[Transcript] Mike Alexander Jr. – President of ABM Insurance and Benefit Services, Inc

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Michael: Mike Alexander Junior, thanks so much for joining us. How are you?

Mike: Thank you Michael. How are you?

Michael: I’m doing great. First, let’s start with the thumbnail sketch. How did you get to where you are? How long have you been in the industry, et cetera.

Mike: I started back in the ’90s, early on 1990 while I was in college, just working basically at clerking at an insurance company. It was one of my many jobs as a college student but I always found an interest in insurance. After graduating, I got a pretty decent job in Houston working for a national HMO, the health side of the business. From there, moved around to three or four different companies as during that time they were selling, merging everything else and just got to a point where I knew that I didn’t see much of a future.

I knew that they’d probably be consolidated a few major companies and there really wasn’t much of a future on the carrier side for health insurance. I had a conversation with my father who happened to be in the business as well. He does Medicare and individual health, a little bit of group.

Michael: He owned an agency, is that right?

Mike: He did, yes. He was the director for a big grocery store chain here and then just made a career decision to change and got an insurance with it. I think I discussed it. It’s one of those best-kept secrets.

Michael: Indeed. [laughs]

Mike: You don’t really know how good of an industry and career can be until you’re inundated in it. It’s been really good for our family. At the time, I wasn’t in PNC. I didn’t have any property and casualty experience but I was extremely interested in it. I was a sales exec for a national carrier and I’d call on a lot of agents, so I knew who had interest in selling and I knew I couldn’t afford a big one.

I had a friend that had a small agency with about 500 personal line policies that I did end up purchasing. That was gracious enough to give me free rent. [laughs]

Michael: [laughs] That’s how you got your location. What year roughly did you buy the 500 policies?

Mike: 2000. 2001 is actually when I finally went through but it was a unique time in the industry because here in Texas, farmers were pulling out of the market and they were a major rider of homeowners policies. We were having a lot of mold crisis and issues. I think it made national headlines with some claims in Austin and a lot of the carrier’s for putting moratoriums in on new business.

We happen to have a couple competitive carriers at the time. It was just crazy. We were writing so much business.

Michael: That was 17ish years ago?

Mike: Yes.

Michael: Mike, I know that you took about five years off because of family issues.

Mike: Yes, my wife, she got sick with breast cancer. We went the traditional route and everything looked great and started to get back to work and then it came back with a vengeance and then we went to the alternative route. We were going abroad for treatment. Quite honestly, I was completely out of the business for five years.

Michael: 17 minus 12 and whatever disruption or backsliding happened during those five years. My understanding based on our conversation, and by the way, I guess we should say in full disclosure, you are a client of mine, you are a member of the million dollar club and you’ve been a client for a longtime.

Mike: Absolutely. I attribute whatever success or if you want to call it success, I do, in part largely to your ideas and philosophies.

Michael: That’s super generous of you and as I always say, “You did the work, I just had a few ideas.” Now it’s my understanding that in spite of the disruptions, you’ve been clipping along a 20% growth rate, year after year?

Mike: Yes, on average. That’s five years it was flat, we didn’t have any growth. I fortunately had a really good staff that were very dedicated to me and kept the ship afloat but we weren’t building a ship at all, at that point.

Michael: All right, so this year you’re going to achieve three million dollars in annual income?

Mike: Yes.

Michael: Got it. All right. Well good growth from 500 policies to a three million dollars income agency. We will dive into what’s been working for you, what you do that you think is perhaps different than a lot of agents and I know that you are both a savvy and avid marketer. We are going to be talking about that perspective but before we do that, now you’ve been in the industry for a long time, I guess we’re approaching 30 years but you’ve had the agency for 17 and you’ve been active for 12.

If you reflect back on those early days when you purchased that agency and started running and you contrast that with today, what do you think is different in the life of an agency principal now and what do you think an agency principal needs to do that’s different now, than it was back at the turn of this century?

