With decades of experience in the insurance industry, Tom Fliege has some good advice about choosing the right agency for you—and it doesn’t involve having an in-law in the business. “The industry is extremely complex and is becoming more so every day. As a result, the person or agency you choose to represent your interests is very important. There’s a wide variation in skill, training, and experience among insurance professionals. Ask tough questions. Expect high quality. Details matter. It makes a huge difference in how safe you are and how well your needs are met. Don’t settle for the guy on the corner—or your brother-in-law—if he’s not passionate about and committed to being an insurance professional of the highest caliber.”
Fliege, owner of Hawk Agency, Inc., bought the 77-year-old company in 2003 after spending most of his career in the insurance industry—including long stints at Hawk Agency and Farmers Insurance Group. A Peoria native, he attended Concordia Lutheran and Peoria Central before earning a business administration degree from Valparaiso University.
Fliege and his wife, Cheryl, have two children.
Tell us about your background, schools, attended, family, etc.
I’m a hometown boy. I was born and raised in Peoria and grew up on Margaret Avenue. I attended Concordia Lutheran, Peoria Central, and graduated from Valparaiso University with a Bachelor of Science in business administration. I’d started in engineering like my two older brothers, but became interested in business and changed majors. I’ve always loved business; it’s one of my passions.
My father was plant superintendent at Peoria Coca-Cola for 53 years, where I had my first job. I began working there as soon as I could get a work permit at age 13 and worked there every Saturday, school holiday, and summer vacation all the way through college.
My wife, Cheryl, an associate vice president at Illinois Central College, and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Our daughter, Abbey, graduated from the University of Illinois (Springfield) last spring, and our son, Andy, will graduate from the University of Iowa next spring.
Tell how you became involved in the insurance business.
I had a number of jobs while at college, including building houses. After graduating from Valparaiso, I came back to Peoria and started a small construction firm, building houses with two partners in 1977. We were just getting established when, in 1979-1980, the mortgage rates went over 20 percent, and there were billboards asking “Will the last person out of Peoria turn out the lights?” At that time, I’d begun dating Cheryl and was thinking about settling down. One client was a district manager for one of the largest captive insurance carriers in the nation and convinced me to change careers.
I became an agent for Farmers Insurance Group in 1980 and married Cheryl in 1981. She’d given birth to Abbey in 1982 and was pregnant with Andy in 1984, when Farmers asked me to become the youngest of 525 district managers in the country. It was a difficult decision because it required a move to Milwaukee. I’ve always loved Peoria, but this offer would pay me as much as Cheryl and I were making together. Since she was about to be a working mother with two children under two years, we took the position. I was very successful in Milwaukee but really missed Peoria. When the same slot became available here a few years later, I asked for it, and with some reluctance, Farmers gave me the opportunity to return home. I stayed with Farmers for four more years, but by 1990, I’d done all I could with personal lines and felt handcuffed by the captive insurer format.
It was then that I interviewed with Jim Grube, owner of Hawk Agency, Inc. Hawk Agency was—and remains today—an independent agency representing its clients to many different insurance carriers. As such, Hawk wasn’t constrained by the captive format. About 80 percent of Hawk’s business mix was middle to large commercial clients. I’d taught some commercial insurance as a district manager with Farmers, but it was pretty limited to small package policies for very similar type risks. When I joined Hawk, I got the opportunity to work on larger, more complex accounts utilizing multiple insurance carriers to get the best combination of coverage and price.
Because I love business, I’m the kind of guy who drives down the street looking at businesses wondering how they do what they do, what their sales and payrolls are, and what their scope of operations and future potentials are. This career allows me to contact businesses, tell them what we can do for them, and then ask all of those questions. It’s like being a kid going on a field trip whenever you wish.
Working larger commercial accounts means I work mostly with CFOs and CEOs. As a big Peoria fan, I’ve been very privileged to work with some of our area’s best and brightest businesspeople. Later in my career, I began working regionally. From that experience, I can tell you central Illinois has some of the finest, hardest working people in the country. I’m very proud to call Peoria home.
