Phil Nisbet (pictured) starts to chuckle when the topic turns to any plans for world domination he might be harboring.
“When we started 10 years ago, we had under $1 million in revenue, so it (the name) was very aspirational,” said the Charleston, SC-based director of mergers and acquisitions, at World Insurance Associates.
“We’ve grown since then. The last time we came out on a list of top brokers in the country, we were No. 62 out of 35,000 or so brokers. So that’s pretty good, to go from zero to No. 62. Our goal is to get inside the Top 20 in the next two or three years.”
Together with his founding partners, Nisbet formed World Insurance in the fall of 2011, specializing in personal and commercial insurance lines, surety and bonding, employee benefits, financial and retirement services, and human capital management solutions.
Key to the company’s growth has been its aggressive acquisition strategy, with 106 deals closed over the past decade. With retail brokers representing about 80% of the company’s business, it has acquired both retail and wholesale brokers – and, as Nisbet points out, the rate at which World has bought new businesses has grown over time.
“There are a number of serial buyers out there like us, and activity has picked up a lot the past year,” he said. “Last year, we did 41. This year, we’ll probably do 40 or 50. It’s accelerated over time.”
Part of the reason for that acceleration has been the pandemic – “People get nervous about owning a smaller broker and they’re more willing to consider selling because they see the risks that they can’t control,” he said – and part of it has been low interest rates and other economic factors getting a lot of sellers off the sidelines.
But he also believes World’s ability to ramp up its M&A efforts stems from the investment it received in a private equity firm that took majority control of World last year – a clear a sign as any in the firm’s confidence in World’s prospects for continued growth.
“An insurance brokerage is a pretty resilient business, especially if you’re diversified across different customer types and industries,” he said. “It (the pandemic) did cause slower organic growth because some customers had to reduce payrolls, and so for us, as a broker, it did lower our organic growth. From the M&A side, though, it didn’t have any effect on the M&A.”
Another benefit of private equity sponsorship has been having that support to scale up business and bring in senior leadership to boost that kind of growth; World recently added seven new C-suite positions to help take it to the next level.
“When you buy smaller agencies, you get some great salespeople, but you don’t typically get people who have run half-a-billion-dollar businesses or billion-dollar businesses,” Nisbet said. “That’s what we’re trying to become. Today, we have about $250 million in revenue and we’re on our way, hopefully, to a billion as we continue to grow.”
Aside from what he and his team have learned about the benefits of private equity ownership, Nisbet said the biggest lesson about managing rapid growth is making sure everyone is on the same page – or, to be more precise, platform.
“As we’ve increased the pace of our acquisitions, we’ve realized how it’s really important to integrate everyone and bring them on to the same platform,” he said. “We have a lot of common services that can be shared with our acquired firms, but it’s a lot easier to share them when we’re all on the same platform.”
As for the future, the goal is to keep growing as a brokerage firm (see “Top 20” above). On the way there, World is unveiling a complete rebranding this month, rolling out a new logo, a new website and new marketing to reflect the many changes the company has seen over the past decade.
The name, though, will stay the same – perhaps to remind its people how far they can go. As Nisbet said: “Definitely aspirational.”