Mike: When I first got into it, it was so much easier. For one you didn’t have- I mean you had direct writers but they weren’t as prevalent and as aggressive at that time as they are now and even the ones that were direct writers or are, still had an agency model that they supported and would give us leads co-op dollars. They really did support the agency force and that’s for the most part gone. We just don’t get that from the carriers any more.

Michael: That level of support from the carriers?

Mike: Yes.

Michael: All right. If we go back to the period we’re talking about, when you first got the agency, forces on the personal line side certainly like Progressive Direct or GEICO, they weren’t nearly the companies that they are now. Why don’t we tell the tell our listeners what your split of business is, so they can get a perspective on that.

Mike: The majority of my business, well right now it’s about 50/50 and that’s life and health 50% and then property and casualty 50%. As a PAC it was 70/30, this year the growth has really been in commercial, we’re going to be at 50/50.

Michael: It was 70 personal, 30 commercial?

Mike: Right.

Michael: But know with the commercial growth, is taken the commercial up, it’s 50/50?

Mike: Yes, that’s right. Commercial is where we have the largest percentage of growth in our agency right now.

Michael: Okay. Again go back that question, if you’re going to compare the challenges that an agency principal had back in the year 2000, compared to the challenges that they have today, what do you think those differences are?

Mike: Well, technology by far. Technology it’s changing at the speed of light right now in our industry and I think the older agents that are doing it haphazardly or not doing it full time or don’t have 100% of their attention invested in their business, they are going to be the ones that get absorbed or go away.

Michael: Do you think that the agency principal of today needs a somewhat different skill set than the agency principal the year 2000?

Mike: Completely.

Michael: Okay.

Mike: I was talking to someone the other day and they were asking, how I could get into the property and casualty business having never sold a property in casualty insurance policy. I said, “I had my carrier supporting me,” and of course I invested in training and a lot of other things but you just don’t get that support like you used to and it’s gone away.

Michael: All right, what are the threats that you feel like the independent agency system is facing now?

Mike: You’ve mentioned it when we talk all the time and I agree wholeheartedly with you, it’s the insurtech breaking into our industry. They’re stealing crazy insane amounts of money, investing in technology and things in our industry to absorb market share and it’s ripe for the picking for them.

Michael: I’m going to put you on the spot here, what are you going to do and what are the kinds of things that you’re doing to give, in other word guarantee is a tough one but to assure to most likely assure your success in the future?

Mike: It’s keeping up with the technology. A lot of the insurtech businesses that are breaking into our industry are at least currently supporting the agent model.

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Michael: Certainly some that I interview on this podcast series- [crosstalk]

Mike: Yes, that’s right. But yes, they’re innovative, they have products, they have done their research. They know what the consumer is looking for and wants and we need to listen.

Michael: All right, your 20% annual growth rate, let’s break that down a little bit and start taking a look at, what is it about your agency that gives it that reliable year after year after year growth. Obviously you’re a marketer. I have never asked you this question before, do you see yourself primarily as an insurance guy or do you see yourself first as an entrepreneur or a marketer? What’s the paradigm on how you view your job?

Mike: 18,17 years ago if you’d ask me that question, I would have told you I was an insurance agent but today I’m a business owner and a business owner I don’t sell any policies. I do it occasionally on some larger deals that require my attention or assistance but outside of those, I don’t sell any insurance policies. I make the phones ring for my team, then I support them in being successful in our agency.

Michael: All right. I’m going to ask you a question on behalf of at least some of our listeners because it’s not uncommon that if I’m interviewing somebody who’s been really successful and certainly not uncommon if they’ve been a client of mine. If people do go back and listen to the agents who I’ve interviewed over the last year and a half or so, you’ll discover a common thread. Which is to execute on this principle of working on the business not just in the business.

Now, clearly, some of my clients and I’m not dogmatic about this, they still function as a producer and we’ll typically see that much more in commercial lines and personal lines but we’ll often see a progressive move towards being what I would call an insurer-preneur, in other words an entrepreneur who works on their business and move further away from being a producer.

For some people that’s tough, especially if they’ve done it a long time, if they feel that their skill set is being a producer. It’s tough if it’s a little bit of a smaller agency and a lot of the income depends on the book that the principal/producer brings into the business. How did you make that happen?

