For Trudy Lawler and her agency, the A.P. Michaud Insurance Agency, it’s all personal. Through a highly personalized approach to the insurance process, her agency has gone from an ERP to a million dollar agency in little over a decade.
And in an age when many independent agencies are struggling with organic growth and the lack of interest in future generations who want to join the “family business” Ms. Lawler and her agency has defied the odds. Not one, but both of Ms. Lawler’s daughters have come on board, ensuring the future of the agency into its third generation.
Now poised to take their agency to the next level, Agency Checklists talks with Trudy Lawlor and her daughter Tricia Sabulis about the power in providing a highly personalized approach to insurance and how becoming their insureds “personal insurance shopper” has enabled them to grow organically and to flourish professionally in the increasing competitive and consolidated Massachusetts insurance marketplace.
Can you tell us about the history of the agency and how your family got into the insurance business?
[Trudy] My father started an agency back in, I believe, 1962. That agency was eventually purchased by my brothers, after which my father retired. In 1979 my father came out of retirement and started a new agency, the A.P. Michaud Insurance Agency, which is where we are now.
How did you decide to go into insurance? When did you know that you wanted to follow your father into the family business?
[Trudy] When my father opened his new agency, I was in high school. I was one of eight children and basically we had to do whatever my father told us to do. So after school every day, I was on work-study, I would go to his office and work. I’ve been there ever since.
I guess it’s a good thing, but at the time it wasn’t interesting. Everyone else was doing fun things [after school] and I was working, but looking back now I am glad I did it. My father eventually retired in 1985, so he wasn’t with me that long. My husband and I actually bought the agency together. Then years later, my husband [decided that insurance] was just not his thing, so he left and he went on his own.
Is your agency still a family business? Do you have children and have they followed you into the business?
I have two daughters that work at the agency. Tricia, who has been here 10 years, does sales, marketing, and office management. Kate, my second daughter, joined us in December of 2014 as a producer.
One so often hears about sons taking over the family insurance business, but not daughters. How is the family dynamic in the office?
I only have two daughters, no sons. I loved my Dad, he was the best to work for and as a person in general, so I always enjoyed working with him. I looked up to him and he advised me in everything. So now, it is really cool to have my two daughters interested in working with me.
You can’t trust anyone like you can your family; when you go away or you can’t be there you know you can rely on them 100%. It’s so much fun to go to work every day and be with my daughters. From my point of view, it’s awesome. There are some quirks that need to be worked out here and there. We all have different personalities and we all have to get along, but it’s worth it in the end and actually a lot of fun.
And you Tricia, what attracted you to agency life?
I really enjoy working in insurance and especially at our agency. There is always something new to learn, always new and interesting people to meet, and I love insurance in general. There is never a dull day here at the agency…
Tricia, what’s your take on the family dynamic at work in your agency?
I love the fact that my mother is my boss. I also love the fact that my mother owns the agency, because most agencies you see are father and son. It’s a male-dominated industry, so when you have a mom and her two daughters running an agency and working hard and doing it very successfully, I just love it. I feel so strong, I guess I would say, as a professional because it really is something special.
It’s true, we all bring something interesting to the agency, and it’s only gotten stronger because of that. Trudy has one way of managing, I have a totally different way, but we found that we’ve balanced each other throughout the past 10 years.
So how big is the A.P. Michaud Insurance Agency today?
We just ended 2015 with over $6 million in sales. There are eight women in the office and we have another woman that is a producer who works outside the office. Our agency is probably 80% Personal, 20% Commercial. Our biggest carriers are Safety insurance, Plymouth Rock, Norfolk & Dedham, The Concord Group, Travelers, Progressive, and Foremost.
You also recently purchased an agency, and from another woman correct?
We purchased The Nancy Greenwood Agency two years ago this August. The transition has been pretty much seamless. It is everything that we expected and a lot of things we did not expect or did not know about. We have learned a lot. Moving forward, the experience will help us when we are ready to buy another one.
And are you interested in buying another agency?
[Trudy] We definitely will buy another [agency] at some point in time if we can, and if one becomes available. With two daughters, hopefully we can expand as well, not just in purchasing another agency, but maybe in opening another agency as well. Our possibilities are just endless right now, we are looking at everything. Tricia and Kate are young, so it all depends on where they want to see it go as well.
