Robertson Ryan & Associates CEO Chris Illman tells IBA how his agency’s focus on letting agents remain independent has helped it stand out in the industry and realize double-digit growth
IBA: How does Robertson Ryan & Associates’ business model differ from other agencies?
Chris Illman: We are a very unique agency. Our tagline is “We're an agency for agents,” and we truly mean that because all of our agents are independent business owners, and they all own their books of business. The philosophy of that is, nobody cares more or takes better care of a client than an independent business agent who owns that client list. They can consult and advise small business owners with a passion that's different because they are small business owners themselves.
The other uniqueness of our model is that being an independent agency, we're not beholden to M&A and quarterly returns – we put our clients first, and we're long-term thinkers.
Another differentiator is the fact that we share all of the profits of the firm, and everything else we do is shared across all our agents. We like to say that there's no corner office getting wealthy off of our agents. We're truly a collaborative collection of independent agents.
IBA: The agency has grown from 28 agents in 2001 to 115 in 2020. What has driven this growth?
CI: In the last three to three and a half years, we've been growing at a 15% to 20%-plus clip in agent growth, revenue growth and profit growth. There was a bit of a slowdown with COVID, but we’re still growing nicely, and we feel that we'll come out of this in 2021–22 back to our double-digit growth – that’s both organic growth and also what we call acquisitive growth for people who join us.
We don't buy agencies unnecessarily, so we're not an M&A shop. We grow through organic growth, and we grow through attracting high-quality, successful agents who still want to be independent and own their own business, but want help from a large organization.
IBA: How have your key areas of focus – revenue drivers, technology, operational excellence and being a great place to work – contributed to the success of the agency?
CI: A lot of industries are going through a huge digital change, as is the insurance agency distribution business, so we have put a lot of money and resources into digitalization from a operational and sales perspective, [including] reaching current clients in more productive ways with more regular touchpoints and by conducting more of our business processes online.
That's also one of the reasons why we're growing from agents who are joining us – because typically, if you're an insurance agent, digital expertise is not your expertise. You need help, both in taking care of your clients and then also growing your business by touching new clients. The pandemic has certainly accelerated that area immensely, and that's where we spend a lot of our energy and efforts, in helping our agents take care of their clients digitally.
We have also done a good job through the pandemic in doing what's right for our people. We're a big organization – we have about 350 associates that are made up of agents and our employees – and we wanted to walk the talk and do what's right by making sure they were safe, healthy and could take care of their families. We said, “If you still want to come into the office, that's fine,” but we set people up very quickly for work flexibility. We invested a lot of money and time in making sure we could get everybody remote so that as they went through the pandemic, work wasn’t a stressor for them.
IBA: What’s coming down the pike for your agency in 2021?
CI: You're going to see our reach expanding out, because our value proposition is a national value proposition. We're very different, and our uniqueness is what is absolutely awesome because we sit between the big M&A folks within our industry – the Aons, the HUBs, the Gallaghers, the Marshes, who are gobbling people up – and the smaller-town agents that are independent.
I like to say that we're a big-small company – we're nimble, we're fast, but we are maniacally focused on our agents taking care of our clients, and then Robertson Ryan as a firm takes care of everything else on behalf of the agents. All they need to do is take care of their clients every day and grow their business, so I think you'll see that being even more of a focus, and you'll see more growth coming out of the pandemic. As people get back to business, independent agents are going to be forced with the decision of, do they go it alone, do they sell out to a bigger aggregator, or do they join an organization like Robertson Ryan that offers the best of both worlds?
About Robertson Ryan & Associates
Robertson Ryan & Associates was founded more than 60 years ago by A.D. Robertson and Jack T. Ryan a unique model where each agent owns their book of business, which has made client service and satisfaction a key priority. Today, the agency offers solutions across business, personal and benefits insurance, assisting more than 40,000 clients in all industries. It has twice been named an Elite Agency by IBA.