By Michael J. Whitlock
It was the early 1990s and Underwriters Surety, Inc. now had a big sister, American Surety Company, an all-lines Property & Casualty carrier. ASC had begun its career licensed in one state, California, but was adding new states every year. Production during this period was split between direct business written through ASC and business written through USI’s bail program contracts with other surety companies. Colloquially, we referred to the company as ASC-USI.
Contentment is the enemy of success, and I was anything but content in 1994. During this time, I was managing the Claims and Underwriting Departments and continuing my travels around the country conducting routine audits and troubleshooting. I still was not satisfied, I wanted to increase my value to the company. I was ambitious.
I recall my dad telling me when I was still a teenager, sales are where you want to be son. Bringing in revenue is critical to any company’s success not to mention survival. Continuing to bring on new bail agents would be essential for ASC-USI’s growth. Knowing this, I saw an opportunity.
With Jack devoting a significant amount of time working on behalf of the bail industry as chair of NABIC, I saw an opening to add agent recruiting to my responsibilities. After some pestering, Jack gave me his blessing to sign agents. Jack attracted prospects through the company’s reputation and his own. He did not do any traditional marketing. I was still building my name in the industry, so I would have to employ some marketing tools if I were to attract new business. There was one minor problem, I had limited experience in marketing and none in sales, I knew our product, the rest I could learn as I went.
My first effort at a marketing piece was to create a tri-fold mailer using a word processing template, it was not going to win any awards. Our agency force in Colorado was light, so that is where I started my campaign. Within a week of mailing out a flyer, I took a call from my first prospect who I eventually signed to a contract. I would sign as many as five agents from that one flyer. Wow! That seemed too easy. I would soon learn, signing an agent is easy, signing the right agent requires a lot more expertise.
Underwriting a prospective bail agent and a bail bond are similar in nature. Both pose a financial risk, so asking the right questions can save you thousands of dollars in the future. I knew from working in a bail bond office, a prospect would need at least two years of experience unless they could demonstrate a work history in either the insurance or criminal justice field. They also needed to demonstrate financial stability and the ability to cover losses should they occur. Bail is a risk business, and some agents are more risk averse than others, and some have eyes bigger th
an their wallets. One bad underwriting decision can put a bail agent out of business and has. The bail bond business is not for the faint of heart.
I continued to improve my marketing skills overtime. One thing I learned early on, receiving ten to fifteen calls from a mailing of 1500 marketing items, is perfectly acceptable, particularly if you sign even one prospect. The revenue generated by signing that one new agent can fund an entire campaign. I would go on to sign several agents over the next few years, most were good, some not so good. The responsibility of signing new agents came with the onus of firing bail agents who fell out of compliance. Terminating a contract is never easy but there was no hesitation if the situation warranted it.
As a company we have always given back to the industry. Jack Whitlock and Bill Carmichael were heavily involved with NABIC, and I wanted to contribute something
as well. In May 1996, I produced ASC-USI’s first newsletter, The ASC Bulletin. It was six pages and initially sent to only agents writing for ASC-USI. I soon saw our newsletter for the marketing opportunity it was. We expanded the content to twenty-four pages and sent it to all bail agents on our mailing list, as many as eight thousand. We were careful to produce a newsletter that was industry specific, informative, and positive in nature.
The printed version of our newsletter would have a ten-year run. It was expensive to produce, print and mail. Bill Carmichael, in only a way a boss could suggest, said, “could we save some money going to an e-newsletter”? And that was the end of that. In early 2007, we produced our first e-newsletter. Emailing was a tenth of the cost of printing and each issue could be produced quicker and more often. It was the smart play.
With this change in format was born, Where in the World is Mike Whitlock, a blog about my travels around the country meeting with bail agents, attending conferences and so on. I subscribed to the adage, a picture says a thousand words, so I tried to include photos in every edition. Some of our staff would kid about always including a picture of myself in each issue. I did this for a good reason. I attend a lot of state association and national association meetings. It made it possible for people to approach me because they recognized my picture, usually with the comment, where in the world is Mike Whitlock? Branding.
As a company, we have general policy of soliciting agents at conferences or door to door. ASC-USI attracts business through various marketing efforts, referrals, participating in state and national association conferences and the company’s direct efforts through its membership in NABIC to preserve the right to bail. People want to be affiliated with a company that has empirical knowledge of the bail business and a history of giving back to the industry. Creating this environment and persona was the vision of Jack and Bill, the principals of ASC-USI. I just wanted to do my part to help the company continue its successful path.
By the end of the decade, Jack and Bill directed me to hand over the management of Underwriting and Claims to someone else allowing me to work full-time on agent relations, recruiting and marketing. They considered it a promotion and it was, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow. I really enjoyed running both of those departments. I thought I could do it all. It was the right decision, of course.
The early years of Y2K would bring a big retirement, new responsibilities, introduction to legislation and a slice of the pie. To be continued..