Tell about Hawk Agency: the history, current products and services, number of employees, etc.
Hawk Agency was founded in 1929 by Frank H. Hawk. In addition to starting the agency, Frank Hawk’s legacy was one of outstanding insurance knowledge. His son, Jim Hawk, took over the reigns upon his father’s death in 1976. Jim coordinated his insurance career with one of U.S. Army service, in which he retired as a Brigadier General. He built on his father’s legacy with unmatched integrity and honesty, for which Jim Hawk was known and admired. Jim’s son-in-law, Jim Grube, bought the agency in 1981 and added excellence in professionalism and information technology, moving the agency smoothly into the computer age.
I joined the agency in 1990 as a commercial producer. My first office was actually the dead file room. They also kept the copier in there, and it made things interesting when people would come into my “office” to make a copy while I was on the phone, trying to build a book of business. I was made sales manager in 1995, vice president in 1999, and president and chief operating officer in 2001. When I bought the agency in 2003, we were two years into implementing a culture change designed to bring us to a level of customer service that builds long-term relationships with our clients. Our mission statement: “To create and continue relationships with clients who are so pleased with Hawk Agency that they are not just clients, but rather advocates.”
Today, Hawk Agency prides itself on Frank Hawk’s expertise, Jim Hawk’s integrity, Jim Grube’s professionalism, and our unique value-added services, with which we seek to differentiate from our competition. Our goal is to so over-deliver on the service component—to make deposits in our relationships with clients, if you will—that we eventually can earn a withdrawal in the form of a referral or introduction to a business peer who operates as fine a business as that client. “Differentiate and Replicate” is more than just a plaque on the wall at Hawk Agency.
I’m very fortunate to work every day with some of the finest people in the insurance industry. I’m proudest of the unmatched level of insurance expertise and commitment to excellence that Hawk Agency’s employees demonstrate routinely.
In the past four years, we’ve tripled our premium writings and doubled our revenues, while slimming down from 26 to 19 employees. That’s been accomplished while simultaneously raising our value-added services component to an extraordinary level. Today we can, and do, provide services to our clients that one doesn’t usually see in a local insurance agency. I believe this focus will best position Hawk Agency for continued vertical growth in the years ahead.
Hawk Agency provides insurance for commercial, personal, employee benefits, and financial services exposures. The largest of those departments is commercial, which includes small, medium, and large businesses. About half of what we do in this arena is “generalist” in nature. In other words, we insure various types of businesses in the central Illinois area. However, over the past several years, we’ve experienced the most growth in one of our niches—moving and storage agencies.
Although we’d worked in the moving and storage niche since 1974, about six years ago we developed a special program with one of our insurance carriers, General Casualty. I’ve been fortunate to combine this business initiative with one of my other passions—flying. As a multi-engine instrument pilot, I’ve been able to use our corporate aircraft to establish us as a regional agency for moving and storage agencies. I fly more than 150 hours per year, on average, for business. Today we insure more than 85 movers throughout the Midwest.
How has the insurance business changed since you’ve been in the industry?
The insurance industry has gone through its normal cycles: soft market and hard market, expand and contract, centralize and decentralize. The impact of technology and the Internet has made us far more efficient and given us access to resources previously unimagined. But, in general, the insurance industry is still about technical expertise, price sensitivity, and, of course, the service component.
There were many doomsayers in the late 1980s and early 1990s predicting the death of the independent insurance agency due to the advent of the Internet and banks being allowed to sell insurance. But the reality is we’re stronger than ever. The ability to properly risk manage a client’s exposures, match that client to the best insurance carrier for their needs, then provide an outstanding service component is what has kept us growing while others haven’t.
Is it difficult to sell to Generations X and Y? To recruit from those generations?
Most businesses are still owned and managed by people 40 to 65 years old—people whose formative years didn’t include computers and the Internet. However, personal lines (auto and homeowners) now lends itself to a younger buyer who’s more computer-savvy and has the ability to shop and compare via the Internet. Despite that, no matter what their age, today’s insurance buyer continues to look not only for price, but also expertise and service.