Mike: Well you know, I remember going back. The first book camp I went to in Chicago that you hosted.

Michael: Yes.

Mike: One of the things that I’ve brought back from that was probably the most important thing in my insurance career was that we as insurance agents imposed limits and boundaries on our business that don’t exist. If you have an insurance license in Texas, you don’t have to just market in Huston, you can market in the state of Texas, same is true if you had multiple license in multiple states. Market everywhere not just to your little geographic area because you think that’s where your customers are going to come from. They are going to come from wherever you are at if you have a good product.

That’s pretty much what I did. I setup systems, which is again something else you and I have worked on since we’ve been working together and that truly is the systems that make everything work and flow smoothly, so that I can just keep my mind focused on the numbers and again my job is to support my team members and help them be successful in the agency.

Michael: Got it. I don’t know if you have an accurate answer to this question but some of your time you spend on ‘marketing.’ In other words there’re activities that you are engaged in that, they are not HR and they’re not team leadership et cetera and they’re not selling a policy, they’re creating marketing material or somehow functioning in that category. Couple of questions about that; one, how did you get to that principle and what were the major influences that made you because you’re good at, I know that. What were some of the major influences that made you or helped you to be a good insurance marketer?

Mike: Obviously Michael Jans was the [crosstalk]

Michael: It wasn’t intended to be a softball question.

Mike: I’m not kidding, I’m not saying that because we’re on the phone call, honestly.

Michael: [laughs] Yes, all right.

Mike: Telling the truth, you and I have talked about the story with– Our office used to be next door to Don Foreman who really was-

Michael: Okay, all right.

Mike: -a part of your- [crosstalk]

Michael: 25 years ago I think. Okay, fair enough. I totally-

Mike: Yes, so did I.

Michael: -forgot about that story.

Mike: I was also an avid follower of Dan Kennedy, who I cornered at a meeting he had and I think it was in Dallas if I’m not mistaken but he also mentioned your name and he said I needed to contact you. I mean those were two pretty big bumps in the head and if I didn’t listen that’s my own fault, right?

Michael: Got it. Let’s take a look at what some of those actual, tactical, practical, actionable items are in marketing. You had said that one of your jobs is to make the phones ring, what are some of the things that you do to make the phones ring?

Mike: Now we utilize direct mail as our primary source of leads because we used to do a lot, a whole lot of Internet. We buy Internet leads and initially they were really good, I could predict what our return would be with some degree of accuracy but over the years, it’s just gotten worse and worse. We abandoned the Internet lead unless we generated ourselves but even with that, a lot of our Internet leads are initiated through direct mail responses driving them to the website.

Michael: What are your observations, which is interesting is that the Lee Gen Industry has deteriorated in quality, Am I hearing you right on that?

Mike: Absolutely, there used to be a lot more companies and I think over time they’ve consolidated and-

Michael: Yes, there’s been a lot of that.

Mike: -basically when you just have one or two aggregators of leads and are selling them to hundreds of people. By the time you get it it’s been saturated, they’ve been hit so many times it’s worthless.

Michael: And again, fair to say that when you get that lead, they weren’t a lead for ABM for your agency, they were just somebody who said I want insurance. They weren’t necessarily attracted to your persona, they weren’t attracted to your brand, they weren’t attracted to your offer. They were just a semi-one name and phone number.

Mike: Right and a lot of it when we stopped using it we were noticing that a lot of the leads we were getting these people weren’t even inquiring about insurance. They were getting hit, they were clicking on something, they [unintelligible 00:24:44] they got their information and they were sold to us.

Michael: Got it. That died but I think what’s interesting and what I hope people are hearing is that, while people have heard on this podcast series and of course pretty much I suppose everywhere in the industry, that the future of marketing is technology and digital. That doesn’t necessarily mean that some of the classic approaches to marketing like direct mail, that doesn’t mean that they are dead and we’ll get to your digital approaches in a couple of minutes but what’s your experience with direct mail?

Mike: It’s the most predictable form of marketing that I’d used.

