EKA Insights Interview: Patrick Thomas

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By Arune Singh

In life there are few guarantees – and there’s even less in business.

That especially true for Patrick Thomas, President of RSI Insurance Brokers and one of Insurance Journal’s 2021 Agents of the Year, whose sole focus is following through on the promises they make to every client.

Founded in 1989 by Patrick’s father Ben Thomas, RSI has become “one of the premier transportation insurance agencies in the country” by ensuring they always deliver best-in-class support and services in an industry where the unexpected reigns supreme.

The EKA Insights Interview series continues with special guest Patrick Thomas, who recently spoke to us about his path to RSI and his vision for the insurance industry.

EKA: I’ve always thought that business is truly driven by relationships, no matter what you do – marketing, insurance or anything.  But I also find it’s hard to build good long term relationships with the way the world is and at the pace of life. I’ve seen you speak about how RSI prides itself on relationships, but how do you balance building deep, honest relationships with also needing to hit financial goals? It feels like those ambitions are often at odds in today’s world.

Patrick Thomas: You made a really complicated statement – we live in this world of hyperactivity and the demands become so much more as time progresses. It’s hard to balance that equation of success in relationships. But what I think we all tend to forget is that it’s the relationships that lead, promote and grow that success. Sometimes we take that for granted. And where we start is just from a point of sincerity, that, for us, business is personal, right? So from the get go, we make it about a relationship, because we’ve been a family owned business and we have friendships within our organization that have spanned decades of time with generations of family. It’s important to carry that message not only with whom we hire, but in how we help our clients. We want to help people that want to help themselves and start that from a point of sincerity leading to a point where we have an intimate relationship and understanding of a clients’ operations, as well as some of the challenges they face, whether they are political in nature, legal in nature, or just general business environment issues. 

You mentioned wanting to understand your clients and I think that’s reflected in your hiring practices where you value diversity – to the point that you have a staff who speaks over ten languages. Where did that prioritization of diversity come from? Was it something purely practical to connect with a wider audience or was there something else that motivated it?

I would love to say there was one specific agenda that we were looking to achieve and that this was a purposeful outcome, but a lot of it just naturally occurred over time.

I always challenge assumptions that no matter what we do or for how long we’ve done it, it’s a healthy process for us to challenge those habits so we can push the boundaries for success beyond where they’ve been before.

That’s kind of my approach to business – taking something that’s been good and making it great by challenging these historical assumptions to figure out where and when improvement is appropriate. That’s been paired with diversity in our office because I like challenging who we hire and where we hire from. Great minds can exist anywhere – they don’t solely exist within the confines of larger corporate structures, or in academia, or in any particular industry. I like bringing in perspective from outside the industry and creating this collective perspective that is much greater than it could be for any one of us individually.

So, in challenging assumptions and bringing in a group of talent with different perspectives, it just kind of naturally happened that we had hired people with very diverse backgrounds who spoke the languages that were in common with our clients. It’s not like we’re looking to hire nine people from nine different backgrounds, so that they could fulfill different ethnic or cultural diversity requirements of our clients, it was just that we wanted to be different. 

Look, I have grown up in insurance where it’s a male, Caucasian dominated business that grew very old and very boring. It was suits and ties and big wood offices…and it was everything I didn’t want to be. I saw an opportunity to shift the business into feeling more relevant, evolving and adapting into something that was cool and better than the county club it had been. It was a chance for us to help people in different communities, whether it’s first generation immigrants, or family businesses and again, drive their success forward along with our own.

You’ve touched on this a bit but I think when people hear “diversity” they aren’t necessarily opposed but think “Well, I want to hire the best person for the job” even when they know there’s an inequity in the system. So for the folks reading this who believe in what you’re saying but don’t know how to do it without feeling like they’re excluding anyone, how can they get started on diversifying their business in both ideas and other vectors of identity?

It starts with leadership, right? The leadership has to understand that no matter what decision you make, there is always going to be a component of winners or losers, or people that are included and people that are exploited. Because there’s no way to possibly solve all the world’s problems or to make a singular choice that is all encompassing. It just doesn’t exist. 

