine that a lot of the agencies you acquire are probably not in that mode either. What do you look for when you're looking to make an acquisition?
JA: Yeah, it's interesting. We refer to M&As - it's really talent recruitment. In fact, over 60% of our deals were not people looking to sell. What happens is we've got another agency in the area that people know, they have a relationship and the Keck Insurance Agency, they sell, and his buddy Dean down the street. "Jason, I thought you just said, last week, you'd never sell." "I thought, well, you know, I'm joining up with these guys, and they had some options."
That's been some of our success. It's really from our people who help recruit people they know and like, and we're building out a very robust team. I think it's also very successful when we have agencies that join us that are looking for that kind of 2.0 version of what they did. They're looking to get to that next level.
JK: It's hard to do.
JA: There's this idea that I'm going to lose independence instead of I'm going to join up with business partners that will bring capital, technology, be a thought partner, and bring opportunities.
For my staff and my people, they're going to grow and make more and be more successful. Once they understand that, it becomes a really good value prop for them. That's where I think we've found a lot of ours. It doesn't mean that we don't look at just about everything like everybody else does. But for those agencies that have had a lot of success and then really drank the Kool-Aid, it's because of our view that it really is talent.
It's a people business; our assets leave every night at five o'clock, and we've got to take care of it. You had these old adages that everybody says, let's focus on the customer, and we focus on the associates. If we feel like we could probably get better technology, we try to listen. We're not necessarily as quick as we'd like to be, but we do listen to understand the problems that we have. We try to empower our associates, provide better technology solutions for them; it makes their life easier. They will then do by, by default, a better job for the clients. The customer will have a better experience, and therefore they will retain more, which will drive more growth.
JK. The associates are your customer. Then, to your point, if you focus on your customer, they'll focus on their customer.
JA: That's right. Our corporate team, we think of ourselves as that resource team to support these agencies to help them get to the next level. A great little side story: we had an agency that had this home-built agency management system. The person that built it was in their early eighties now. It was so manual how everybody was doing this stuff. Let's put in a more modern agency management system. Of course, everybody panicked. "Oh my God, you can't!" It's a lot of stress.
Six months later, I went back to the office. This woman said, "Hey, can I, can I talk to you for a minute?" She brought me into her office and shut the door.
She said, "I gotta tell you when you guys came in and were talking about this, I completely panicked. My husband the other week said, you know, you're smiling a lot more than you used to. I didn't see you smile for about five or ten years. You would just come home, and you'd have to pour a glass of wine, just to calm down from the day, and now you're coming home, and you're on time - you're happier because of that efficiency that's created."
As humans, we're so resistant to change, but a lot of that is trying to figure out that work-life balance. When we have those associates who are much more excited they've got a better life balance, you got to think we're going to have a better customer experience. That's been a lot of our approach.
JK: The monotonous administrative work involved in this business blew my mind when I came in. I'm a tech guy - I like to solve problems with technology. I started salivating the more I learned about it. There are good tools out there, but even with the good tools, there's a lot of opportunity for improvement.
JA: The other thing you've got to be careful about is that there are so many great tools that are coming on - it's almost an avalanche shovel. You can't do more. You can't put your associates through, "Here's another shiny toy, and here's another one." You've really got to think the business case through and have a lot of buy-in. It's mostly been driven by our agencies out in the field. People who say, "We've got to be able to solve this. This is driving us crazy." Then we collaborate with them, support them and then execute the implementation of the tech.
JK: Awesome. I'm curious to go back to the acquisition or transition conversation because I imagine there are companies out there who are considering exits, succession plans, whatever the case may be. What's it like for somebody to go through that? Pick an example of a recent agency or somebody recently. How would you describe that journey and help people get more comfortable with the idea?
JA: Having been on both sides of the table, what people don't understand is it's more of an emotional process for them than they think. Everybody looks at it from a dollars and cents view, and candidly, the money's fairly equal. There are certain values. The industry values are very similar, and those people who are making that decision have got to figure out - are these the people I want to partner with?
JK: It's a people thing - that's interesting.
JA: Yeah. It's the people fit that that's got to be right. We look at it from the other direction. If we see a lot of things, but we don't feel like it's the right people fit, we don't feel like we can really help them, and they can help us. Then there are plenty of other choices for them out there.
That's the part that I think is challenging. It's been even more challenging in a remote environment where you don't normally get to spend a little more time breaking bread together. The process is that a lot of businesses are built on a lifestyle business, and then they've got to get some stuff cleaned up. That's a process for them that can take 12 months prior to sale. Then I'm going to go through a courtship, and then once they're selected, we've got to get really comfortable very quickly. At the end of it, you expect this very climactic moment, and it's the opposite.
There's a closing call that says, "Okay, everybody, thank you very much. Dean, Jason, great working with you. Integrations are going to be following up with you shortly." And we're done. Their bank account looks different. They're thinking, what just happened? It's the common thing we hear - people say, got it, and that's great. Then I just got back on the phone and started calling my clients and working with them. It's that kind of experience. We try to be aware of it. Our integration process or imitative process has really grown. We spent a lot of time after that trying to make our associates feel calm and excited.
They're always worried about job security, and we've never eliminated a job because of a deal. It's just not how we approach it. We have all of these great things to help them, which they may have never had. A lot of these agencies have never had an HR team. They've never had accounting resources and stuff like that. It's really basic, and so they get excited. But there's a process, which you've got to do. If I come in and Dean works for Jason, and we say, "Okay, welcome to Hilb Group, and here's what's going on." And people think, "Oh my God." That can freak people out. That's really not our approach.