Michael: That you have, all right, very interesting. I think I know the answer to this; you nitrify it really pretty well.

Mike: I want to try to, a personal line’s a personal line, you really don’t have anything unique. I think the personal lines are easier because more people need it. I may drop 10,000 pieces in a month but I know what my returns are going to be. It’s easy for me to predict that, whereas on commercial some of our niches are construction, farmers, electricians. I can send out to my list on those when it’s a little bit harder to predict but I’ve yet to lose money on a mailing. More than likely, I break even and that’s by intent.

I want to maximize my dollars, my marketing dollars. It’s a matter of how much I can spend to get that customer versus how little. My job is to spend as much money as physically possible to get that customer, so that I’m going to be on my little island. If I can spend more and get more customers, I’m going to win.

Michael: What form of direct mail are you using?

Mike: We usually do three drops. Every person in our list is mailed at least three times in sequence and each piece has a different message but you can clearly tell it’s coming from the same place. You find characteristics on them but typically I’ll do a long form letter on the first mailing, a post card on the second and then a short letter on the third and then of course we use different colors and paper different color envelopes. I can tell you with each mailing what our typical response rate is of each one.

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Michael: Okay, I’m going to step back and look at this as a system, do you have the same sequence of mailing, pretty much every month?

Mike: Every month, that’s what I’m saying. If it’s working I’m going to keep using it until it stops.

Michael: Okay. We have a couple of things I know we’re testing.

Mike: Yes.

Michael: In the long form letters, when you say long form how long are they?

Mike: Home owners is two paged, the commercial is three pages.

Michael: Okay. In a typical month, how many pieces go out?

Mike: For personal lines about 10,000.

Michael: And commercial lines?

Mike: That varies depending upon the number of responses we’re getting from us with our- we do use Google AdWords, we put the paper clip. If we’re getting a good response on and the cost is right, on the Google click at paper clips, we’ll scale back the mailing but I would say anywhere between 5,000 and 7,500 pieces per month.

Michael: Got it. We’re somewhere around 15,000 to 17,500 pieces going out from your agency every single month. Multiply that times 12, that’s pretty impressive.

Mike: Yes and those are just the property and causality, we also have a gift called- [crosstalk]

Michael: All right. Fair to say that your growth is probably fueled by not just really good systems but a well calculated investment and that investment, your investment and growth is more than the average agency.

Mike: I would think it is because we spend insane amount of money on marketing and my male-house bill is just astronomical but they love me there.

Michael: You like spending that money, Am I right?

Mike: Absolutely.

Michael: [laughs]

Mike: If I could spend more, I would.

Michael: There are a couple of real quick questions. Your personal lines list, how do you get that?

Mike: Over the years, when we were buying the Internet leads, we were buying a whole lot. I’m about at the end of that. It’s been about five years since we cut off or scaled back from that but I’ve been hitting those people for the last five years. Then, I also buy a next date list through a local vendor.

Michael: Got it. The house list is getting old but the vendor list, while they probably don’t know the relationship, is probably fresher and all the commercial line side, your list.

Mike: I market the contractors. That’s primarily where we market. We buy the list from the state. They have to have a life commission.

Michael: Got it.

Mike: According to their license, they have to have insurance.

Michael: Got it. One of my favorite sources of list, governmental entities. Direct Mail, now you would also mention that you do pay-per-click ads?

Mike: I do and I was spending a lot. I’ve been scaling it back a little bit because the direct mail is more predictable and I can get more out of that marketing dollar in the direct mail than the Google because it fluctuates. You can get wiped out real quick if you don’t pay attention to what it’s doing. It’s a little bit more time-consuming and labor-intensive but it works. There’s times that my ROI on the pay-per-click is two to one, three to one.

Michael: In first year commission?

Mike: First year, yes.

Michael: Oh my goodness. [laughs] Then there are times where what? If that flips around and it’s-

Mike: It does, it flips around. On average, that’s a break-even proposition. Basically, I’m buying renewals, that’s what I’m doing.

Michael: Got it. Direct mail of a couple different forms, pay-per-click ads on Google Ad Words, right?

Mike: Yes.