I think we put an unfair pressure on ourselves from the start by saying that we have to achieve a sense of perfection. Really, we’re working within this social experiment where all we’re doing is tinkering with the recipe to figure out how we can do it better. I think if we start there and take the pressure off ourselves then we can learn over time and can have room for failures as we start to figure out what works. It’s a much healthier starting point.

And then it’s just about making choices. You pick the right person, the right candidate or right strategic plan in the moment for the things that you’re trying to achieve. I think if you’re trying to do that and you’re challenging assumptions then it’s going to lead you to different kinds of choices than you’re making now. That naturally segues into components of diversity and taking advantage of the news ideas that arise.

Part of challenging assumptions is bringing in a different perspective, right? If I went to a particular school and only hired people from that school, we may not have a difference of perspectives and it would be harder to challenge those assumptions because we’re all like-minded and that’s not the environment we want to create. We want to create an environment where if you have an MBA that’s great but if you don’t have any formal education at all then you’re just as capable to come to table with an idea or an execution for us to implement. And I’m happy to hear both.

You mentioned that insurance wasn’t the kind of environment you wanted to be in because you wanted, for lack of a better term, a different vibe. So, how did you know that RSI was right for you and that you were choosing your own path, instead of just following the path laid out for you?

Initially, I didn’t – I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be in advertising or a computer programmer – I’ve dabbled in both things but failed miserably. But what I realized through time was that the important thing to me was the connection that I made with the people that I do business with, so sales became a natural next step. I had an intimate relationship with our business given that my dad started it, which made it all the more meaningful and carried a weight that resonated differently. I’m one of the few people that gets the chance to work with my dad and to work in an organization that I witnessed grow from my infancy to my adulthood, helping to make the legacy a better story than the point I entered it.

It gave me a personal connection to the business and a chance to make RSI the way I wanted, imparting my entrepreneurial vision for what it could be at a level where it might not be possible in a larger organization. It would be a different challenge.

At the same time, starting something on my own would be a daunting task too, because while I think I’m capable of starting a business from scratch there are risks involved in the learning curve and financial stress that are just different.

For people on the outside looking in, they might hear your vision for insurance and have a hard time squaring with their view of the industry which isn’t always charitable, to say the least. They don’t think of insurance companies as being on their side or being honest brokers with them. So you probably walk into conversations with clients who have misconceptions of the business and I’m curious how you’re trying to change those.

Yeah, excellent point and I think about it all the time. Nobody starts a business with the idea that they want to buy insurance. That’s not number one, or number two, or number three on their business plan. It’s an afterthought, right? And people will experience different elements of risk, and they’ll finance it in different manners through, again, their own experience. But again, most people don’t build a business thinking that they’re going to have an allocated budget and they’re not excited to spend it on insurance. It’s a product you buy that, and frankly, hope you never use, which is really weird. It’s just odd, right? Buying insurance maybe isn’t all that different from going to a mortuary. And I’m not trying to paint a grim picture that insurance is death. But, again, we’re selling a product people hope to never use until they have to and when it works, they’re so thankful they partnered with the right people because it could be the difference between financial success for the individual or the business. It’s complicated. It does have a lot of stigma to it that people aren’t happy with the outcomes of claims getting paid or the timeliness to it, or the transparency in the process. 

And they’re absolutely right, because the historical experience has not been a pleasant one. It’s one that’s been stale because it’s failed to advance. That’s why I look for opportunities for us to figure out how we create transparency, better predictability, and a better customer experience because business is personal to us. We want to have a customer centric business plan and business model. If it doesn’t fulfill the client’s needs first, we go back to figuring out the solution that does and then go try to implement that idea. That’s a big change from many of our competitors and the historic industry practices where companies hope to collect all your money, hope you’d never get to use it when you file a claim, and then maybe increase your rates with the hope you’ll just tolerate it. Because people don’t like change, they tend not to push back and the insurance companies win seven or eight times out of ten.

