Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Management

PIA's national president was born to insure

PIA's national president Robert W. Hansen Jr., a fourth-generation insurance professional, reflects on what drives him to keep selling after more than 30 years in the business.
PIA's national president Robert W. Hansen Jr., a fourth-generation insurance professional, reflects on what drives him to keep selling after more than 30 years in the business.

Robert W. Hansen Jr. received his first education about the insurance industry at age 16.

While driving in Omaha, Neb., on his way home from an afterschool job, he got pulled over by the police and was issued a speeding ticket. After confessing the citation to his parents, his father, Robert Sr. — an insurance man — gave him the talk.

“Son, do you know what effect a speeding ticket has on our insurance rates?”

It was young Robert's very first lesson in underwriting.

Hansen, who began his term as president of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA) last October, follows a long line of relatives who have made their livelihoods in the insurance industry. You could say that Hansen was born to insure — after all, it's in his blood. He grew up witnessing the value that an independent agent provides; that sentiment continues to drive his process today, after more than 30 years in the business.

“It's about being engaged in a product that can mean so much,” Hansen says, “whether it's coverage for a disaster or death. It's also vital for the economy. You can't manufacture anything, or deliver shipments or run a business without insurance. If the Main Street agent wasn't selling that insurance product, nothing else can happen. And the independent agency channel is — bar none — the best avenue for the distribution of insurance.”

A ‘homegrown’ business

To fully understand Hansen's continued passion for insurance, it helps to consider his roots. His maternal great-grandfather, John H. Burns Sr., founded the Wichita, Kan.-based agency Harris-Burns & Co. Insurance Agency in the early 1900s. Burns’ sons and their sons — Hansen's uncles — continued to serve the agency until it merged with Insurance Management Associates in 1984.

Hansen's paternal grandfather, Harold Hansen, served as a senior vice president of Travelers’ fire division in Hartford, Conn. In turn, his son, Hansen's father, followed Harold at Travelers, working as a field man out of Kansas City, Kan., for a few years before moving to Omaha to serve as the carrier's regional manager in 1963.

“He was so enthusiastic about the industry, and also about making sure that the agents represented a high level of professionalism,” Hansen says of his father. “I recall one agent named Wayne Miller, whom he specifically gave a brand-new contract to, which at the time was hard for an agent to get. That agent was in the Life business, and my dad gave him his first P&C contract. That agency still exists today, with that agent's daughter, who has since taken over.”

In the spring of 1983, Hansen graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in sociology and what's now known as human resources management — and unsure of his job prospects.

His father had just accepted a lucrative retirement package from Travelers, but wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to the insurance business. Robert Sr. approached his son and asked if he would be interested in starting an agency together.

“It sounded like an interesting idea to explore,” Hansen recalls. “My other option was to go to grad school, but after talking with my dad and some of his agency and company contacts, I decided to give it a shot and open our own business.”

That summer and fall, Hansen and his father got down to work. Hansen acquired his insurance license, and over late-night strategies around the dinner table and start-up discussions in the living room, H&H Insurance was born. “It's a homegrown business,” Hansen says, appreciating just how literal that statement is.

The Hansens built upon the relationships that Robert Sr. developed during his time at Travelers. The agent Wayne Miller, who received his first P&C contract from Robert Sr., leased space — and gave contracts — to Hansen and his dad to start H&H's operations.

For Hansen and his father, the biggest challenge of starting H&H was building its business base, and trying to fulfill company contracts and get premium volume up, while working toward becoming multi-line. He recalls that it was most satisfying putting together value-type proposals, and “dinging the bell every time you could help someone solve their insurance needs.”

They started out as a generalist agency, offering Life & Health and Property & Casualty products in both commercial and personal lines, with a primary focus on Auto and Homeowners’ insurance. As the years went by, the agency developed more of a commercial book. Today, Hansen manages more than $1.5 million annually in P&C premium, which is about 65% commercial and 35% personal, plus additional Life & Health business.

Early in his career, Hansen participated in an agent program with one of MassMutual Life Insurance's local agencies. “I was able to not only work with my dad to build the P&C side, but I was able to get a real understanding of Life & Health from a prominent Life insurance company,” he says. Hansen performed so well that he received the Fast Start award in 1989, given to those who exceed production within the first year.

Back to P&C

After four years of gaining an education in Life & Health, Hansen returned to the P&C side of the business. “In Property & Casualty, what drives things is your access to markets,” he says. “And for us to evolve, we had to get heavier into commercial lines.

H&H maintains its service as a generalist agency, insuring contractors, restaurants, office risks, hair salons, accountants, attorneys and other professionals, primarily in Omaha, but also throughout Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado and Kansas.

