Ray Thomas on the property/casualty industry: “Boring.”
Ray Thomas on executives in that industry: “Dour.”
Behind the quips is a guy singlehandedly defying those descriptions. The Baltimore-based CEO of Zurich North America — Small Business, Thomas says that when he considered how different those distributing property/casualty products (independent agents) were from those manufacturing the products (insurance companies), something clicked for him. “Independent agents are sales machines,” he says. It struck him that his company ought to take a more sales-oriented approach to its relationship with those agents.
So, like any salesman worth his salt, Thomas hit the pavement. In 1998 he traveled to dozens of cities, meeting with thousands of independent agents. He launched the road trip with a specific goal: to sell agents on the Internet. But he ended up doing a lot more. Beyond just getting agents online, Thomas got them jazzed about Zurich — and it showed in sales.
IN YOUR FACE
Thus the Rally Tour was born. It has evolved into a biennial, 45-city gig that is so full of hoopla and content that it works to both motivate and educate. You've got someone wandering around dressed up as the grinning mascot ZETA, you've got the heart-pounding welcome music, you've got the tchotchkes. But then you've got a CEO shaking your hand, giving you his business card, and sharing the state of industry affairs as seen from the executive suite. It has proven to be a powerful combination.
“I would emphasize that these events are uncharacteristic of the property/casualty industry,” says Thomas. “I believe we're helping to raise the self-esteem of agents so that they know more about how they contribute to free-market enterprise in the U.S. We take a stoic industry and make it adventurous and exciting.” Not a small goal. But ask agents and they say it works.
“The spirit of Zurich is Ray Thomas,” says George Nozick of the Manning and Nozick Insurance Agency in Atlanta, who has attended three rallies. “Nobody has his charisma and style. He's in your face, he remembers you. We've grown with Zurich in volume at a quicker rate than any other company we do business with.”
In fact, says Thomas, during the Rally Tour, which starts right after Labor Day and runs through January, “we can see an incredible lift in our top line. It's an immediate effect.”
Nozick credits Thomas and the fact that his client-centered, “old school” approach to business trickles down to employees throughout the organization. But he also gives a lot of credit to the company, its products, and the ease of its Internet-based system for servicing clients. “Zurich is our first choice because of the system,” Nozick says. “It's so user-friendly and they're always expanding their availability and classes of business to write.”
ZNA — Small Business provides coverage for small business in the retail, wholesale, office, institutional, and manufacturing fields, as well as residential and commercial builders risk.
At each stop, Thomas keeps his ear to the ground by holding an invitation-only breakfast and asking questions. All of the conversation is duly recorded. “It's an incredibly good grassroots feedback system,” Thomas says. “It's amazing how precise it allows me to be in my decision-making back in the office.”
Shelly Diegel, vice president, distribution, offers an example of how opening lines of communication to the CEO can lead to improved relationships with agents and mutual business growth. Following one Midwest rally stop, an e-mail came in from a distributor who said he had some challenges doing business with Zurich because, though he had locations in 22 states, Zurich looked at each of those offices as individual operations. “We immediately put a relationship manager on that business and recognized that this distributor represented a significant amount of business for us,” Diegel says. “Now the relationship has flourished. We've seen some nice growth numbers there.”
THE MAIN EVENT
Each rally stop finds several hundred agents filing in, with balloons, music, and a mascot or two creating an exciting atmosphere. A local manager kicks things off with a welcome presentation at 9 a.m. He's followed by a Zone Vice President who offers up a “report card” on the company, stating whether or not Zurich has made good on its promises from the previous rally.
Then Ray Thomas, the headliner, steps up and gives a “state of the union” address. “They don't see the macro view very often,” Thomas explains. “They are very smart and they want to know, for example, what is happening when there are four hurricanes. How does that translate to me and my business? There has been a high insolvency rate for insurance companies in the past ten years. When that happens it's an incredible inconvenience to agents and the customers they represent. But hope springs eternal. When we send an accurate picture of the industry, it gives agents cause for optimism.”
After his talk, Thomas gets into the middle of the crowd and opens himself up to questions, occasionally tossing trinkets to agents who speak up. “That's part of the excitement for me,” he says. “It forces me to be very prepared. You don't see many CEOs traveling and certainly not talking to agent groups.”
