Haig Wright II was the 30-year-old president of his father, Dick Wright’s, insurance agency, Primm-Wright Inc., when in 1990, the agency merged with Byars Insurance, a company founded by G.L. and Jean Byars in 1946.
“After we merged, I didn’t have a title. I was just in charge of production,” he quipped. “My own production.”
But Wright rose through the ranks, and in 2014, the family-owned and operated independent insurance company rebranded itself as Byars|Wright Inc.
Today Wright is the company’s president and CEO, with a plan to move the 75-year-old agency into the future through mergers and acquisitions (M&A), focusing on other small agencies as a key component of its growth strategy.
In 2020, Business Alabama listed Byars|Wright as the state’s 10th-largest insurance company, with a policy volume of $82 million.
Byars|Wright sells commercial, personal and life insurance. Wright works with his sons, Haig Wright III and Oliver Wright, who are producers in the original Jasper office. Meanwhile, John Byars is a vice president and is the company’s sales team manager, working out of the Birmingham office.
Besides offices in Jasper and Birmingham, the company also has locations in Gardendale, Alabaster, Homewood, Cullman and its newest spot in Decatur.
Growing through acquisitions
Byars|Wright expanded to the Gardendale market with the acquisition of Junkins-Yarbrough Corp. (JYC) in 2017. In 2018, it acquired The Insurance Store and opened a third location in Alabaster.
Wright reflected on the JYC acquisition in a 2017 blog post, writing: “As a company, Byars|Wright has boosted efficiency, accelerated growth and increased market share, resulting in about a 20% revenue growth to our portfolio and the addition of more than 1,000 new customers.”
As a matter of fact, the JYC and Insurance Store acquisitions together added another 2,700 customers to Byars|Wright’s customer base and nine insurance professionals to their team, Wright says.
Byars|Wright opened its fourth location in Homewood in 2019 and its fifth in Cullman in 2020. They also purchased an agent’s book of business in 2020.
The company’s efforts to grow through an M&A strategy is part of a trend, according to an Insurance Journal article published in January of this year. Specifically, the article reports a 20% jump in M&A announcements among insurance agencies in 2020, up from 2019.
“The surge resulted from the pent-up supply of pending transactions from earlier in the year coupled with sellers looking to avoid an expected increase in capital gains taxes,” the article says.
Moreover, it says that involvement by private equity buyers makes up the bulk of the M&A action, with about 50% connected to the sale of property/casualty agencies.
Byars|Wright’s M&A strategy stems from a decision Wright says he made the year he became president in 2010 — to grow the agency through producer recruitment and development and organic growth, but also through M&A.
“You cannot hit the milestones that you want to hit strictly by organic growth and producer recruitment,” he says. “Those are important factors, but to really move the needle, you have to be actively engaged in mergers and acquisitions.”
The company has gone so far as to advertise its willingness to make a deal with other insurance agencies on one of their website landing pages, making the case that selling to them is preferable to selling their business to a large agency or corporation.
“We want other agencies to know that we’re a great option and partner if they wish to remain independent,” Wright says.
Wright says he believes Byars|Wright’s status as family owned and operated resonates with similar agencies seeking to sell.
“Regardless of an agency owner’s goals for their personal future or their desires for future of their company, perpetuation plans are a must,” he says. “For agencies that don’t have the option to perpetuate internally, selling or merging is the answer. And for many agencies, remaining independently owned is extremely important.”
For a successful merger or acquisition with Byars|Wright, agencies must meet certain criteria to qualify. Wright says culture is key, and that culture must have honesty and transparency at the forefront.
“If the cultures don’t align, you don’t even get to first base,” he says.
“We also look at how much business they have with companies like a Travelers Insurance or Chubb or Auto-Owners to help us build our business as a whole, to create more clout with the carriers and help them reach their goals.”
Other considerations in the valuation process include an agency’s book of business — the number of accounts written by the agency — and their loss ratio to see if it meshes well with Byars|Wright’s book of business, he says.
In addition, the talent and expertise of an agency’s employee pool is also a factor to consider, he says.
“We believe we win with people, and we’re constantly looking for talent to help us get better every day,” he says.
Wright, in fact, says M&As have helped Byars|Wright increase efficiencies and “bench strength.” “There’s just a lot more resources,” he says, “and you’re not having to wear all the hats.”
One example is Byars|Wright’s acquisition of Business to Business Payroll and HR Solutions in Decatur this year. This latest move allows Byars|Wright to launch an employee benefits department in north Alabama.
“Acquiring Business to Business also gives us a nice footprint in the Decatur market, which is valuable to us to bring our services to that part of the state,” he says.
Wright says the Business to Business acquisition is an avenue for not only broadening their customer base, but also their service offerings and expertise.
He says they hope to bring their employee benefit revenue up to 20% of their overall agency revenue by year 2025.
Sealing the deal on an acquisition, however, can come with plenty of emotions for any agency founder seeking to merge with another insurance agency, Wright says.
“Typically, they’re the ones who started the agency or the ones who grew the agency, and it’s an emotional decision,” says Wright. “It’s an uncomfortable move to say, ‘On this day I’m going to sign contracts to be acquired by this agency,’ and you don’t know what it’s going to look like on the other side.”
Wright credits his company’s onboarding team with helping employees of acquired companies to acclimate themselves to the Byars|Wright way of doing business. The team consists of the operations manager, representatives from the accounting and HR departments and its branding specialists.
“So, when you get to the date when you flip the switch and you are part of Byars|Wright, it’s as smooth and transparent a transition as possible,” he says.
Through the recent acquisitions, Byars|Wright today has 56 employees working around north and central Alabama and Wright says he believes that the next three to five years will prove to be growth years for the company that will outweigh the last 10 to 15 years.
But despite plans to continue growing the company by acquisition, Wright says he will always hold onto the values his father taught him years ago.
“My father taught me that if you treat everyone the way you’d like to be treated, things generally work out.”
Gail Allyn Short and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
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