By Matthew Brodsky, senior editor/Web editor
A fortune won and lost on every deal
All you need's a strong heart and a nerve of steel
Viva Las Vegas, Viva Las Vegas
Some of us can close our eyes and conjure these lyrics sung by Elvis. Those who know Allen Kaercher hear him singing them, especially that famous last line, when they greet him in person, or listen to his last voicemail.
Born and raised in Vegas, Kaercher, a 2008 Risk & Insurance® Power BrokerTM in the Gaming category, feels strongly about his hometown. As president of an independent brokerage firm bearing his name, he has a passion about the sustainability of smaller brokers and agencies in the face of ever-larger competitors and economic predators.
Approaching 60, closing in on the age when the M&A offers come calling, Kaercher knows the topic. It was his father who started an independent insurance agency in 1950 when the community's population was under 25,000. The son started working with the father in 1969, selling homeowners and auto policies, cleaning office, butting heads until the son couldn't take it anymore.
He found out a friend worked at a company called Marsh, which Kaercher wasn't familiar with at the time. But he applied and got hired by a gentleman who knew his father, heard good things about the son's work ethic, and could double his salary.
The last day on the job at his old position, his father approached him at their converted house of an office. His dad slammed his fist into Kaercher's desk and said to him, "Don't you forget the Kaercher name was around before you were born."
"I am going to buy your ass," Kaercher remembered thinking at the time.
"You talk about creating a sales person," Kaercher exclaimed years later, during a phone interview with Risk & Insurance®, which followed a lunch interview at a French restaurant alongside a quiet, cool pond outside downtown Vegas.
So upon leaving his father's agency, Kaercher dedicated himself to one day returning and buying out his father's business, to becoming such a broker that no one, not even his father, would have anything on him. Kaercher said during his first days at Marsh he picked an industry, tore out whole pages of the yellow book, and called every number. He didn't take a vacation for his first seven years there.
By 32, he was one of the youngest vice president majors at the alphabet broker. He ran the state of Nevada.
When Kaercher's father got older and became ill, he bought him out. Kaercher brought with him the huge book of business he had built at Marsh, along with the relationships with the world's top markets. His goal: to become a "mini Marsh" in his hometown.
It's not that Kaercher Campbell is mini though. It's a thriving operation with three offices (the other two are in Los Angeles and Chicago), two solid partners, revenues approaching $10 million and sales at about $100 million. His gaming operation has big-name clients like Boyd Gaming, the Venetian, Sands and the $3 billion City of Entertainment in Macau. His firm has the contract for the OCIP on the Las Vegas Convention Center. And the firm has divisions working in surety, construction, claims, benefits and professional liability.
The firm is big enough that it can be picky about writing good business and getting bonuses from major markets, yet not big enough to steer business and put an "arm twist" on carriers' balance sheets, as Kaercher put it. Then again, the company is big enough to actually be doing some of the consuming of small agencies. His partner in Chicago, David Putman, did M&A work for Marsh.
"We're doing the same thing as the big boys," Kaercher said. "We just can't do it on the same scale as the big boys."
But the brokerage is also small enough for Kaercher to possess a defined sense of us versus them, to take a leadership and advocacy role in his industry such as when he was president of the Clark County/Las Vegas chapter of the Big I.
He can discuss for hours the benefits of smaller firms. How they have lower expense costs than large brokerages so they can "turn on a dime" to client needs. How they can be "bossed" by clients about fees and the direction of an account.
"We work harder," he said.
Or how smaller firms have more of an impact in local communities, such as how he and his employees do volunteer work throughout the Vegas area. He's meant so much to the local Air Force squadron that he's gotten two flights in F-16s. Or visit his office and he'll show you his passion for his hometown, the 12 paintings from Roy Purcell adorning his office walls that depict the history of the valley or the plaques and photos and awards from local and state organizations and charities that overfill his shelves and his desk.
He waxed rhetorically about asking the local Aon branch how many neighborhood charities it supports.
"If they're putting more money into this here community, then God bless," he said. But if they're only taking money out of Vegas to ship it to L.A. ... then he puts his "chamber of commerce hat on" and takes them on.
"Local brokers support the local economy. International brokers don't," Kaercher said, hat firmly on head.
He can tell you as well how smaller firms can bring to bear the same level of talent without the heady turnover. The same technology and claims handling capabilities without the massive bureaucracies.
And with a smaller, local firm, you get the character. Kaercher can quickly shift, on a dime, from talking about the benefits of small brokerage operations to his recent family vacation to Laguna Beach. There, he came across a Tommy Bahama-type shirt with a back in the design of blackjack table, with cards and "Insurance" in big letters emblazoned on it.
"I gotta have that shirt," he said he remembered thinking when he saw it. "Viva Las Vegas, baby!"
September 15, 2008
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