[Tricia] I’d like to note…. our growth has pretty much been all organic growth. When I joined the agency, in 2006, we were only a $1 or $2 million-dollar agency. We bought Nancy’s book of business, which was about a million-dollar book of business, so that helped. Before we did that, however, from 2006 to 2014 we grew fast and it was all just pure growth. We’re proud.
Do you have a niche? What I find, and this might sound strange, but we are like professional shoppers. That’s what insurance is. Someone needs something and we have to find it and find it for the best price – Trudy Lawler
What I find, and this might sound strange, but we are like professional shoppers. That’s what insurance is. Someone needs something and we have to find it and find it for the best price – Trudy Lawler
[Trudy] We really don’t.
So what would you say has been the secret to your success in growing organically?
[Trudy] I can’t say what other agencies do, but I know our way of doing business is, first of all, and this will sound corny, treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself.
We never oversell, we do what’s best for that person, whether or not it is in our best interest. It’s all about them and making them feel comfortable with what we are selling them and that they can trust we are only selling them what they need to have. We explain everything to them, make sure they understand it, and let them decide if it is something that they want or don’t want. We put it out there and say, “This is what you can have. What can you afford and what do you want?”
Make them decide, but with the right advice. We see some people that bring in these policies and they are way over insured or paying so much money. We do this with all of our customers, we take their policies and review them and keep up to date on what’s happening with their policies and their situations.
[Tricia] We’re honest with people. If somebody comes in and gets a quote from us, and maybe they’ve gotten a quote from somewhere else, we compare and we review what they’ve got and what we can offer; if they can get something better somewhere else we are going to tell them.
We are going to say, “You’ve got a great quote over there, I can’t match that. You should go buy that one.” Like we said, we want to do right by everybody and if I went to somebody and they did that to me I would think that was great, they were more interested in making sure I had the correct coverage than from getting my piece of business. It’s not the best sales technique, but we feel that’s more important. We’re insurance agents and we’re writing policies to protect people and their families and their assets.
A lot of women just get turned off by the whole idea of insurance, as it’s something dry, not really their cup of tea or what have you, but what would you say to anybody reading this who might be interested or exploring a career in insurance?
[Trudy] It’s an unlimited business and career. You can take it in so many different directions. What I find, and this might sound strange, but we are like professional shoppers. That is what insurance is. Someone needs something and we have to find it and find it for the best price. It’s a lot of fun and if you like to shop, which we love to do, it’s a challenge. They need something specific and it’s really fun to try to find it.
[Tricia] In insurance now, you can shake it up a little bit; bring something that is more fun. We know what we’re doing and we’re really good at it, but because we are having fun with it and showing our personalities I think that’s something people who might be interested in this industry should know. We are not that regular, stereotypical “insurance guy”.
That is really a unique way at looking at how you sell insurance.
[Trudy] Nowadays, the product, just the auto for example, each company has some add-on enhancement, so you have to know what you can offer each client since they are all a little different. Back in the old days when there was no competition, the policy was the policy. That is why we really like the way it is now because it is so much more interesting.
[Tricia] Like we said, we do both personal and commercial lines. For commercial lines, we focus on the small business. For personal lines, we build a package for families for home, auto, and umbrella, anything that the client needs so they feel they are adequately or even more than adequately obviously, covered and protected.
Do you have any advice or suggestions for agencies struggling with the issue of attracting and keeping family members in the business? You have been very successful at it. Do you have any advice?
[Tricia]It’s hard for me to say that because I’ve always been interested. I think maybe they need to look at it from an aspect of, not even thinking about insurance, being a business owner. For me that was a really exciting [prospect]. I love insurance, I’m an insurance nerd, but it is being able to take the business that my grandfather started and that my mother is running, and everybody’s been working so hard to build…and running with it. Making it grow and watching it grow. That, to me, is exciting.
I think maybe other insurance agents can try to reach out to their family members and say look at what our family has done. However, I think I mentioned earlier, that people have a preconceived notion of insurance agents, but if they joined the family and found what it is really like they might find insurance a lot more interesting than they thought.
I love looking back at what my grandfather did, seeing what my mother and I are doing and knowing that everything I do directly affects my family in a positive way. I just don’t think you can beat that.
Looking forward, one of the biggest issues in a lot of independent agencies and I think what causes the rise in mergers and acquisitions that we’ve seen within the independent agency system is the future and that lack of preparing for it. Does your agency have perpetuation plan in place? Have you broached the subject? How have you dealt with that, particularly with the family dynamics that you have?
