Robert L. Cohen, chairman and CEO of Denver-based brokerage firm IMA Financial Group Inc., has recently seen it through some significant acquisitions. The privately held company, which is majority owned by employees, was the result of a merger of three brokerage houses in Kansas in the 1970s with the concept that it would offer customers damage and loss control services, in addition to insurance investments, which was unusual at the time. CEO since 1998, Mr. Cohen recently spoke with Business Insurance editor Gavin Souter about the company's acquisitions and market prospects. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: The most prominent acquisitions you have made recently were Bolton and Parker, Smith & Feek. What do they add to IMA?
A: The premise was really around our strategic plan to look at the marketplace and say that it needs a privately owned, independent, employee-owned company that allows us to attract and retain a lot of top talent. One that is very customer-focused and offers unique services around deep-rooted specializations.
It is built around organic growth. We believe that the bigger you get, if you are really based on value-adding services, you should not only be able to maintain your organic growth, but you should be able to increase it. And then there is a company that invests in technology.
Then that's what we're looking for like-minded partners. What we saw in Bolton and Parker, Smith & Feek, as well as Diversified Insurance and k.p.d. Insurance companies were companies that were deeply committed to being independent, employee-owned and private. They were very committed to changing the client experience. They were committed to organic growth and had really built up world-class sales and marketing, and they invested in technology. So, the concept was let's do it together as opposed to doing it separately.
Q: What about the specializations they bring with them? Do they diversify or are they based on specializations you already have?
A: The great thing about each of the transactions is that there was a certain overlap where we had specialties that became stronger. In Bolton's case, they were very strong in training, but they mainly did K-1
Parker, Smith & Feek are very big in construction, as are we, and together we have become a real force in construction. In health care, they brought hospitals and medical groups with us and we provided more supportive housing and social services. Together, it really changes our care practices.
Q: You seem to have been very active in the last year – so why now?
A: In the middle of the pandemic we did our recapitalization and when these other companies started hearing about it – they are all companies we have known for 20, 25, 30 years – they picked up the phone and started ask about it. When we started talking about the vision, it was "Hey, you know, let's have a conversation."
It started with our summary and then it just accelerated the conversation, and apparently when you've made a deal, people hear about it and the phone rings a little more, and then you make the other deal; it gives a little more. And we have been an alternative to the other companies out there.
Q: Do you have more conversations? Is the phone still ringing?
S: The phone is still ringing. Whether they are kicking tires or if they are only interested in what we do or if they are really interested in cooperating, who knows?
Q: Do the companies you bring in retain their identity?
S: They have built these deep-rooted specialties, they are strong in organic growth, they are well known in their communities, so we think they add brand capital. We are more interested in creating synergies around the customer experience and what we give the customer and less worried about things like name and integration and merging and all these things. They will come with time, but at present we believe that there is a large brand capital in that they keep their names.
Q: Do you have a goal of where you want to be when it comes to the size of a brokerage house?
A: Our goal is to be the best we can be and to build the broker of this future and it's less around a dollar amount. Growth is coming. We originally had a five-year plan that would have us at $ 500 million by 2025. We will be almost close to that figure by the end of 2021. It is quite reasonable to say that we can easily become a billion-dollar broker in three to five years. at the pace we have, but again it's less about size and more about quality.
Q: The insurance market has changed a lot in recent years. How do you see it developing next year?
A: The market is maturing in many ways – not because it was not a mature market before – but I think insurance companies are finding out how to use data in a completely different way, which is obviously changing the pricing that we see in the market. These external catastrophic events that we see – certainly the number and size of them have increased significantly – change the income statements for carriers, which has an impact on the market overall.
We believe that it is an opportunity for brokers who create value-creating services in response. Customers need us to help them manage this process and go through it. And I think brokers are also becoming more sophisticated. Their capital structures are more sophisticated. They think more in terms of how they use technology and data. Obviously, the marketplace for acquisitions or M&A is quite robust in our industry, and capital is flowing in because they see the consequence in returns. All of these things create a marketplace that is full of opportunities for people if they are willing to lean into them instead of resisting them.