RPS’ Joel Cavaness on passing the torch and leaving a legacy

He gives one piece of advice to the next generation

RPS’ Joel Cavaness on passing the torch and leaving a legacy

Insurance News

By Gia Snape

Risk Placement Services (RPS) co-founder Joel Cavaness (pictured) stepped into the role of chairman for the Americas, specialty, at the firm this year after serving as president from 1997 to 2023.

Under Cavaness’ leadership, RPS experienced remarkable growth and expansion, becoming one of the largest US wholesale brokers, managing general agents and program managers.

As he passed the torch to a new generation of leaders at RPS, Cavaness expressed confidence in the organization’s continued growth. The transition occurred “very methodically,” he shared, and with the certainty that incoming leaders could steer RPS into its new phase.

“I maintain that 100% confidence level that the company will thrive under its new leadership and leadership structure. They will do very, very well going forward, and I’m excited to watch where the next generation of leadership takes RPS.”

Riding the ‘tidal wave of opportunities’ for RPS

In an interview with Insurance Business, Cavaness reflected on his tenure and attributed much of RPS’s success to the calibre of its team.

“You’re only as successful as the people that you surround yourself with,” he said. “If you surround yourself with a good team, the opportunity for you to succeed is exponentially better.”

Building a culture of loyalty and excellence has proved instrumental in propelling RPS to new heights. But another defining strategy has been RPS’s approach to mergers and acquisitions.

Cavaness recounted that RPS’ first two mergers happened on the same day in 1998.

“We bought a delegated authority business in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a brokerage operation in Southern California, then we were off to the races,” he said.

“Mergers brought friends who were friendly competitors in different states, regions, and specialties, and those friends wanted to join their other friends. It was like a tidal wave of opportunities for us.”

The network that RPS built has been pivotal to its growth under Arthur J. Gallagher. RPS has more than 3,000 employees nationwide.

Facing the future, looking to the past

Unlike many in the industry, Cavaness didn’t fall into insurance; he was born into it.

His early days were spent navigating the inner workings of his father’s small retail agency in southern Illinois.

“I grew up in the industry,” Cavaness said. “I knew I wanted to get into insurance, and early on, I thought I would go back and be part of the family business.”

His career path took him in a different direction. Cavaness took underwriting roles at two insurance companies before transitioning to Arthur J. Gallagher, where he honed his skills as a broker.

The turning point came in 1997 when Cavaness established RPS alongside David McGurn.

“We decided that we should be in the wholesale business, and on a very early Monday morning, we hired four individuals in downtown Chicago,” he said. “That afternoon, we created the name Risk Placement Services. We had a rough logo, and we already had licences, but we didn’t have any business or any markets.

“Over the next year, we spent our time telling our story, which fortunately worked out for us. We set out to open offices, hire people, and get our markets and our business.”

What legacy does Cavaness want to leave at RPS?

Cavaness’ dedication to RPS led him to a personal touchstone.

“[One of] my fondest memories has been meeting my wife through the company. I would say that’s a pretty fantastic moment,” he said. "We’re still happily married."

“But seeing how many successful people have been inside of RPS and what we’ve created together, at this point in my career, is my fondest memory.”

For Cavaness, the legacy he leaves is not just about accomplishments but about nurturing a thriving community of professionals poised to shape the future of the industry.

“An old mentor told me that it’s not what you take out of life, it’s what you leave behind,” said Cavaness.

“I believe that I’m leaving behind to the next generation a great business and a great opportunity.”

Have something to say about RPS and Joel Cavaness’ insurance journey? Please share your comments below.

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