MANY INSURANCE professionals find themselves working in the industry by chance, but Joel Cavaness, president of Risk Placement Services [RPS], was destined for a role in insurance. Cavaness was just 5 years old when his father bought a retail insurance brokerage in southern Illinois, and he grew up surrounded by the property & casualty business.
“I guess it’s in my blood, so when I went away to college, my intent was to somehow get involved in the insurance industry,” Cavaness says. “I graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 1983, and I was lucky enough to go work for Crum & Forster as an underwriting trainee ... back then, a lot of insurance companies had great training programs.”
After Crum & Forster, Cavaness worked for an MGU owned by Mission Insurance Company before moving to Arthur J. Gallagher in St. Louis, where he remained for a decade. In 1996, he relocated to Itasca, Illinois, to serve as president of International Special Risk Services. The next big milestone in his career came shortly thereafter.
“The next year, we started Risk Placement Services with four employees in downtown Chicago, and I’ve been the president ever since,” says Cavaness, who counts the founding of the wholesale brokerage and MGA as the highlight on a long list of career achievements.
“My biggest accomplishment has been to start a fledgling company with only four people and no name and no business and no markets, and be able to have the tenacity to turn it into a firm that now has over 2,700 people who are building careers here,” he says.
Cavaness’ own professional development continues to this day. He’s currently serving as president of the Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association [WSIA], where he’s contributed to the industry by collaborating with board members to make important decisions that impact a growing membership.
“People a long time ago told me that it’s really not what you take out of life, but what you leave behind, so I think it’s important for all of us who have enjoyed the riches of the industry to also give back to others through involvement in the industry,” says Cavaness, adding that WSIA is asking critical questions about the fate of the insurance industry.
“How we can actually move the needle so that we do more together? What’s the next category of risk, the next category of things that we can do together to provide better solutions to our customers? How do we create new products, how do we fill voids in the marketplace, and how do we work together to provide those solutions? People start the conversation, and that’s what [events like the WSIA Underwriting Summit] are all about – coming up with great ideas on how we can do more together.”
“It’s really not what you take out of life, but what you leave behind, so I think it’s important for all of us who have enjoyed the riches of the industry to also give back to others through involvement in the industry”
Investing in the future
Aside from establishing a successful MGA, another key accomplishment for Cavaness is the internship program at RPS, which has been driven by the company’s willingness to invest in the next generation of insurance experts. This summer, RPS’ internship program will host 71 college students. Considering the history of the program, as well as the progress made by past recruits, the next batch of young people coming through the company’s doors have a lot to be excited about.
“The first intern that we had over 17 years ago at RPS is still with us today, and she’s leading a large casualty unit for us in downtown Chicago,” Cavaness says. “[We can] look at some of our senior leadership within RPS and count the number of interns who started with us in their college years and then joined us after they graduated from college, [who have been] able to take all these stepping stones along the way to now run branches and regions and hold some of the other important roles within our company.”
The fact that there’s so much to learn in the insurance industry is exactly what has kept Cavaness engaged throughout his career, and he hopes it’s also something new professionals will find engaging about working in insurance.
“You never stop learning in this industry – it’s always changing, there’s always something to learn, and you never learn it all,” he says. “There are so many different parts to the industry, whether that’s underwriting or claims or wholesale broking or retail broking, and so many specialties and hundreds of different coverage lines. That interests me because no one can know it all – it’s impossible in this industry, and it always keeps you interested.”
“You never stop learning in this industry – it’s always changing, there’s always something to learn, and you never learn it all”
Keys to growth
While RPS’ two-pronged approach to growth consists of growing its teams organically and undertaking mergers and acquisitions (the company has made more than 80), one factor remains at the heart of any expansion.
“[The acquired company] has to be a sound business for us to be interested in a merger, but we really do our due diligence on the people first to make sure that they’re going to fit within our culture, that they can add to our culture,” Cavaness says. “They are mindful about their business, but they’re also mindful about the community in which they work and serve.”
Alongside the community involvement that RPS is known for, its growth has allowed the company to continue serving the insurance marketplace with innovative solutions and teams of experts prepared to respond to new risks and changing consumer needs.
“We’re always looking at ways that we can expand what we do today,” Cavaness says. “That could be a product offering; that could be in technology; that could be in a process or the way we do things in our back rooms and in our offices. We really strive for constant improvement in the way that we deliver our products and technology, the way we interact with our retail customers to be able to interface with them. We make it much more of a seamless transaction and give them what they’re looking for in a much faster way.”