"I think it’s very simple — you have to take care of your employees, you have to be ethical and you have to work really hard."
Spencer Houldin enjoys traveling and meeting people, which is good because he’s doing a lot of both in his new role as chairman of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA).
Houldin, president of Ericson Insurance Advisors in Litchfield County’s town of Washington, is the first Connecticut chairman of IIABA in 60 years and youngest-ever for the 120-year-old trade group representing about 300,000 insurance agents.
The 47-year-old has been speaking at state conventions, taking feedback and funneling ideas to IIABA’s team.
"It’s all about what can we deliver to make the end user, the independent agent, a more successful organization," Houldin said.
The agenda for his one-year term, which began in September, includes growing IIABA’s membership in the consolidating industry, stressing agencies’ need to protect clients’ data, and extending and modernizing the National Flood Insurance Program. The chairmanship follows years of service at state and national levels, including chairing IIABA’s government affairs committee and testifying before Congress.
"I loved it because it brought the politics back," said Houldin, who majored in political science and considered law before joining the family business.
His father, William, who sold the business to Houldin and his brother, Peter, in 2005, bought the agency in the 1970s from Arlo Ericson, whose name was retained. Spencer and Peter are equal partners and share the title of president. Spencer is the firm’s outside face, Paul the office engine.
"This place doesn’t run without him and it doesn’t grow without me," Spencer said.
Peter calls his older brother the "rainmaker" and well-suited for the sales role.
"I always tell people he’s like the Energizer bunny — he’s always on," Peter said, noting Spencer’s role in Ericson’s hallmark responsiveness to clients. "It’s instantaneous" and he’s always connected.
The brothers’ arrangement has worked, with Ericson doubling its annual written premiums since 2005 to about $32 million this year. "We took a really good foundation and we grew it," Spencer said.
Much of that has come through high-net-worth clients obtained through offices in New York staffed with lawyers, accountants and others who serve the needs of a small number of successful families. Houldin has gained many of those families’ insurance business through Ericson’s reputation for service and the understanding of complex insurance needs such families have. Ericson has an office and desk in New York the Houldins visit weekly, an office in Boston staffed by an adviser and they plan more. They exploit technology to improve efficiency and service from the 19 employees.
Ericson’s focus is property and casualty insurance — personal and commercial — and its core client is personal insurance less than $10,000 annually in written premium. The business mix is about 70 percent personal, 30 percent commercial.
"Our focus is really on the personal insurance, to that client who wants a personal relationship," Houldin said of customers willing to pay a little more for top service.
That’s part of the brothers’ management styles, what Houldin called a "really high customer-service culture," in addition to being forward-thinking and treating employees well. They maintain a culture started by their father. Since the 1970s, the firm has not lost an employee to resignation, other than for a retirement or relocation, Houldin said.
Ericson does little things, like saying "thank you" to staff leaving at night and big things, like a three-day trip for staff and spouses to Chicago in September for Houldin’s IIABA swearing-in. In-between are occasional early-outs on Friday followed by staff dinners and trips to Broadway shows.
Houldin met his wife, Carol, while checking contractors’ work to remodel a Roxbury home Ericson insured that was damaged by fire. They’ve been married almost 20 years and have two boys, 18 and 15. Houldin enjoys golfing, exercising and traveling. He admits to being a workaholic.
"I love what we’ve built, I love building it more, I’m driven by it," he said.