At a time when the industry is paralyzed by an unprecedented amount of change, when bottom line profit is evaporating, when too many agency owners are giving up and selling, when effective agency leaders are hard to find, Barry Cohn is a rare find.
Barry and his team joined our network 2 1/2 years ago. He came with an already strong and successful agency, but was committed to reaching their full potential. Not only has he driven his agency through an amazing transformation over that time, he has openly shared his ideas, successes, and his occasional failure with the rest of the network. We have all grown because of our partnership with Barry and want to share some of it with you.
Q4i: With agency acquisitions at a record high, what has motivated you to double down on your commitment to remain independent?
BC: I think that independent forward thinking agencies that evolve into HR & Employee Benefits consulting firms have a distinct advantage against larger competitors that are like aircraft carriers. RGEB is nimble, fast moving, and cutting edge!
Q4i: What part of the industry stereotype do you fear most being applied to you?
BC: The industry stereotype I fear the most is the belief that “brokers just sell stuff” and add no value. It is almost putting us one step on the ladder higher than used car salespeople.
Q4i: Over the last couple of years, you have completely reimagined how you are growing your agency. What has your peer group in Q4i meant for your development?
BC: Without Q4i, we never would have evolved to the HR & Employee Consulting firm we are today. Sharing and collaborating with 30 other firms across the country has been a great benefit. I am pretty close to 5 agencies and we share content, ideas, and help each other. In fact, the five of us are thinking about a monthly online meeting to discuss a difficult case or a case that we lost to help us get better and what we do.
Q4i: Moving into fee compensation has been one major change. What has this meant for you?
BC: I believe that compensation transparency has been great. Sharing our annual compensation with our clients has been positive. Moving to fee based compensation for HR services has worked well. Two years ago, we had no fee income. In 2017, our fee income was $30,000 and we expect to double it in 2018. Five years from now it may be 30% of our income.
Q4i: What gave you the confidence to make the change?
BC: I am an overly optimistic person (I want to try everything!) while my partner (my wife) plays devil’s advocate and looks at things that can go wrong. Knowing the evolving nature of HR, payroll, technology, and benefits and the competitors that did not exist 5 years ago, I knew we needed to make changes. And with her backing, it gave me the confidence to do it.
Q4i: What has been your biggest surprise in having these conversations with clients?
BC: I was scared to have that “compensation” conversation with my larger clients and how they would react. Saying to a client “RGEB earned $60,000 on our relationship last year” or $38,000, $24,000 or even $16,000 was concerning.
But not one client pushed back and reacted negatively. We gave them a stewardship report outlining what RGEB did for the employer, their employees, and dependents which was a great asset. Most of them were surprised at the level of work we do every day.
Q4i: What piece of advice would you share with other agency owners and advisers about moving to fee compensation?
BC: When a company engages a lawyer or CPA they know the price. It is important for clients to understand how we earn our income and the amount. Cost transparency has been enlightening for RGEB. Moving to fee compensation for stuff we used to give away has placed value on those services. Our clients understand that “free stuff” is just that. Free and of no value.
If you find yourself overwhelmed and cursing the change you're being forced to handle on a daily basis, learn from Barry's leadership. He is proving every day, in every challenge there are exciting opportunities.
Photo by Geralt