Heath Ritenour did not set out on his career journey with plans to join the insurance business. But while still trying to decide which direction to follow, he spent a summer working at his parents’ company Insurance Office of America (IOA) and was instantly hooked.
“It opened my eyes to what a fantastic business this is,” he recalls.
Ritenour’s parents started IOA with a US$10,000 loan from a community bank in 1988. Now, 35 years later, the company still retains many of its foundational values.
“Our model is extremely different. We always say we’re different, in an industry of sameness,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Out of the top 100 insurance brokers in America, there’s really only three that are 100 percent owned from the inside, that don’t have private equity backing, that are not public companies or Wall Street firms.”
IOA is one of those three, and it was a legacy Ritenour was determined to protect. He became involved on the sales side before stepping up to CEO in 2008 – a tumultuous period across the globe. Even after all this time, he remembers that it was a difficult transition.
“I didn’t feel a lot of confidence in myself at the time with the economy being what it was,” he admits.
“Typically in a model like ours, or a brokerage like ours, you’ve got a few folks that sit at the top and get a piece of everyone’s commissions on a renewal basis. I was concerned about the macro economy, but I knew we couldn’t get greedy. So I really took over the role at the time based on preserving our model and I’m honored to say that has not changed.”
Since then, IOA has continued to blossom and it has done so “organically,” Ritenour explains proudly. When he first became CEO, the business was turning over around US$70 million, but this year, that has risen to US$280 million.
“With most of our peers, almost a majority of their growth comes from taking on leverage and buying and acquiring other firms,” he says. “For us, the difference between then and today has been organic growth. By finding good people and selling more insurance with the folks that we have, and recruiting and growing that way, rather than taking on debt to go and buy other businesses.”
It’s an approach that has positively impacted the company’s inner workings, setting it apart from the competition once again.
As more and more folks understand how unique and different we are, the model and our culture sells itself.
“Because our peers grow by acquisition, they typically will put people in the CEO role that maybe have never sold an insurance policy in their life, or even serviced insurance policies at a desk level,” Ritenour says.
Such people are often from a financial background, with solid knowledge of cost-cutting and how to get an adjusted EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) return. However they often have little experience of buying and servicing insurance, Ritenour notes.
“They don’t understand what our salespeople or our service people do on a daily basis,” he says. “I feel like our industry has a huge opportunity for folks that understand it from the inside out, that aren’t just coming from a financial background.”
This is one of the ways in which IOA excels, but getting that message out is part of the challenge.
“We have such a unique model, but I feel like we’re the best-kept secret in the country,” Ritenour reflects. “As more and more folks understand how unique and different we are, the model and our culture sells itself.”
Instead of focusing on the next quarter, IOA instead plans for the next quarter century – a luxury afforded it by its ownership structure.
“Because when you’re owned by private equity or Wall Street, if you don’t hit all of your numbers next quarter, your job’s at risk,” he says. “So you really have to have a short view, where we are blessed to have a long view.
My perfect version of a workforce is people are here because they want to be here. They’re not here because they feel held hostage to it.
“Even if in the macro-economy interest rates are rising, you get a little slowdown, we don’t have to live in the world where we have to overreact to those macro changes like many of our peers do.”
This longer-term view puts culture at front and center for IOA, with the company moving toward a hybrid model, particularly as the market for talent becomes increasingly competitive.
“My perfect version of a workforce is people are here because they want to be here. They’re not here because they feel held hostage to it,” Ritenour notes.
“It’s less about folks coming in to do their daily jobs. It’s more about them coming in a couple of days a week to connect, to transfer knowledge from those at the end of their career to those in the first or second quarter of their career because we’re a generational business.”
Another important focal point for IOA is its adoption of the latest technology amid an industry that tends to overlook such innovation.
“Our industry hasn’t changed an awful lot, since I got in the business in the mid-’90s,” Ritenour adds. “So it’s a big passion of ours to focus on operational excellence, technology, utilizing AI when it makes sense. We’re finding new ways to take down the clunky processes that have been in our space ever since I’ve joined the business. It’s a massive point of attention for us.”
A Good Sport
IOA’s dedicated sporting division continues to be an area of firm focus, with its partnerships with teams such as the NBA’s Orlando Magic proving to be a win–win. While IOA helps the organization to mitigate its risks, the team also helps to spread the company’s story.
“It has been a wonderful opportunity to partner with the Orlando Magic not just on the insurance side but also in the community,” Ritenour says. “The Orlando Magic Youth Foundation makes a big impact in our community here, and we participate with them to make impacts here locally in the community.”
Developments on this front include the implementation of an AI-powered platform to take care of policy checking, along with another technology designed to help populate Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development (ACORD) applications by pulling external data and populating it on IOA’s behalf. Ritenour expects these switches to substantially reduce the amount of input work carried out by his teams.
In a bid to come up to speed on the InsureTech front, IOA also has built a proprietary technology app, Simply IOA, which streamlines the application process for customers.
“Now with just a handful of data points, your name, your address and your date of birth, we’re able to pull a lot of the data,” Ritenour explains, adding that it’s already being used by the major insurance carriers.
“I think what the carrier partners love about us is the stability, the longevity, the future,” he ponders. “The mindset is long-term, and that they know that they’re going to be dealing with the same people and the same company with the same culture five years from now that they are today.”