Everyone says that now is the time to transition from a captive agency to an independent one, but we wanted to examine what that process looked like and why captive agents are looking to switch so quickly. Our Communications Supervisor Madeline Smith sat down with Agency Principal Eric Ash (Eric L. Ash Agency) to discuss his experience being a captive agent and what ultimately made him switch to the independent channel.
So how did you get started in insurance?
When I graduated from college in May 1999, I began my almost 15-year career in advertising, rising from an intern to Director of Public Relations & Social Media. In October 2013, my job was eliminated due to downsizing of the agency. At that time, I decided to start chapter 2.0 of my career and turned to insurance.
What made you pivot towards insurance? One of the main reasons was I had gotten a degree in Marketing and Communications, so I wanted a profession that allowed me to utilize my skillset. When I was eliminated in 2013, I was looking at becoming either a real estate agent or going into insurance because I thought those would allow me to market my own brand, Eric L Ash Agency. And I think I gravitated towards insurance because it was more of a 9-to-5 and at the time my daughter was four and going into kindergarten so that’s where that flexibility came into play.
What sparked your passion?
For the past 15 years, I had been putting together marketing plans for clients so now the shoe was on the other foot. I would be building and marketing my own brand. Before I worked in marketing, I had various retail jobs dealing with the public so I knew insurance wouldn’t be much of a stretch given my skillset.
So you’re saying that the personalized marketing aspect is what really drew you to insurance, but did it instantly spark your passion or did that come later? I think I didn’t know what I was getting into, I started in the captive world so I got my feet wet on that side. I think it was scary, I had never been a small business owner and I had never been licensed before, but I think starting as a captive and building that confidence is what set us up to be successful.
Why did you start out in the captive channel; what about it appealed to you?
I decided to join the captive channel for numerous reasons. I was new to being a small business owner, I had no previous experience in insurance, the cost of entry was pretty minimal, and there were turnkey marketing programs in place.
Could you talk to me about the turnkey marketing programs were in place? In hindsight, a lot of the marketing plans were already put together both on traditional media and digital space which took the guesswork out of marketing and allowed us to not have to spend as much time on marketing. It gave us the ability to focus on learning about insurance.
It seems like you were able to navigate those waters of what was already constructed. What has been the difference between the marketing support you receive now versus when you were captive? The main difference is the webinars [that] ASNOA and the carriers host have been very helpful to take away tidbits to develop our marketing efforts. Really it’s been invaluable, to make sure we are continuing to grow in our local community.
Let’s get into why you transitioned.
How long were you a captive agent? I was captive a little over 5 years.
And when did you notice your feelings towards your work start to change? In the spring of 2019, I received a five-year accommodation from my captive carrier. For me, it was a moment of self-introspection to look back on the five years and the success we had. It was also a time to reflect forward over the next five years and I realized a lot had changed in the captive world over the last 2-3 years. It felt like we were playing a game of monopoly and our captive was the banker who was constantly changing the rules so we couldn’t win. So I told my wife I wanted to “blow up the insurance business” as I had known it over the last five years and start again. I was fortunate enough to have her as a support system while I figured out my career and where I wanted to go.
Can you give me an example of your captive changing the rules? During our time being captive, we witnessed on a regular basis rate hikes every six months, reductions in overall commissions, etc. When it came time for renewals, I asked myself “If I’m not comfortable as the principal making those calls, how can I put my employees in that same situation time and again,” that’s just not fair. Unfortunately, we were less and less in control of our own destiny in the insurance business, and it was time to make a move.
When did you first learn about independent insurance agents? Where did you first hear the term?
Over the course of my five years in the captive world, our agency really stood out. For our captive carrier, we were one of the top ten agents in Western Pennsylvania. That meant that we would get solicitation calls from independent groups trying to recruit our agency. At the time I was thinking about my future, I had just received a postcard from ASNOA—just this serendipitous moment—so I picked up the phone and had that initial conversation with Kevin. The postcard had a bunch of carrier logos on it and to me, as a captive, that was super exciting because we would be able to work with multiple carriers and not have to compromise our relationships with our customers due to limited options.