So when we pair that perspective with our own personal POV, our knowledge and the business strategy then we’re going to do things differently by challenging the assumptions that have existed in the industry. Now we have a fighting mentality for the personal paying the bill and because of that perspective towards  the client it allows us to win and win differently than other companies.

As part of winning now and in the future, EKA advocates for all businesses to “tech up” and I imagine you believe the same is true in insurance, with technology playing a role in reducing risk and costs for your clients. What role do you advocate technology should play in their businesses?

I’m a huge proponent of technology and all things related, but I also recognize that it can be overwhelming when you’re trying to figure out where to start. The good answer is “anywhere” and then adapt to it from there, figuring out what works for your unique set of needs and implementation plans. We try to get clients to use anything they can whether it is a low cost, easy solution for something like telematics transparency that’s rewarding and produces good ROI to get them started. The economics in the trucking business allow for investment in technology to help people get to where they can have better utilization, better transparency and bring increased safety to their driver population. And that’s ultimately what we want, right? We all just want to do more and to do it better.

For our trucking clients, doing more and doing it better is driving more miles with greater fuel efficiency, with less interruptions and less days. Because if they’re doing all those things, they’re spending less money on the fat then they’ll have more operational margin to either sustain the business or reinvest in themselves.

That’s wonderful and very antithetical to what we often experience with insurance, where you’re actually helping your client spend less money in a time when it seems like costs are rising in every area of business. Even though we’re all sick of those emails beginning with “in these uncertain times,” it seems like the world is only getting more unpredictable for all of us. What do you think business leadership in the logistics industry can do to provide stability up and down their businesses, from the boardroom to the frontline workers like drivers? 

That’s a hard question, right? Because there’s so many external influences that leaders have to adapt to on a daily basis. But what I think leaders can do is create a sustainable vision for their business and their enterprise, joining hands with the groups of labor that aid them in that plan and make them a party to the success. It becomes a strategic mindset for a leader, whether you’re an insurance agency or a trucking company, to say “we are in this together” and find a path forward that includes progress for all participants. 

It also probably needs to include a financial component as quality of life is a big and relevant concern today where the entire world has learned offices don’t need to exist in the same way they once did. But while so much of the world has the ability to work from home, trucks still have to continue driving and there’s more challenges in competing for that driver talent.

So whether it’s the technology or autonomous trucks, or semi-autonomous trucks or quality of equipment rate or paid benefits, or even just changing the conditions that they work in today, I think we have to be mindful what the business evolves to so that our plan fits in a modern world, because driving from coast to coast at the lowest cost is probably not the solution. Not many people want to do that job anymore because it’s hard and there’s other opportunities elsewhere that impact how we recruit, train and retain talent.

Absolutely. Now, speaking of changing offices, I know that after this conversation you’re switching from land to sea to reel in some big fish. So, for a city guy like me who doesn’t know anything about fishing, any advice for what I should look to reel in and any rookie mistakes I should expect to make?

I’ll be a bit ambiguous in my answer, because I think it applies to you a lot of things, whether it’s fishing, business life, relationships or anything.

Fish for something you think you can catch, right? It’s not about me, and it’s not about what I want for you. It’s about what you think you want for yourself. So, find a fish you think you can catch. And regardless if you catch it or not, just enjoy the experience. Don’t have the expectation that you’re going to get out there and catch the biggest or the most impressive or whatever fish is on your mind. I think you just want to enjoy the experience and the journey. If you get to catch a fish, no matter what type it is, that’s a rewarding bonus. If it’s something that you can experience and share or hold personally for yourself then it’s your own token or reward and that’s great. 

But just don’t don’t have expectations that aren’t real. Just enjoy the process. That’s the most you can do. It’s just a journey. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it’s greater and better than you think it could be. 

And sometimes it’s nothing at all and that’s okay, because you still learn from it all.

Well, that  got more philosophical than I expected. I figured you were going to tell me I had to catch a 20lb mackerel or I would be a failure [laughs].

Fishing is like baseball and golf. You know, most people fail most of the time and low scores win.

On that note, thank you for your time, Patrick.

Thank you.

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