400 Under 40: Joe Vens of First MainStreet Insurance

How did you get into insurance?

I was born into the insurance business. My grandfather, father, uncles, aunts, and multiple cousins are all in the industry. My grandfather started an insurance agency in my hometown of Clinton, Iowa, in 1963. When I was young, my father joined that agency, and his brother, my uncle, joined shortly after. The two of them still run the agency today.

What area of insurance do you focus on?

First MainStreet Insurance is based in Cedar Rapids and has agency offices all around Iowa. We write all lines of coverage: property and casualty, commercial lines, personal lines, employee benefits, etc.

I am the Lead Advisor with our Public Entity Specialty Group, which focuses on risk management and insurance for cities, counties, school districts, and other municipality-related organizations across the state. Most of my time is spent calling on prospective clients in that space and working with our current book of business to help put them in the best position possible from a risk management standpoint.

How does your agency differ from others?

Our business model is unique. First MainStreet was created because there is a perpetuation issue in the state of Iowa for independent insurance agencies in smaller communities. If you own an insurance agency in a small to midsize community and don’t have a continuation plan with a family member or junior partner(s), you may have a tough time transitioning your business in a way that isn’t selling the book to a large organization out of Chicago or a comparable metropolitan area.

When this happens, most jobs within the agency are eliminated over time and clients who had been served locally are now served by a 1-800 number. Our organization allows agency owners to transition into retirement in a way that is beneficial for them, their employees, and their clients. We work with over 20 agencies in Iowa, each of which operates under their original name or brand. This creates a fun set of challenges and opportunities in working with our clients across the agency.

How do you approach prospecting?

When I’m prospecting a school district, county, or city, I’ll typically partner with one of our offices near that prospect. Most public entities in Iowa have to make one of two choices: 1) Work with their local insurance agency that has a pulse on the community but may not have all the resources they desire, or 2) Work with a “big-box” agency out of a larger metro that doesn’t know the community but has all the tools and insurance markets needed.

Our platform gives those in the public entity arena the ability to have the best of both worlds—they’re still serviced by and generating revenue for people in the local community but from an agency with the expertise, market access, and tools they need from a risk management and insurance standpoint.

How do you go about quoting and placing business?

We have a four-step process that we call the First MainStreet Experience:

  1. Discovery 
  2. Planning 
  3. Implementation
  4. Relationship Management

We’ll typically do discovery with the insured to see where they are and where they are looking to go. We present a plan for how we intend to help them get from A to Z. When the plan is agreed to, we engage and begin to implement the plan. This is all prior to quoting. We want to understand if we’re a good fit and vice versa. Assuming we are, we gather information, figure out which of our insurance company partners fits the risk, and then place the coverage with them.

How do you deal with claims and account servicing?

Part of our discovery framework is understanding how clients want claims managed and what level of involvement they want from their agent or agency partner. Complex accounts like a city, county, or school district will have a greater frequency of claims. We might set up a quarterly meeting that includes a claims management discussion.

Going through a full discovery process and managing the account based on the terms set forth on the front end helps us ensure we’re staying in line with what everyone agreed to. We intentionally focus on more complex risks because they justify us being more intentional with account management strategy and servicing the needs of the client.

What technology and types of marketing do you use?

We utilize Applied Epic as our AMS, and we have access to Zywave, which we find great value in. We also utilize our carrier partners’ websites and the services they provide.

In a previous role, I was big into digital marketing, using email campaigns and touch points that weren’t necessarily a drop-in or a phone call to create familiarity. In this role, we are starting to build out a more sizeable marketing effort and deciding whether to rely more on the First MainStreet brand or focus more on local agency branding.

How do you build relationships with carriers?

In my area of expertise, there aren’t 50 different insurers writing business. The public entity space in Iowa has limited insurance carrier options. Because of this, we can focus on the five to 10 main players in the space. It’s important to keep carriers informed of prospective business and acknowledge those on the carrier team who helped win an account. We are intentional about doing so.

What advice do you have for new producers just entering the industry?

I have become a big believer in specialization. When I first started in insurance, I did all lines and worked with anybody: personal lines to manufacturing, contracting to retail, healthcare to municipalities.

Having an intentional focus allows you to become an industry expert. There’s so much to comprehend in risk management and insurance. If you’re not focused on specific areas, it’s difficult for you to be viewed differently than any other independent insurance agent. If you focus on everything, you focus on nothing.

Also, a sizable portion of the agents who have found success in their careers are nearing retirement. This industry needs new, young leaders to serve in it. Now is a great time for any younger producer to identify ways they can provide value to clients in a particular space, and get out to create conversations with those prospective clients around that. The opportunity is certainly there.

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