By Dan Reynolds
This month, the Denver-based diversified financial services firm IMA Financial Group Inc. will break ground on a five-story, 100,000 square-foot headquarters building. In the process it has agreed to become part of a $3 billion mixed-use development project near Denver's Union Station at a time when more cautious development partners were pulling up in the face of a daunting real estate market dip.
"When the economy went down a lot of people in the real estate world kind of curled up in a ball," said Rob Cohen, chairman and CEO of IMA.
"I thought at the depths of the downturn that maybe this was a good time to try and see if we could strike a deal to do something," he said.
Therein is perhaps a window into the inner workings of Cohen, who heads a company with a primary emphasis on commercial property/casualty insurance brokering through its retail brokerage IMA Inc. Rather than shirk from a daunting task, or forbidding circumstances, Cohen and his team step back and analyze it, and then engage it, seeking opportunities.
IMA, which has offices in Denver, Dallas, Kansas City, and Topeka and Wichita, Kan., grew to $82 million in revenue in 2010, up from $16 million in revenue in 2001. Preliminary figures for 2011 show the company posting revenues of almost $90 million, up 9.3 percent from 2010, Cohen said.
"We're really pleased with that kind of performance, it is still a tough economy," Cohen said.
Besides property/casualty insurance brokering, IMA Financial also provides money management services and wholesale brokering.
Perhaps the stiffest challenge in describing the abilities and achievements of Rob Cohen and IMA Financial is in finding a place to begin. Because it is not flattery to say that there could be many possible starting points in discussing the attributes of Cohen and his company.
Let's start off by talking about Cohen's competitive nature and his firm's reputation for tackling the tough risks. That's what competitors and business associates talk about, anyway, when they talk about Cohen and IMA.
They describe Cohen as a man who is competitive in nature, but not uncivil, and who is not afraid to dig into the gritty details of a deal to get it done in a way that protects the client and which doesn't give an underwriter indigestion.
"What always impressed me about him is that he has got great intellectual curiosity and he is a great networker," said Martin Hughes, the chairman and CEO of Chicago-based HUB International Ltd.
Hughes, who has known Cohen for more than 20 years, said Cohen has an enviable set of talents and skills.
"You combine personality, networking capabilities and intellect and competitiveness -- he is a very competitive guy -- you combine all of this and you have somebody who is a natural leader," Hughes said.
As the leader of a third generation company, Cohen has had to prove himself: HUB's Hughes said Cohen has asserted himself without being abrasive.
"I saw him from a competitive standpoint wanting to accomplish something in the worst way, but going about it in a methodical, intelligent way, so it has been a great combination," Hughes said.
Another Chicago-based chief executive said Cohen and his team of IMA brokers are known for arranging coverage for difficult risks. "IMA tends to handle some pretty tough business that a lot of agencies would shy away from," said Tom Motamed, CEO of Chicago-based CNA.
"If you look at our specialties they tend to be in the tougher classes," said Cohen. "The more complicated the deal is, the more creative a solution that is needed, whether it is an alternative risk or special program or whatever, the better we seem to be," Cohen said.
He counts coverage of risks in the construction, energy, technology, health care, hospitality, public entity and real estate industries as IMA specialties. The company also counts as strengths, expertise in technology and the life sciences.
The IMA Financial Group encompasses IMA Inc., the retail insurance broker, Signature Select LLC, a subsidiary of IMA Inc. that provides personal and commercial insurance to small and midsize companies, Towerstone Inc., a wholesale insurance broker and managing general agency, and TrueNorth Inc., an investment advisory firm.
Cohen said he and other company executives are also taking a good look at pieces of the business that he would like his company to be stronger in.
"I think we talk all the time about specialties that would create new opportunities for us," Cohen said. "The private equity world is something that we want to expand and do more of," he said.
That capacity to take a hard look at what works and what could work better is something other insurance business leaders have noticed.
"He's always looking to and willing to test the things that are successful and the things that aren't successful and change them," said Shaun Kelly, the Boston-based president and CEO of Ironshore's U.S. operations.
In execution, Cohen has his own definition of what a specialty is, and it is married to his theory of talent attraction and retention.
"In our definition we need to have a producer who has the capability to access that market but we also need to have the technical expertise of that industry on an in-house basis," Cohen said.
"I think at other brokerages you can have either a great producer with knowledge or a great account executive and they call that a specialty," Cohen said.
IMA is known for finding talent within various industry sectors, talent that doesn't have to have any sort of background in insurance. "It's easier to teach people the nuances of the insurance business. It's a lot harder to learn the industries of our clients," Cohen said.
In managing the talent that he attracts, Cohen has also proven to be a leader who is open to new ideas, consciously fostering an atmosphere that encourages innovation.
"We are all confined by the paradigm of what we know and we have got to find a way to unlock that creativity, especially in the younger, newer generation who haven't been in the industry long enough to get stuck in the paradigms that we have," Cohen said.
IMA recently held an innovation day, where all of the company's employees were taken off-site, broken into interdisciplinary teams, and encouraged to come up with new business ideas.
The company offered a prize of $30,000 for the best idea and the IMA employees and partners came up with so many ideas that Cohen is still sorting them out.
"What blew my mind was that at the end of the day we had 471 innovative ideas," Cohen said. "We haven't given the initial prize because I am personally overwhelmed going through all of these ideas."
An unintended consequence of the exercise was that members of these interdisciplinary teams got to know each other better, but also got to know each other's jobs much better.
"What happened across the company was an amazing amount of learning about what each other does," he said.
The success of that day reflects what CNA's Motamed said of Cohen's overall approach, which is marked by confidence, and produces results. "He exudes confidence but he doesn't overdo it," Motamed said.
"There is no braggadocio to this guy. He does all of these things because he wants to do these things," Motamed said of not only Cohen's business work but his commitment to philanthropy and community service.
Cohen serves on boards of nine community and national organizations, including the United States Olympic Foundation and the Boy Scouts of America.
He's also a board member of the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers.
"He doesn't want credit for these things, he just thinks they are the right thing to do," Motamed said.
And lastly, a word or two about ethics.
The veteran Hughes said Cohen also has a leg up when it comes to his moral compass.
"First of all, the industry is incredibly competitive, right, so it is made up of a lot of A-type personalities and I also think it is made up of a lot of people who are willing to bend the rules to get what they want," Hughes said.
"Rob is not one of those people. He has ethics, he adheres to those ethics and I think that makes his people respect him and I think that makes him stand out," Hughes said.
"I don't think it's something where he has said to himself, 'Gee, I need to be this way because it will make people respect me, that's just the way he is," Hughes said.
"I think that is one of the reasons he stands out and I think it is why people are attracted to him and his firm."
DAN REYNOLDS is managing editor of Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at email@example.com.
April 13, 2012
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