Nice guys don’t always finish first. The more money at stake, the more cutthroat a business is likely to be. All the hedge fund managers in Greenwich, Conn., probably didn’t pay for their Ferraris by being nice to people.
But what works on Wall Street—at least some of the time (recent high-level indictments considered)—is probably not going to work on Main Street. And Kansas-based Advisors Excel built its business the old-fashioned way—with honesty and care not only for its clients, but its employees, too. Today, by staying true to its values, Excel is one of the fastest-growing insurance marketing organizations (IMOs) in the country. IMOs work with insurers as subcontractors, and Excel has made itself a big player in the industry.
Cody Foster is co-founder and owner of the company, which started less than a decade ago with three employees but now has more than 200. Foster says he learned a few things after eight years of growth. There are things he would do differently, he says, but his core values influenced the company’s culture then and now, and it’s fair to say Excel was built with the kind of integrity that sometimes eludes bigger companies (even if their ethics policies say otherwise).
“In any business, no matter what field they’re in, the competitor with the best value proposition is going to win,” Foster says. “We felt we had a good value proposition…. Things began picking up pretty well, and it turned out that what we thought was missing from the marketplace really was missing.”
A major lesson learned at Excel in the early days is the virtue of hard work. It seems obvious, but Foster says it’s often overlooked as a priority, especially when a business is starting out. “When it was just the three of us, we worked really hard—sometimes 24 hours straight—and did everything ourselves,” he says. “If your life is on the line to a degree, it’s amazing what you can get done.”
The company was launched on Feb. 1, 2005, only three days before Foster’s first child was born. Still, he kept his eyes on the prize—making Excel viable. “I put a lot of extra pressure on myself to make sure we could do it,” he says. “We were making a lot of cold calls, just pounding the phones, to try and convince people to work with us. That’s not necessarily the best approach to prospecting, but when our budget was limited we relied on it.”
Although that was a big virtue in building Excel, it turned out to be a deterrent as the company got bigger.
It’s a not-uncommon problem, sometimes called “founders’ syndrome.” Out of necessity, the original partners have to know and act decisively in every aspect of the business. But once they’ve added many new managers, they have to be ready to let go. “It’s great to be on top of everything going on in your organization,” Foster says, “but when you reach a certain size you can’t do that anymore.
“We could have done a better and quicker job of delegating, of trusting the people we had put in charge of certain areas. It’s hard to let go of things you’re used to doing all the time, but it was important to identify where our strengths and talents lie, and focus on getting the highest payoff.”
Missteps have been few for Excel, however. “We’ve had some failures along the way, but none of them have been colossal,” Foster says. “It’s a cliché to say you learn more from failures than anything else—I think you learn more from studying your successes.”
The company’s greatest success is in its values—primarily in having a performance culture. Even though it started small, Foster bristles at the notion that Advisors Excel is a “family” company, because it implies a lax working environment.
“It’s not a family culture; it’s a performance culture,” he says. “Working for us means having the most hectic workdays you’ll ever have. We don’t have room for people who don’t meet their goals, but that’s from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—you work really hard while you’re here, but we want people to have balance in their lives. We know in the great scheme of things that there are a lot of things that are more important than this job.”
Ensuring that workers have a life might not be a concern at many financial institutions. But Foster, who was raised in a small farming community, believes in investing in people for the long haul. “Working 20 hours a day isn’t sustainable in the long term,” he says. “I love the business, love our company, love the people who work with us, but I also have other priorities in my life. I do want to win, don’t get me wrong—we’re all about winning—but not at all costs. We don’t see our employees as interchangeable—they’re a valuable part of what we do.”
Some might scoff that Excel isn’t ready to swim with the sharks in a very cutthroat business. The company’s results speak for themselves, however: Excel had $3.6 billion in annual production in 2012 (up $900 million over 2011) and now partners with 850 leaders in the insurance business.
In return for the growth, Excel’s hardworking staffers earn their annual trip to Cancún or some other fun destination—if and only if the company hits its numbers. After all, Advisors Excel has a performance culture.