Michael: Facebook, I just don’t recall if you’ve.

Mike: I tried Facebook and I haven’t been able to crack that up. I’ve tried multiple times. It’s very inexpensive but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and I just haven’t been able to figure it out.

Michael: Got it. All right. Then you and I are about to crack the code on some really interesting LinkedIn lead gen but we’re probably not-

Mike: I’m really excited about that.

Michael: -we’re not ready to report on the results of that one yet, so let’s hold off on that.

Mike: I’m extremely excited about it.

Michael: Anything else on lead gen? Mike, you know that my marketing model is ACOR, A-C-O-R, Attract, Convert, Optimize and Retain. When we’re talking about marketing you and I, so far, all we’ve talked about is A, attract, how you generate leads. Do you do anything else to generate leads, referral programs, et cetera?

Mike: Yes, of course. We do letter referral program. We solicit to mortgage brokers. We get gift cards. God, you name it, we do it.

Michael: Now, let’s take a look at some of the other elements of this. Obviously, getting a new customer starts with a lead and then we need to convert them into a customer. In your case, as in most that requires usually what, an inbound phone call? Somebody calls the agency and one of your very capable producers closes that call, right?

Mike: Right.

Michael: Now, we have a customer and you also want to do everything you can to market to them so you can increase your revenue per customer, your policy count and obviously, create that strong emotional bond so that they stay with you longer and they give you more referrals. What kind of marketing do you do to your existing customer base?

Mike: The existing base, initially, when they’re brought into the agency and they purchase a policy, they’re given a welcome kit. The Welcome Kit will have basically little flyers and brochures of all the services that we offer. Almost always, and if they don’t, part of the process of a new customer on commercial lines is they have to ask them when they’re a home and auto renew because assuming everybody has a home, an auto or renters or something, they’re going to ask it and they’ll put it [unintelligible 00:35:00] in the system or they transfer it to a personalized agent and that person starts taking the information down to provide them with a quote right away.

You’ve told us for years and years and years that the best way to keep a customer and solidify them with your agency is that for them to have more than one policy where it shows people that have more than one policy stay a lot longer than those that only have a monoline coverage.

Michael: Your staff is engaged in cross selling when they touch them, but you’re also sending what? Is it a paper newsletter?

Mike: It is, yes. We mail it out every month. We have, I think, 8,000 newsletters go out every month.

Michael: Wow. Just for a moment, tell us what are the typical things that go into that newsletter.

Mike: We try to keep as much insurance stuff out of it as we can. You see a lot of pictures of our staff in there, hopefully, a picture with one of their kids and accomplishment that one of their kids did, more personal stuff. We’ll talk about what to do and going on vacation, drilling safety tips in the summertime, what to do if your house starts to flood. That type of stuff.

Then, we are involved in the community, not as much as I’d like and we’re going to work on that, but we are involved in the community. Whenever we have the opportunity to put that in the newsletter, we do as well.

Michael: Who creates the newsletter?

Mike: I do.

Michael: Got it. That’s a marketing function of yours.

Mike: Yes.

Michael: Now, obviously, you also use technology to provide an ongoing stream of meaning and delight to your customers. Tell us what you do there.

Mike: Yes, absolutely. I think that in of itself has shown to be the best way of increasing our business, not only flow and volume but also with retention, because we use the Agency Revolution system. We’ve built in sequences so that every customer is basically touched a minimum of 12 times a year.

Michael: They’re touched digitally 12 times a year, is that right?

Mike: Yes. That’s strictly the digital.

Michael: Let me ask you a question. Those 12 touches that you’re talking about, are those all nurturing touches?

Mike: For the most part and we throw in a flood cross-sell.

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Michael: Got it.

Mike: We had that going out three times a year. We use that as much for a cross-sell as we do for an E and O projector because of course we flood here in Houston so we get these calls. I’m sure everybody does, “What do you mean flood’s not covered on my homeowner’s insurance policy?” This helps us protect ourselves.

Michael: Any other cross-sell campaigns that you’re running digitally?

