Many franchisers start out by deciding to become a franchise and finding a product or service to base it around. Brightway Insurance co-founders and brothers David and Michael Miller already had their business, Miller Insurance Group. What they saw was an opportunity to deliver an experience unlike any other in the insurance industry.
“Outside of Brightway, there’s no national insurance brand where consumers go to a store and have access to all of the different brands under one roof. It doesn’t exist,” says David Miller, who serves as chairman. Michael is the vice chairman.
The concept has taken off since Brightway started franchising in January 2008. Entrepreneur named the company the No. 1 insurance franchise in the country in 2013, when Brightway reached $310 million in sales.
“Consumers love it because they don’t have to shop for insurance every six months,” Miller says. “And they have all of the access and convenience they could ever want.”
Insurance carriers like Brightway because it produces a high volume of business, and carriers can deal with one company rather than many independent agents who all do things in different ways, Miller says.
By taking the concept of the independent insurance agency and providing corporate support to allow agents to focus on what they do best, Brightway has found a formula for success.
Fix a fundamental flaw
Businesses flourish by identifying and addressing unmet needs. What Miller saw in the insurance business were national brands that have stores offering only their insurance, and independent agents who may have access to a few more brands, but lack the sophistication to inspire confidence that consumers are getting the best coverage and price.
“What’s so different about Brightway is it’s the first true retail store. You can go to any Brightway — whether it’s in Miami, Arizona, Delaware, Orlando, it doesn’t matter — and it’s going to look the same, feel the same and you’re going to have the same experience,” Miller says. “There are other independent agents out there but they’re not focused around a consistent consumer experience and a consistent national brand.”
That consistency is ensured through Brightway University, a training program initially created in 2009 as a one-week class. It has since evolved to provide differentiated course tracks for employees working in various aspects of the operation.
“Brightway University for someone who is starting on our service team is going to be completely different from someone who is going to be working as a producing agent in an office,” Miller says.
There also is ongoing training that continues to evolve, which is accessed through classrooms and an online program for employees in other parts of the country.
“The training, along with things like the layers of support we provide, is what really is special,” he says.
That support includes technology designed to allow people to do a better job, rather than as a means to replace jobs. Miller says such win-lose propositions are fatally flawed.
“One of the first things we look at is whether something will be a win-win, or if someone will win at someone else’s expense. If that’s the case, we’ll go back to the drawing board,” he says. “We don’t look at technology as a way to replace people. Instead we consider technology a force to make the people we have better. An example would be the way we centrally handle a lot of the servicing work we do.”
Instead of calling an 800 number, customers call local agents, who in turn dial a three-digit extension connecting them with customer service representatives trained in specific areas.
“So the consumer would never know they’re being transferred to a call center. They avoid that whole experience of a phone tree,” Miller says.
Find the right people
Owning your own business is a dream many people have. Finding people who have the desire to turn that dream into a reality has been a key to Brightway’s success. Miller says that because of the support the company provides, franchisees don’t need the expertise required of most independent insurance agents.
“That’s what’s so beautiful about our system — all you have to do is follow it,” he says. “We happen to sell insurance, but I look at us as being in the opportunity business, helping people who want to realize the American dream.”
The level of support also means that agents can devote more time to selling — talking with clients about their insurance needs rather than deal with issues servicing existing policies.
Still, a franchise is not the right fit for everyone. Miller says Brightway is focused on finding people with the proper personality type rather than just adding numbers to expedite growth.
Conventional wisdom says that additional franchises are responsible for a company’s growth, but Miller attributes Brightway’s rapid ascent as much to the potential franchisees that are turned down as the ones brought on-board.
“We’ll talk to 100 different people who are interested in buying a franchise for every one we approve. The ones we’re approving are not necessarily people who have 30 years of insurance experience. They’re people with good business sense, a track record of success and they are optimistic. Their personality is one that they believe in being part of a team,” Miller says.
Franchisees go through a discover phase in which they are told about expectations and get a good understanding of what will be required of them. The process is part of why Brightway retains 98 percent of franchisees every year.
Reach the next level
As challenging as it is to create growth, it’s even harder to sustain it. Brightway has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for nine consecutive years. What makes that particularly impressive is that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a high-growth percentage as a company becomes larger, Miller says.
But that growth also necessitated changes — the management team that brought great success grew Brightway to a point where new leadership was essential.
“About two years ago we hit a size where the people and the management team that got us to where we were at that time weren’t the same people we needed to be able to execute on a national level. So we made a conscious decision to bring in people who had already built and run national organizations,” Miller says.
Talman Howard, a former senior leader at Progressive, was brought in as chief marketing officer and was named president in October 2013.
“He helped Progressive grow from what was a $750 million company when he joined to a $16 billion company when he left,” Miller says.
Robert Taylor had been a senior leader at H&R Block before being named Brightway’s chief financial officer. Leslie Kolleda brought 20 years of experience with Progressive to her role leading the branding, marketing and public relations effort.
Brightway also added executives with experience in business analytics at Kemper Insurance and running call centers for Travelers Insurance.
“In every aspect of our operation we brought on people with national experience who have actually done the jobs at various companies. We’re very excited about the future and continuing to change the way Americans feel about their insurance,” Miller says.
Brightway is licensed in 47 states and has 115 offices. To reach the goal of national coverage, the company is working with a broker, FranNet, to attract more franchisees.
Miller says the combination of providing value and convenient buying options will ensure future success.
“You have one agent who can make sure your policies all make sense together and don’t overlap. That doesn’t exist when you go to Geico, then to State Farm and then to Allstate,” he says. “Insurance is not one-size fits all and every consumer doesn’t need the same homeowner’s policy, just as they don’t need the same auto insurance coverage. People deserve to be thought of as individuals and have polices that are tailored to their needs.”
- Provide support so people can focus on core tasks.
- Companies do not win by eliminating jobs.
- Management needs to evolve as a business grows.
The Miller File:
Name: David Miller
Title: Chairman, co-founder
Company: Brightway Insurance
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and social science from Florida State University.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? My first job out of college was with a technology company. The company was poorly managed and the leadership was dysfunctional all around. It was a great example of how not to run a business, and that taught me a lot.
What is the best business advice you ever received? Try to do what’s good for the people who work with and for you.
Who do you admire in business? My previous boss, Mike Overstreet. Mike always looked out for the people who worked for him and in turn, they looked out for him. In fact, it was amazing how those people went out of their way to help him.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My mother. She passed away in 2001. Her can-do attitude and her determined spirit still inspire me to this day. She never compromised her values and always got what she needed done through sheer will and determination. She encouraged her children to dream, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.
If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? I would want to speak to the president of the United States. I would want to understand what drives his decision-making. I’d want to challenge him to focus on leadership. I don’t want him to squander away the awesome opportunity to really have an impact on our country. When he was elected, there was such hope and potential surrounding him. He needs to get back to those roots and live up to the hope that inspired so many people.
My comment is less political and less about him. It’s more about the tremendous opportunity and responsibility that the office of the president provides.
How to reach: Brightway Insurance, (888) 254-5014 or www.brightwayinsurance.com