“Insurance is a complex product, and it's important to stay immersed in continuing education programs,” Hansen says. “Being a generalist, I read a lot to really understand the different businesses. You also have to have a good relationship with your clients and understanding of what their needs are, so if a complex situation arises, you know their insurance needs based on their activities and risks.”

When Robert Sr. retired from H&H, the agency made a strategic decision to partner with Omaha's NP Dodge Insurance in 2004, which provides marketing, technology and support staff. Upon Robert Sr.'s death in 2006, his wife, Elinor, made arrangements to transition the agency stock to her son, who now holds 100% ownership.

One of the benefits of the agency's partnership with NP Dodge, says Hansen, is a built-in perpetuation plan. If Hansen's son, Robert W. Hansen III (nicknamed “Tobie”), who works in liquor distribution sales, or his daughter, Brooke, a substitute elementary school teacher, choose to stay in their own fields, NP Dodge will buy all of Hansen's stock, absorb H&H's contracts and service its clients.

Related: Robert Hansen on 'Why independent agents will always matter'

Hansen's most valued partner throughout his career has been his wife, Cindy (an executive assistant and event planner for Lincoln Financial Group), with whom he just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Her support, he says, is what made his career possible.

“The challenge with work/life balance is putting in the time to be successful in your career, but also recognizing that life is short,” says Hansen. “One of the beauties of this career is that I had the luxury of being involved in my kids' activities when they were younger, like coaching youth sports. Being in sales, you just have to be disciplined enough to know that while you have that flexibility, you have to make up that time somewhere else — like on a Saturday.”

Advocacy and leadership

Robert Sr. instilled in his son the importance of giving back to the community, once a career is built and family needs are met. Starting in 2000, Hansen served on the board of the Omaha chapter of PIA's Nebraska association (now called the Nebraska and Iowa state association), moving on to the vice president, president and chairman roles.

However, Hansen sought more. He became involved in his state association, where he served on the board of directors for a few years, then migrated up the positions at the state level, ultimately serving as state president in 2006-07. “That year of serving as president was very gratifying and humbling,” he says, “and I realized I was in a role where I was doing something good for my professional colleagues.”

As a PIA state president, Hansen attended national meetings where he interacted with others representing their own states — and he received his first taste of service at a higher level. PIA state associations are represented on the association's national board by directors elected by each state.

Moving up

In 2009, the sitting national director, Carter “Cap” Peterson, recognized that Hansen had a desire to continue being involved at a national scale. “He mentored me through the process of what the national director role is all about,” Hansen says. “When I came into that position, I went through a task force of learning what the national association does for its members, I became more involved in government affairs and advocacy, and the finance and budget committees.

“And then I reached a point,” Hansen recalls, when he asked himself: “Do I go on to bigger things?”

The answer was yes, and Hansen set about campaigning. During his run for national office, his daughter would text him quotes from salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar for inspiration, which Hansen says is “truly one of those special father/daughter moments. At the end of the day, it's all about family, faith and friends.”

Hansen assumed the role of national PIA secretary/assistant treasurer in 2012, and then moved up to vice president/treasurer, president-elect and president, which he assumed last October. Each term lasts one year.

Over the years, though, one thing hasn't changed: Hansen remains dedicated to promoting the value of the independent agent. While acknowledging that many studies report that customers want a digital insurance process, he stresses that no online form or portal can provide what insureds really need: The professional advice, analysis and consultation that an independent agent provides.

“When agents take the steps to understand this business and its complexities, interact with carriers and are confident in their abilities to solve problems, then an agent is the best source for that customer to make the right buying decision and the best avenue to serve that business,” he says.

Those relationships are what keeps Hansen in the insurance game after more than 30 years. “Whether it's on the personal side or the business side, it's about matching the appropriate insurance solution to their needs,” he says. “It's that process of building the relationship with that client and solving their needs through the vehicle of insurance.

“You can sell all sorts of things, but I enjoy selling a product that's an intangible, which is a challenge,” he adds. “I focus on value, and don't sell on price. Every morning when I get out of bed, I know that I am selling a product that solves problems and is so very important in people's lives.”

An iron in the fire

An avid swimmer who frequently cycled and ran, Hansen gravitated toward triathlons as an adult. Starting out in the sport's Olympic distance (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike ride, 10-kilometer run), Hansen later completed Ironman Lake Placid in 2001 and followed that race with Ironman Wisconsin in 2003.

An Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, “challenges you in ways you never thought possible. I got stung on my tongue during the bike portion in Wisconsin and sustained horrible leg cramps. You train and train and train, but it's still by God's grace that you finish.”

However, Hansen also recognizes physical and mental perseverance for his Ironman accomplishments, traits that he honed as an insurance agent. “Those characteristics overlap with a sales career,” he says, “where you absolutely have to have an ability to overcome struggle.”

Related: Humble beginnings: A look at the early history of 15 insurance agencies

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