Mike: We do. We do home, auto, health but it’s a minimum of 12 times a year. In most cases, if it’s a personal lines customer, they’re hit more like 18 times a year.

Michael: Got it. You’re a marketer. By the way, thanks for sharing all of that. That’s generous of you. I can’t get every agent reveal what they’re doing to succeed maybe because they’re nervous somebody’s going to copy it but I think what you said before we got on I hit the record button is, “Hey, if it’s good for the industry, I’m going to share it.”

Mike: Absolutely.

Michael: Thank you for that. Here you are, sitting on an agency that you own, it’s got $3 million in revenue and it’s predictably hitting about 20% growth per year, which gets to be pretty interesting the bigger you get. Now realistically, we know that the industry, it’s facing some pressures and stresses, how do you think the future looks for the independent insurance agency system?

Mike: I think it looks bright. The old way of doing business just isn’t going to work anymore.

Michael: The old way is what? What’s the distinction? I mean, I know in my mind I think what that is but when you say that how do you make a distinction between the old way and the new way?

Mike: I mean the old way was you get a space in a populated area on a street that has lots of traffic and you hang your sign and you wait for people to come in and buy insurance.

Michael: Fair enough, and the new way?

Mike: The new ways you’ve got ACOR you have to attract them, you have to convert them, you have to optimize that relationship and then retain it so you make money.

Michael: Already. Mike, I’ll ask you to phrase this in the billboard model. If you’re going to deliver a message to the industry and you could say anything that you wanted but you had to put it on a billboard and everybody is driving 65, 70 miles an hour or so. It can’t be much more than eight or ten words or they’re not going to be able to read it. What’s the message that you would want to deliver to the independent insurance agent of today?

Mike: Again this industry is the best-kept secret that I know of. People I know that are in this industry are either brought into it, inherited the business or worked for the care and just got stuck in it. You just don’t see a lot of young people coming in to our industry. I think that’s where we as agents, agency owners, and business owners need to focus and attract young people with these great new ideas that they have, that we’ve never even thought of into our business.

Michael: I know I’m interrupting, yes, I’m going to let you finish. What you said made me wondered. Do you think that the younger generation is more in touch with the contemporary model or the contemporary methods of marketing and communication than Boomers are?

Mike: I think so. I mean, if I sold, we had a conversation about this in our office recently. We have our average age here is probably, I would say the mid-30s. We have younger people in our office and one of the questions they were talking about one of the older agents was indicating that they don’t know how to sell to the younger generation because it’s a different process and it’s a different procedure. His statement was, “I’m too old to sell to them.” That’s not true. You just need to be trained and systems put in place so that you can attract them and sell to the younger generation.

Michael: All right. I know I interrupted you. Back to that question. If you were going to deliver one concise message. I’m putting you on the spot saying concisely but I’m going to do it any way, we can we can wordsmith it later. If you’re going to deliver a message to the independent insurance agents of today, what do you think they need to hear?

Mike: I would say fight for it. Stay relevant that the insurance agent doesn’t go by the wayside or has the way of the travel agent. We need to stay relevant.

Michael: I appreciate that and I agree with you. Mike, most of the people who listen to this there are in our industry. You’re not selling, you’re not a vendor, you’re not selling technology, you’re not a carrier and I don’t want you to get a barrage of phone calls, “Mike, tell me everything.” That’s not fair to you but if somebody did want to reach out to you with a specific question and it wasn’t overly time-consuming. How could they possibly do that?

Mike: They can email me.

Michael: Fair enough.

Mike: It’s Mike.alexanderJr@getagreatquote.com

Michael: Let’s do that again. Mike-

Mike: .alexander.

Michael: Got it.

Mike: Jr.

Michael: Okay, because you are the junior.

Mike: I’m a junior.

Michael: All right. Mike.alaxanderJr@-

Mike: getagreatquote.com.

Michael: That’s a great URL by the way. Mike, I look forward to seeing you at our next million dollar club meeting. I want to thank you so much for your generosity and your insight. Of course, congratulate you on your success. On behalf of our listeners. Thanks for joining us today.

Mike: Thank you, Michael.

Michael: You bet.

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