Recruiting from the younger generation is challenging because these professionals expect a very stable career path. They’re more used to a stable environment than earlier generations. That isn’t to say they have no entrepreneurial spirit. However, their expectations, in terms of assurances, are definitely higher than in the past. I’m very encouraged by the quality of all the young people in the early stages of their careers. They’re smart, and they work hard to perfect their craft.
How would you mentor someone just getting into the insurance business?
For a young commercial insurance producer, I’d advise several years of sales experience in other industries before entering ours. Exposure to many types of businesses provides a wide background in preparation for a time when risk-managing those businesses will demand a broad knowledge of what those businesses face and how they operate. Next, I’d advise a young insurance professional to consider his first three years in the business to be similar to law school—a time of specific preparation and training for a career during which one continuously perfects his knowledge and expertise.
It is a truism that, unless you grow up in an insurance family, no one ever says as a child, “Someday I’m going to grow up to be an insurance agent.” But no matter how you’re drawn into it, insurance is one of the most fascinating of all careers. It requires not only technical expertise in a very demanding field, but a working knowledge of many other industries as well. Whether you’re on the agency side as a producer, the carrier side as an underwriter, or a claims or loss control specialist, you’ll be exposed to the entire spectrum of business in one way or another.
What are the success factors in the insurance industry?
That depends on what role you choose. Success factors in sales are widely different from those of underwriters, for example. One of the fascinating things about the industry is that there’s a place for every personality type.
However, some common success factors would be integrity, patience, and the ability to multitask. Integrity is pivotal because many insurance consumers don’t understand the technicalities of insurance and often are suspicious of what they don’t understand. As a result, the consumer must believe in the integrity of the person with whom they’re dealing.
Patience is a must because insurance often comes into play only when something bad has happened to someone. This is a time when people aren’t at their best. An insurance professional has to understand this and allow for a significant amount of angst when dealing with clients following a loss.
Multitasking has become a necessity. The pace of business in the U.S. today is so fast that a person has to be able to juggle many balls at once. The Internet, e-mail, voice mail, etc., have given us an environment in which we must be able to shift our focus from task to task quickly and efficiently without missing the details that are so important.
Talk about the awards you received recently.
My recent accomplishments have been primarily in the areas of insurance sales production and education. As both agency owner and a commercial insurance producer at Hawk, I believe I can’t ask others to accomplish what I haven’t. During my career with Farmers, I won some 56 production awards. At Hawk there have been many Agent of Month, Quarter, and Year awards. I have a passion for excellence, and I’m more than just a little competitive.
But as an Officer Candidate in the Marine Corps, they taught me that “proper preparation prevents poor performance.” To that end, in my 15 years at Hawk, I’ve achieved professional designations as a Certified Insurance Counselor, an Associate in Risk Management, a Certified Work Comp Advisor, and a Certified Risk Manager. I’m proud to say it’s part of our culture at Hawk that every employee is working toward at least one professional designation.
As a pilot, I’ve added Multi-Engine, High Altitude, High Performance, Retractable Gear, and Instrument ratings to my license. Last summer I passed 1,000 hours as Pilot in Command, which is a bit of a hallmark. I take a great deal of pride in being a good pilot. Obviously, people’s lives are in your hands when they fly with you. I don’t take that lightly. To be as safe as possible, I attend Airline Pilots Recurrency Training School regularly.
What misperceptions, if any, do people have regarding insurance coverage?
Most of the people I deal with personally are CFOs and CEOs, who are professionals and businesspeople in their own right. These are sophisticated buyers who understand insurance and look to us to work with their attorneys and CPAs to assure asset protection.
If there’s any misconception, I’d have to say it has to do with the stability of the insurance market. Insurance pricing and availability have an inverse relationship to the stock market. When the Dow was climbing to 12,000, it was the longest soft market in memory. Conversely, when the market fell back to 7,600 right after 9/11, the insurance market hardened quickly. Most people assume that as their risk factors remain the same, so should insurance pricing and availability. The fact is the marketplace is much more dynamic than that. IBI