Our interview for the LoTops blog today is with Kelly Conway of the Fleming & Conway Agency, an Allstate agency with offices in Austin and Round Rock, Texas.
I know you and your partner Melissa had experience in the financial services industry before starting your own agency. What was that experience and how did you both decide to start an insurance agency together?
Melissa and I worked in the banking and financial services industry for almost 10 years each. During my career, I worked as a Personal Banker, Small Business Banker and then in the Wealth Management/Private Banking group. Melissa and I worked together in the Private Bank and shared a book of business servicing high net worth clients. We offered full spectrum financial servicing, including insurance, lending and estate planning.
Starting in 2008, there was a lot of turmoil in the financial services industry. In 2009, our bank was acquired by another bank. The new bank had a different focus within their Private Bank which caused us to evaluate where our careers were headed. Melissa and I had aspirations of owning our own business as we both had entrepreneurs in our families. The decline in the banking industry is what initiated our search for something new. Insurance was a component of what we offered in our current roles and seemed like it would be a great pivot for us.
What are some of the advantages to having a co-owner of an agency? And, on the flip side of that maybe, are there challenges to making a partnership work and what are those?
In the beginning, we were often asked how we could do this as a 50/50 partnership, and as two women. The answer is simple, at the end of the day, we know we have each other’s back. One of the advantages for me is just having someone to help make decisions, even simple ones. As a business owner, you are constantly bombarded with questions and decision that have to be made and it is nice to just have someone to ask, what do you think?
We also know that if one of us is away, that our agency will not suffer. In the last 10 years, I have gotten married, had two babies, moved, travelled, etc. In my experience, an employee may not have as much dedication as a business owner, so I know I can unplug and Melissa will run the agency, just as I would.
In 2016, Melissa’s son, Brock, was diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable brain tumor at the age of 7. There was no doubt that Melissa was going to be able to be away from the business with Brock as he battled. We are sisters. We take care of each other. We are 100% dedicated to our success. There is no question. As far as challenges within a partnership, we have not faced many. Yes, sometimes we may disagree on something, it is going to happen but ultimately we always find resolution.
What has been your experience being with Allstate and how did you choose Allstate initially?
We investigated all the major carriers in the area and even look at starting as an independent agency. We chose Allstate for a number of reasons. First, the had just enough training for us to be comfortable on working with our customers to help them understand and decide on the appropriate insurance coverage. Second, they provided an incredible amount of support locally, and at the regional level. We knew we would have access to the marketing and agency support that would make us successful.
Another component we liked was that if Allstate did not insure a particular type of risk, we could broker the business out to a third party. Having worked with business owners during my career in banking, I knew that was something I wanted to do in the insurance world. Allstate sets up relationships with brokerages that allow me to find the right coverage for a particular risk. Third, it was the brand. My family has had Allstate for generations. The marketing and brand name are exceptional.
And lastly, we own our book of business. We have the option to sell it back to Allstate or on the open market.
I know you have two offices now. How many people do you have working in your agency in total? And are there challenges other agency owners should be aware of when opening a second location?
We have an office in Austin and one in Round Rock. We have a total of four employees in addition to Melissa and myself. It was a little scary at first to think about having two locations. However, we couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to expand our presence, especially into a growing area like Round Rock.
With technology, managing two offices is not that challenging. A VOIP phones system allows us to have the phones ring in both offices simultaneously. A instant messaging system is key as well as some sort of shared drive/file system. By the time we opened that office, Melissa and I had worked together for 6 years. There was concern that we would miss out on the synergy that we have working together, but with the technology that has not been the case, fortunately.
When you talk about giving your customers a consistent ‘red carpet’ experience, could you explain what that means to you? For newer agency owners reading this, could you explain a little about what you see as some of the non-red carpet habits or practices to avoid? Or, where do you see customer dissatisfaction as usually coming from in insurance?
When we were considering the opportunity of opening our own agency, we would ask our friends, family and clients about their experience with their insurance agent. The most common answer we got was they never call be back. This was surprising as returning a call or email is probably one of the easiest things I do!
In working for the Private Bank, we were used to providing an exceptional level of service. We wanted to carry that over to our agency and feel that it really differentiates us from other agents. We have an established client onboarding process to help make the transition to Allstate as seamless as possible. Melissa and I make sure we, as the agency owners, are available for our clients during a claim. Lastly, we offer annual review to all of our clients. It is important to stay in touch with them and their ever changing insurance needs.
You and Melissa obviously have had a lot of success growing your agency. Could you give some insight into where your customers come from? What portion come from referrals, online — and is that breakdown consistent year-to-year, or changing at all? Are there any channels or practices that are really stand-outs for you?
We have grown our agency organically. Melissa and I have been able to leverage the networks and centers of influence we have built in Austin over the last 20 years. We don’t buy leads and have never bought a book of business. Instead, we have always been part of networking groups, like BNI and the chamber. We are also actively involved in our communities. It is important for us to give back to the areas that we serve. We have also found that public speaking or education opportunities are a great way for us to reach out to new clients or contacts.
You opened your agency in 2010. What are the most significant changes in the industry you’ve seen over the past ten years?
The insurance agency ebbs and flows. Rates change, coverages can change, a company’s focus can change. The number one thing we have learned is you have to embrace and not fight the changes, as they are constant.
I know you’ve been recognized as a Top Agency for Business Insurance by Alltsate. How much of your business is commercial clients vs personal?
Our book is about 30% commercial. Our bread and butter is truly personal lines, but we know that diversification is important.
Achieving growth every year is not easy — certainly, not every agency does it. It’s easy to get complacent. How do you prioritize growth and keep everyone at the agency focused on growth?
We have consistently grown year over year as an agency for the last ten years and will continue to do so! We are extremely goal oriented. Our team meets every Tuesday morning, via Zoom these days, to review where the agency is in terms of production for the month, quarter and year. We look at where we are year over year for new business, total premium, retention and service scores. Our entire team is aware of what our goals are and where we are in relation to achieving these goals on a weekly basis.
But it’s not all about new business and sales, retention is key to successfully continuing to grow. This is why we include our service team on the bonus payouts. We cannot retain and grow without all hands on deck.