Did you have any hesitations towards becoming independent? I would say the biggest challenges were starting as a scratch agent again as well as making the cash flow work. Non-competes were also scary, but what dissolved that fear was in that 90-day resignation window, ASNOA provides a checklist of what we had to do to get ready to hit the ground running. I had some good conversations with my wife as well as my staff. After those discussions, it only made sense to go down the independent path.
So that checklist ASNOA provided alleviated those hesitations? Absolutely. While there were still hesitations around stuff, that checklist allowed us to focus and hit the ground running which to me was important to be efficient in writing business.
What did you know about support networks like ASNOA prior to joining one? To be honest, I did not know much. As I started to research and speak with some of the networks, ASNOA aligned most closely with my philosophical approach to the business of helping to educate the customer, identify gaps in coverage, and provide the best customer experience.
Can you explain what you mean when you say ASNOA aligned most with your philosophical approach? The open communication has helped us keep our clients in the loop which makes for an easier customer experience, and I think the tips in the ASNOA trainings and Marketing communications contribute to that. Weekly sessions with Anissa (Assistant Manager of Education and Coordinator) and the Marketing workshops—it all allows you to stay fresh. [They] help us stay educated and to also educate our customers.
Describe your process from being captive to becoming independent. Did you have any hiccups or difficulties making the transition?
Between bringing 100% of my staff with me and working with ASNOA, the transition was exceptionally smooth and without any major hiccups. It was important for me to get [my staffs’] buy-in because it’s a lot of heavy lifting. We had weekly meetings with complete transparency, so they knew where my head was at. It’s a lot of work, but I can honestly say that after a year and a half, the grass is greener on the other side. The opportunities are so much more, the close rates are so much higher, and the support we get, [such as] the one-on-ones with ASNOA, help us be more efficient in our day-to-day.
Tell me about your onboarding, were you surprised by any steps in the transition process? No, nothing surprised me or my staff. We knew it would be some heavy lifting during the three-month transition before we could write our first policy. But that time allowed us to be prepared when we launched our independent agency in August 2019. Again, going back to that checklist ASNOA provided, we really were able to focus on getting stuff done before we launched.
What have you gotten involved in with ASNOA? Any trainings, workshops, forums, etc. that have been helpful ongoing education?
We’ve actively participated in the Small Business Commercial Lines training workshop with Kathy, attended many Live with Laura webinars, continued training with Anissa, and utilized the ASNOA Private Facebook group, as well as workshops from the Marketing team.
Let’s talk about your most memorable moment as an agency owner.
What is a goal you accomplished or a major milestone your agency hit? So I get excited about two things in the insurance business:
- Providing the best customer experience bar none especially by protecting our customers through all of our insurance product offerings
- And as a staff, we enjoy being a part of the community by giving back and lending a hand.
Being independent has really helped us prioritize and accomplish both of those goals every day.
Finally, what advice do you have for captive agents looking for a change?
Ultimately, the numbers have to work for you to make the independent transition. I can honestly say the grass is much greener on the independent side, but it’s not without sweat equity. You have to want to grow and want to be successful, so you have to be a go-getter who’s willing to put in the work. Being part of a network like ASNOA has helped immensely through not just the services they provide but the mentoring, and I am happy to mentor and give advice to other agents. It’s about how we work together to get to where we want to go which is something that I was happy to see and experience being a part of the ASNOA group.
The Eric L. Ash Agency was founded in 2014 and joined ASNOA in 2019. The agency has grown into one of the top insurance agencies in Western Pennsylvania. Visit their website at EricLAsh.com to learn more about their journey.
Want to hear more from other agents? Check out Confessions of an Ex-Farmers Agent and Interview with the Mastersons!