JK: I love the idea of getting help on all the things you don't enjoy doing. Or at least, as a small company, you don't necessarily have the resources to have an HR person or a dedicated accounting person, and you either scrap and do it yourself, or you get some outside help. I've got to imagine the idea of being able to offload some of that to professionals who are good at it might feel good. Again, as the owner of a small company, I can appreciate the concept of the emotional side of it. If we were to get acquired by another company, I would really have to know the people I'm working with; I have to really want to work with them because there's a lot of autonomy in running your own company.
It's one of the reasons people start their own companies - they want that autonomy, so to give that up, they have to feel good about the partners they're going in with. That makes a ton of sense.
DG: Jason, on your LinkedIn profile, a colleague of yours describes you as a no-nonsense, get things done marketing executive. I'm assuming it's fair. What do you think you've done over the years to earn that?
JA: That's probably a fairly good district description to me. My colleagues who I work with, we don't believe in a lot of meetings to plan for meetings to plan for another meeting and we're not very committee-driven. We do not have a monopoly on good ideas here at the corporate office. We're constantly trying to get back together and say, okay, how can we get better? We empower our people quite a bit. You know, we hire really good people. Here's where we're going, you tell us how to get there. We try to get out of their way and support it. Whether you came in through an acquisition or we've recruited you to be on the team, it's generally our focus. That does not mean we do everything right all the time. Good Lord, we make all sorts of mistakes, but we try to own up to them. We try to learn from our failures and try to get better.
My wife would tell you; I'm probably a little bit on the workaholic side where this is all I think about. I'm excited about it. I've loved building this company. I love building it with the people I work with each day. I'm excited to see the difference we make in people's lives. We look at it as if we're building a road through a jungle, and that bulldozer is going as fast as you can. I've got a guy hanging off the side, pouring gas into it, and we're going. Luckily, I've got a good team that hopefully keeps us fairly straight because we're just pushing it as fast as we can. It's a lot of fun.
JK: That's amazing. You mentioned in there the story about helping people and building the company to help those people. The reason we started this podcast was to hear about those stories, because I think they are not told often enough, and I think insurance agents don't get as much credit as they deserve. We called the podcast, as you know, The Enlightened Agent because we wanted to hear the stories of those agents. I'm curious if you have any stories, from your experience or the Hilb Group, about how you or your agents have been enlightened and things they've done to help their clients.
JA: Yeah. We've got just an incredible group of people. We had this brilliant PowerPoint presentation on the strategy of what we're looking for. A lot of it's just been people attracting people that are similar, and we've got incredible associates that work with us. It's not just the agents; it's the back office that deals with this stuff. You never see our job that's done very well on placing coverage or going through an analysis to make sure the client's taken care of. Where you really see the value of what our people do is when things go bad.
The thought that comes to mind is Florida, which is a peninsula that hurricanes like to cross, happened to go through a ten-year period where they had no catastrophic claims. In the all-knowing insurance business, we decided, that's it! Hurricanes won't ever hit Florida again. It got to be an extremely soft market. Carriers were popping up left and right - everybody wanted to write it. Well, guess what? Hurricanes do happen, and they do happen around Florida. The team had had a storm that came through. The messiness of the storm, not the real destruction or anything else, caused high anxiety where people were property managers inside of a condo owners association. They were 28-years-old, not from Florida, and had never been through a hurricane before - they had no idea what to do.
Our staff was aware of that, so they rallied; they were out there cleaning up parking lots, helping them with debris, videotaping stuff, and processing those claims within hours. They were there, helping explain, "This is what you need to be aware of." They had those people they had brought in. That's not stuff that we charge our clients for. That's the stuff that we are expected to be there for when our clients are going through something terrible.
Another story was in Texas. Nobody could believe it actually gets cold in Texas, but you know, the old story is there's nothing between Texas and the North pole but a barbed-wire fence. Sometimes that cold drops down pretty quickly. They had a real mess on their hands. We had a large distribution company based in New York because of this environment. The client was freaking out and couldn't really communicate with his people. Our brokers came together; they were on planes, and they were getting down there. They were figuring out ways to drive there, to survey what was going on so that the client could see it because he really couldn't even get to his own people. They didn't really understand what was going on - there was just messiness.
I think that's those moments - thank God they're not every day - but when they do happen, our people can step up and shine for it. I think that improves the value of what we are as an organization and an industry. This is a great business because we really help those when those things go bad.
JK: To your point earlier, you don't experience this unless something goes bad, and thankfully things don't go bad every day.
JA: The greatest thing that could ever happen for our client is that they buy an insurance policy that they never need. That's great, but some of this stuff changes: weather patterns change, and the tech risks that are happening with cyber are going on on a daily basis. The education, the millions of products out there, and the options; it's got to have that trusted partner to help walk them through it.
DG: Hey, Jason, this has been a great conversation, and your enthusiasm for the industry and your role at the Hilb Group is great to hear. Just before we go - I'm going to let you go because I think you've got to get back and keep building the Hilb Group - I'm sure you've got tasks today, so we won't keep you much longer. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we go?
JA: No, guys, this has been terrific and super fun. I look forward to seeing you guys again. Jason, it's been great seeing you. Let's catch up again here soon, and thank you for inviting me on this today.
JK: Our pleasure. Good to see you again. Thanks for being here. Let's meet in person sometime soon.
JA: Yeah, that sounds great. Thanks, guys.
DG: Take care.