[Trudy]Well, we have talked about it. We don’t have anything specifically in writing and it sort of changes as things go along a little bit, depending on how long I decide to stay. Right now, I am in it for the long haul, but when the time comes that I am ready to start thinking about it, we will look at where we are then and make a definite plan. It could change, but we have definitely talked about it.
What do you think has been your biggest success and your biggest challenge in running the agency?
[Trudy]There are so many challenges that we come across being a small insurance agent. The top of that list would be finding good employees. It’s so hard to manage different personalities and make sure that the agency is a positive working environment.
[Tricia] I think the biggest challenge for me, in terms of sales and marketing, is getting the message out to people about the value of an independent agent, especially because of all of the direct writers that are out and about.
People think that an insurance agent is more expensive, that you have to pay for our service, that we don’t have the technological abilities that the direct writers do. I think that is something that we, and I’m sure all independent agents, want to get across to everybody. A customer can get the same, if not better, products from us. Not only that, but that we agents have more markets than just one, that we are not going to charge you extra for our expertise, and that we go to school specifically for this.
We can do everything for you and we can do it all with a face. You can come sit with me and talk with me. You can email me and I’ll answer the same day, probably within an hour, probably even less than that. I always tell people, when you write your insurance policy through our agency, you get me. I’m an added bonus. If you write through a direct company, you have a phone number or a website that you go to and you might get a different person every single time.
We don’t have the marketing dollars that those large companies have. We have got to stay within a budget and do it the best way that we can. I think that, in my opinion, is pretty challenging.
Are you part of any agency alliances or agency networks?
[Trudy] No, not at this time. We may look into that at some point…I do see a lot of the agencies joining networks. A lot of the smaller agencies are joining and I think we eventually will as well. I think that may be the next thing that is happening.
What about online marketing?
[Tricia]We do in some ways. We do a lot of social media, Yelp, advertisements within community organizations, etc. We have our website and our blog that I am too busy to write it, but it’s there. We do Facebook marketing every so often. Anything that we can but we’ve found that within a smaller community, being out in the community has been more successful for us. Also, referrals. We can’t even tell you how important referrals are in our industry.
Ultimately, your biggest gold mine in your agency are your clients. You already have them. There is so much opportunity for cross-selling and up-selling, so we really focus on that.
We do try to have a nice rounded out marketing plan and do what we can here and there. If it’s worth it we will look into more and expanding on the Internet advertising, but it’s not a push now. It is not the biggest part of our marketing budget.
What do you see as the future of independent agents in Massachusetts? Do you have any worries or what is your take on it today looking forward?
[Trudy] I guess it would be foolish not to be a little worried. Definitely, the direct marketers are coming in and advertising heavily, so that is all the more reason we need to really get out there and show what our qualities are and why you should stay with a local agent. However, on the same note, it seems like a lot of people are coming back around. Everybody was on the Internet and wanted to buy everything online, especially the services, and I think people are finding they want to come back to that personal service, especially at no charge. We have adjusted as well and will continue to do so as things change.
[Tricia] I also foresee a big worry for us – you have the direct writers, but you also have the really large agencies that are going around and buying out the smaller ones, the ones who don’t have a family member or any plan after they retire. How long can a smaller agency go? I think that is why we are also pushing ourselves to grow now, because we want to be one of those bigger stronger insurance agencies. Maybe not that big, but big enough so we can still have that personal touch and the smaller family feel that people like.
We talked about your biggest challenge, but what would you say is your biggest success in your agency so far?
[Trudy] Competitive rating has been really the biggest thing that has come into our office and helped us succeed. It pushed us to get more markets and products. Prior to competitive rating, we were an ERP with Safety Insurance as our only carrier. When the competitive rating came, well right before that, they were reassigning me to Plymouth Rock, and so I was in a really good position with the two companies battling over my business. We ended up acquiring Plymouth Rock and got a voluntary contract with Safety.
At that time, Tricia came in the agency and it all kind of fell into place. She took over the marketing and we just grew from there. The timing was right and we took full advantage.
What would you like to see more of in the Massachusetts insurance industry?
[Trudy] More women.
[Tricia] More women agency owners or agencies. I think that is what makes us different, we are all women here. At other agencies you see all the support staff is women, because most women take the job as CSRs, but you’ve got your principles all being men because that is just how it is. I love that we are all women. I feel empowered. When we see other women who own their agencies we are drawn to each other and want to work together and talk about our experience.