Inside the INCubator with The American Insurance Group

Holly Ashley

The American Insurance Group is an independent insurance agency helping individuals and business with their insurance needs.

Year Founded: 2014                                              

Founder: Keith Rocha
Number of employees: 3
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Family: Wife, Rebecca; four children ages 7, 5, 3 and 1

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Q: What are you selling?
A: We’re primarily a commercial insurance agency offering business insurance, professional liability, general liability, workers compensation, commercial auto, property coverages and bonds. Some of our niche client industries are restaurants, manufacturing, contractors and property investors. While we do offer personal home, auto and life insurance, our focus is really on the business side with our sweet spot being the small to medium size company.

We’re not an agency that you call to “shop” for the lowest price. In business, you hire a CPA or an attorney that you can trust; so an insurance agent that you can trust should round out your vendor team.  Most of our clients are referral-based individuals that prefer a trusted advisor to help them with their insurance.

Q: Describe your service area.
A: While we primarily serve Chattanooga and the southeast United States we do have clients in 13 states.

Q: What’s your growth been like since you launched at the INCubator?
A: It was just me for all of 2014. That year was about getting the doors open and the foundation built, so I spent a lot of time negotiating with insurance companies to allow me to be an agent for them. Just because you have an insurance license and an office doesn’t mean any carrier is willing to let you sell their product. I had to really sell myself. I brought on two staff in 2015: Savannah was my first hire in January, then Eddie started with me in the spring to pursue new clients.

Long-term, I do have a desire to grow outside the city of Chattanooga. I’m building the foundation by having a really good process in place here, securing additional carrier contracts, and then plan to duplicate that and find good people in other cities to expand. But that’s on down the road. I don’t see that for another 2 or 3 years.

Q: What are some barriers in your industry right now?
A: There’s a low employee replacement rate in the insurance industry today. For every two people retiring, there’s only one person entering the field. So the need for the younger generation to find an interest in the industry is really important. A lot of the owners of some smaller, older agencies have tended not to embrace technology too much, which I think has been part of the problem.

Q: What’s one of the most promising developments in your industry?
A: Technology. It’s funny because technology scares a lot of people, but to me it’s really exciting. For example, Savannah is moving to Cincinnati soon. Several years ago, that would mean she’s no longer going to work for me. But now she can. She’ll just take her phone and computer and be set up. That’s exciting because it also indicates we can grow easily if we want to add another location. Our process is already cloud-based, so it’s easy for us to just add another person and duplicate our process.

Q: Are there any significant future trends in insurance?
A: Some big tech companies, like Google, are starting to get into the insurance industry because of new technology like the self-driving car. That will change how auto insurance works. For example, people have begun asking who’s liable in an accident if you’re not driving the vehicle.

Q: Any startup advice?
A: For me, the keys are a good product, a stellar team and a solid process. But you’ve got to have all three. I’ve been slow to hire with the right people and then continuing to work on our process. If we miss something, we ask ourselves ‘was there an issue with the process, did a team member step outside of our current process, and how can we fix it?’ We’re always fine tuning.

Also, one of the things that gets a lot of business owners into trouble is they over-project revenues and don’t seriously consider their cash flow. You can kill it from a sales standpoint, but a negative cash flow can crush you. Finally, if you’re on the fence about starting your own business, just know there’s never a perfect time to start. Just do it.

Q: Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to start your own business?
A: It was a progression for me. When I first started in insurance, I was working remotely as a sales producer for an agency based in Chicago. I loved the sales side but never wanted to fool with the business end. Then one of my wealth management clients approached me, and said ‘We love your process and what you do. We want to get into the insurance game. Would you be interested in helping us start an agency?’ We were off and running from there and I got to see every aspect of what it takes to start a business, except for the risk. I still earned a salary and a commission, so I didn’t hold any real risk. After a year and a half, I decided that I needed to come in as a full partner or go do my own thing. So I went out on my own.

Q: Now that you’re in it, what keeps you going?
A: I’ve got four kids, right? Food on the table keeps me going. That is part of it of course, but really I love the business, the industry, being a business owner and being able to help people. I enjoy coaching and supporting staff so they can become successful and I get excited when I’m able to help someone else do really, really well.

Q: What about the startup world drives you crazy?
A: I hate accounting and I don’t want to do my own bookkeeping, but at the moment I don’t have enough needs to totally outsource it to someone else, so I just take care if it a few hours here and there, and it’s fine. I would like to focus more on the things I’m good at and bring on more talented people to take on the things I’m not really good at, but that’s what most small business owners have to do. It’s a process that takes time.

Q: Any comments on the startup support system in Chattanooga?
A: There are a lot of different avenues to turn to in Chattanooga for startups. Whether it’s the INCubator where I’m at, or Lamp Post Group if you’re willing to share some equity, or The Company Lab…I can name a bunch of them. I think Chattanooga has done a really good job helping startup businesses for sure. Here in the INCubator it’s been cool. When Savannah first came on, I told her it’s kind of like a college dorm, but for businesses. When I leave the INCubator I’ll definitely miss being in this community. It’s also hard to beat the rent here, it really helps with cash flow.

The American Insurance Group Recommended Reading

EntreLeadership by Dave Ramsey
Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell
It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by Michael Abrashoff 
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