People like George Nozick clearly appreciate it. “It's tremendous,” he says. “It's great for the industry. It's a shot in the arm. I've been doing this for 40-plus years and I still get excited to come to work.” Nozick describes his agency as a mom-and-pop shop doing business the old-fashioned way — the way he believes Thomas does business.
“He's inspirational and captivating,” says VP Diegel. “These rallies are very high-level and very much appreciated by our distributors.” And for Zurich, she adds, “they are strategically focused on driving sales and increasing awareness. We definitely see a spike in sales” following the Rally Tour.
PACKING THE HOUSE
“Our field folks are encouraged to drive as much participation as they can among the 11,000 agents that distribute our products so that everyone hears the same message, understands our strategy, and is marching to the same beat,” Diegel adds. “During the last Rally Tour, we hit 7,500 of the 11,000.”
To promote the events, Zurich sends out invitations, uses its Web site, creates e-mails for local managers to use for their agents, and sends a blast fax to non-respondents. Then they go one step further, conducting a “telethon,” where local staff and the sales support team in Baltimore make calls to potential attendees.
In addition to reaching nearly 70 percent of the agents who do business with ZNA — Small Business, Thomas uses the Rally Tour to stay connected to his own company. Following the morning presentations, Thomas gathers with the Zurich ranks. “I have lunch with every single local employee,” he notes. “We really lift the spirits of our own people when we do this. Our field feels as though they're getting direct support from the top. So we win three ways: with the agents, with our field, and with our zone vice presidents.”
Mapping the Madness
JOYCE THOMAS, who has been married to Zurich North America — Small Business CEO Ray Thomas for 33 years, calls her husband a “rock star.”
The description is both hilarious (Thomas is an insurance guy in a suit) and apt (he goes on tour and fans cheer him in city after city). “He just loves the business so much,” Joyce Thomas says. “He likes to be out and seeing the people he works with.”
While he's out, his wife is home pushing pins in a foamboard map to keep track of him. She started doing it for herself three years ago; now the whole series is framed and displayed in the office lobby. “It's great for them to see how much they do in four months,” she says.
The last tour took Thomas from Seattle to Phoenix to Pewaukee, Wis. It's a grueling schedule for a guy who had heart surgery four years ago. Ray Thomas recalls, “I asked my cardiologist, ‘Can I continue to go on these rallies?’” He said, ‘Ray, you gotta do what you gotta do.’”
If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Cleveland
THE RAMP-UP to the biennial Zurich North America — Small Business Rally Tour begins 9 to 12 months before tour headliner Ray Thomas, the company's CEO, steps into the first hotel meeting room.
Thomas works with a team comprised of members from field operations, sales and, and marketing communications to brainstorm a theme and objectives for each tour, says Shelly Diegel, vice president, distribution. “We put a lot of time into developing what we want to say.” The group is currently working on a theme for the next Rally Tour, which starts in September.
Zone vice presidents work with the home office to select the rally cities. “About 75 percent of the cities are the same,” Diegel says. “It depends on our growth strategy.” For example, four cities in Texas were included in the last Rally Tour. This time around, Thomas will make six or seven stops in the Lone Star State.
Then the Baltimore-based conference planning team, headed by Ilene McCoy, works with local managers to identify the exact venues for the events — nearly always hotel meeting rooms. The tour stops are essentially day meetings, with possibly a handful of far-flung attendees booking a room, which makestough, McCoy notes. “As soon as the calendar is confirmed, we start calling,” she says. “But for a meeting of 300 people, we're booking 25 rooms.” Sometimes properties won't even enter into a with them until 30 or 60 days out, in which case McCoy may go to a second-choice property. Occasionally, she can play the two off one another. “You have to get creative,” Diegel says.
McCoy adds, “We've learned to look for the hidden extras when a hotel sends us the banquet event order. And we've learned to ask for what we want. Whenever possible we use our numbers and past experience with the venue as leverage.”
A planner and an AV manager travel from city to city with Thomas and two sets of AV equipment. “We leapfrog the equipment to stay with ground transportation as often as we can,” Diegel says. “We can't afford airport delays — a show with no equipment would be a disaster. And, knock on wood, in 7 years it's never happened.”
They're a determined team: When thunderstorms threaten airports, they hit the highway. The show must go on.