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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 30, 2016 4 years ago

Insuring the future

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The next generation is making an impact as family-owned Key Agency expands.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Industry. Insurance Company. Key Agency Takeaway. Personalized service keeps nationwide agencies from poaching local customers.

David Dignam knows that a family-owned insurance agency like his is an anomaly these days.

“I'm always reading that this family agency got merged or bought up and that family agency went out of business because the kids had no interest,” he says. “I know several around here in that boat. But we can't even foresee that.”

That's because his 25-year-old son Brandon is already on board, becoming the fourth generation at Englewood-based Key Agency, which was started by Brandon's great-grandfather in 1952.

“I went to Florida Gulf Coast University, got my degree in business management, and came here two weeks after graduation,” Brandon Dignam says.

That strong succession plan coupled with Brandon's youthful enthusiasm and fresh ideas are helping Key Agency grow and expand. With branches in North Port and Boca Grande, the agency recently opened in the West Villages on the border of Venice and North Port.

“With North Port being one of the fastest growing communities in Florida, it was easy to make the decision that it was a place we wanted to do business in,” says Brandon Dignam.

Boca Grande brought a niche market that complemented the company's strengths, and West Villages offered a place with growth potential, he says. A new location plus a local economy and housing market on something of an upswing should help Key Agency meet its goal of 10% to 12% annual growth.

The agency also is eyeing markets like Naples, where it has relationships through its Boca Grande work.

“We've got this prototype of what a branch needs to be,” says David Dignam. “But we probably wouldn't be doing this expansion we're in the midst of if it wasn't for Brandon.”
Building a Business

After becoming enamored with the Englewood area and seeing its untapped potential, George Dignam bought land on Manasota Key and got into real estate. When he saw how real estate and insurance went hand in hand, he opened Key Agency in 1952.

George's son Tom joined the business in 1962. David then joined his father and grandfather at the family firm, and in the 1970s, the agency moved to the mainland in Englewood.

“Insurance isn't fun,” says David Dignam. “You can't eat it, you can't drink it, but you've got to have it. So we try to make the experience as best we can, and customer service is what we've got.”

That emphasis helps show clients the value of having an insurance agent.

“It's so easy to go to your phone and buy a faceless, nameless product,” says David Dignam. “But if something happens are you going to call the lizard or the caveman? No, you're going to call us, and we're going to walk you through a claim.”

The appeal of low-cost online options is something the agency has to fight. Competing based on price is one of the firm's toughest challenges. But years of experience help ensure the Key Agency has plenty to offer customers looking for personal and commercial insurance.

“We don't just shop one company for homeowners' insurance. We shop 15. That's our competitive edge.” says Brandon Dignam.

Having those resources to tap allows smaller agencies like the Dignams' to keep pace with the bigger guys.

“Outfits like Key Agency that are well run and specialized in what they do know their craft and work their relationships so they can get to a lot of the same products and markets to fill consumers' needs,” says Jeffrey W. Grady, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents (FAIA).

It also helps cement the firm's place in the region. “In smaller communities where these people are very well known, they have a lock on relationships with other business owners that buy insurance,” says FAIA's Grady. “And for the outsider, it's not easy to walk in that local guy's shoes.”

But that doesn't mean the outsiders aren't trying. Grady says bigger agencies are buying out smaller ones to gain scale.

“We have consolidation going on within the industry the likes of which I've not seen in my 18 years,” he says.

That's often due to the fact that the next generation doesn't want to take over from owners interested in retiring. But Grady sees other companies like Key Agency crafting solid succession plans.

“Despite this wave of consolidation, there will still be a lot of family-owned businesses,” he says. “I'm certain of it.”

At Key Agency, Brandon's wife, Amanda, handles social media for the firm. David's brother-in-law, Richard Edwards, runs the Boca Grande office while his sister, Leslie Edwards, heads up Key Realty, a separate entity located in the same Englewood building as the agency. And despite all the horror stories out there about family business squabbles, the Dignams have no complaints.

“I couldn't tell you a bad thing about it,” says Brandon Dignam. “We really are a unit, a team. Everyone gets along great. And as a family company, you kind of look out for all of the staff with a family mentality.”

They do admit it can be hard to get off the clock. Business discussions have taken place even during holidays. “We have to stop ourselves,” says David Dignam. “But we're trying to perfect it and make it better.”

Facing the Future
Like many other companies, it's not always easy for Key Agency to find the employees it needs as longtime employees retire and it expands. It seeks out referrals, does some headhunting and puts job postings at places like State College of Florida. It has found that candidates respond to the firm's strong benefits package, which includes gym memberships, a full retirement plan and a four-day workweek.

Today the company has a mix of experienced employees and younger staff.

“The new generation that we've hired is energetic,” says Brandon Dignam. “They're not afraid to face the changes we're experiencing. They're ready to tackle them. They're ready to compete.”

To assist firms like Key Agency find the talent they need, the FAIA lobbied for legislation in 2015 to align college courses with state licensing requirements. Students graduating with associate degrees in risk management and insurance from participating schools including State College of Florida and St. Petersburg College also earn some licenses needed to work in insurance.

“I'm thinking that because of this legislation we'll have 300 to 400 newly licensed folks in the next couple of years,” Grady says.

That's good news for Key Agency, which is making the most of the opportunity at the West Villages. The firm was recruited there by Dan McLeroy Jr. of Harry E. Robbins Associates, who's handling leasing for the West Villages Office Park.

“I pointed out the benefits of being at the West Villages and how it would advance their business by being in this growing area,” McLeroy says.

Key Agency is working with West Villages developers to produce material for prospective buyers outlining insurance costs for the different model homes, giving buyers a realistic picture of expenses.

“Anytime we can give a buyer information and resources they're going to be much more comfortable making the move,” says Sondra Guffey, marketing coordinator for the West Villages. “Key Agency is such a well-respected and admired company in this area. We're very pleased that they chose to come to the West Villages. They're just the kind of business that we want out here.”

The Dignams know all good things can come to an end, whether it's the economic upswing the area's enjoying right now or the state's long stretch without a major hurricane seasons. “You have to be able to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace,” says David Dignam.

It weathered the economic downturn thanks to its low overhead and efficiency of operation. “My dad and grandfather didn't like debt, and that's a nice philosophy that's been carried on,” says David Dignam. “When things got tight we had to tighten up. But fortunately we didn't have to cut any staff.”

When homes aren't selling and businesses aren't opening and expanding, the firm focuses on rounding out existing accounts.

“People may not be buying a new home, but they've got stuff that we don't insure that we can insure. So you focus on getting their autos and boats and motorcycles. You've got to bear down when houses aren't being sold, ” says Brandon Dignam.

But it isn't all about insurance at the Key Agency. The firm has a long history of philanthropy, supporting community organizations like the YMCA and Boy Scouts of America.

“My grandfather instilled a lot of his philosophies and values into the business, like that with success comes responsibility,” says David Dignam. “So we do a lot in the community, and we reap the rewards from that. People like to do business with those that give back.”

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