Great North Insurance Services Owner Nick Killoran insists he’s not an entrepreneur. Strange, considering he was one of three finalists for the FMWF Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. As he puts it, he and his team “aren’t re-inventing the wheel,” but you can bet they’ll be there for you if yours goes at.
One award Great North did take home was “Small Business of the Year,” and we recently talked to Killoran about some of the ways his six-year-old company has been able to stand out in an industry as crowded and inconspicuous as insurance.
YOU SAY YOU REALLY BELIEVE IN SOMETHING CALLED THE “QUESTION- BASED SERVICES” STYLE OF BUSINESS. WHAT IS THAT, EXACTLY?
Nick Killoran: We ask business owners: what keeps you up at night? What’s the thing that scares you most about your business? And we start figuring it out. We ask those kinds of questions, see what their needs are and then try to have a conversation. And then solve last. It’s a very open dialogue. We try to be an investment for this business owner versus
just an expense. So many people commoditize insurance because of the Geicos, the Generals. You can go online and buy anything you want. Insurance should not be one of them.
You can get a really good deal with an independent like us, where we’re going to shop it out for you and not just be kind of out there in the wind wondering what the next step is. Insurance is way too involved to just go out and do it yourself. Buying something on Amazon is different than buying an insurance policy.
STATISTICALLY, WHEN YOU START A BUSINESS, THE ODDS ARE HEAVILY STACKED AGAINST YOU. KNOWING THAT, WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR DOING IT ANYWAY?
NK: It’s funny you bring that up because I was just in a meeting and heard that 80 percent of startup businesses fail in the first five years. Of the 20 percent that make it, another 80 percent of those fail in the next ve years. So we’re in that next five – to 10-year period right now. So I’m not sure we’ve made it. We’re grinding.
What made me want to take the jump, though, was that I was working between 12-and 16-hour days at Wells Fargo. And I thought, ‘If I’m going to work this hard, I want to build something.’ And honestly, it could’ve been anything. But I want to try and make a mark and build a team and really try to excel in the business world like that. It’s very, very important to me that we’re trying to leave something for our kids. The fear of opening up this business quickly turned to the fear of the fact that (my employees) depend on us.
YOU SAID THERE ARE TWO WORDS YOU WON’T USE. WHAT ARE THEY?
NK: They’re ‘job’ and ‘boss.’ Can’t stand either one of them. I like to think of this as a career opportunity and we’re all colleagues. I’m willing to do anything here that anyone else is, whether that’s scraping the front steps or taking the garbage out.
And if anything, these people are an extension of our family. It sounds really cliché, I know, but they are really, really good people. And when we’re looking to bring somebody on, I’m not really concerned about their insurance background and that kind of stuff. I’m way more concerned about, ‘Alright, do they have life put together? Are they good people? Do they want to give back to the community?’
We have to be able to allocate time for all aspects. And it’s family- first in this office. If somebody calls in and says, ‘I have a sick child. They’re going to stay home.’ That’s ne with me. I don’t even think twice about that.
We want that happy work-home balance for all of our people here. Because otherwise people will grind for two or three years, and then at some point, they’re going to say, ‘OK, this is enough.’ And like I tell them, too, I’m willing to work those kind of hours now. Because bottom line is that this is on my shoulders. I’m okay with me working those kind of hours. I do not want them working those kind of hours.
YOU’RE AN INDEPENDENT INSURANCE AGENCY. FROM THE CUSTOMER’S PERSPECTIVE, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ADVANTAGES OF THAT?
NK: Direct carriers, direct writers, captive agents—all of those things are basically the same thing— you’re talking State Farm, American Family, Nodak. They only know their products. So you walk in there and you ask for auto insurance, they quote up the auto insurance and here it is. Well, they don’t really have anything to compare it to. And I have friends who are State Farm and American Family agents, but they just don’t have the options that we have in the form of multiple carriers.
And then the other thing is that we are accessible at all times. And that’s a big deal in the insurance world. I can tell you from my banking days that one of the reasons I chose the insurance world is because we’d come to try and close a loan and we don’t have an insurance binder and are trying to get a hold of an insurance agent
at two o’clock on a Friday, it’s ridiculous.
And that’s not an indictment of all of us as insurance agents, but the bottom line is that when (Co-owner Zach Bosh) and I decided to do this, this came with it. We said we were going to put our cell phone numbers on our business cards.
If people need us, we’re going to be accessible. I answered a claim call the other day at ve o’clock in the morning. I’ve answered calls at three o’clock in the morning. Not all claims fall under that eight-to- ve window. All people need is that assurance that they don’t have to worry about it.
YOU DON’T STRIKE ME AS A GUY WHO NEEDS AN AWARD TO VALIDATE WHAT YOU’RE DOING, BUT IT STILL MUST’VE BEEN GRATIFYING WINNING THE CHAMBER’S “SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR” AWARD.
NK: Truthfully—and this is going to sound cliché again—but we were happy to be in three categories.
We got our group together, called Preference Personnel, and had someone come in and just take care of the phones so everybody could be there. There were people in our office who were like, ‘No, no, go. We’ll take care of it. We don’t need to hire somebody for a couple hours.’ But again, we hire the people and
the people build the business. That is so important to me. So let’s bring everybody with.
And I told them, ‘We’re not going to win. I mean, look at this list.’ There were wonderful small businesses in that category. And then when Great North got announced, I looked at my wife and I’m sure I let out an expletive. But I was just like, ‘What on Earth?’
I’m really good with one-on-one and I’m really good around 10 or 20 or 25 people, but 800 people scares the death out of me. So when I got up there, the only thing that saved me, truthfully, was that the lights hit and I couldn’t see anything. I bet my pupils were like 1 mm wide. But yes, it was really exciting to hear our name called. I’m not sure if it’s really validation, and the reason I say that is that we have such a long way to go. But to be recognized in front of that group of people in this community that is full of unbelievable businesses, that is really cool.
HOW DOES THE OVERALL HEALTH OF THE LOCAL ECONOMY AFFECT AN INDUSTRY LIKE INSURANCE?
NK: If you look at an industry like construction, that’s definitely helped us as a new agency because there are new companies that are starting up every day. And they need insurance. If the economy wasn’t good around here and there weren’t startups and new small businesses, then it would be a lot more dif cult. Because then we’re having to go after existing businesses that have worked with the same insurance agent for a number of years.
Now, we are overcoming that and are getting these businesses to switch over to our agency because they see the value-adds that we bring to the equation. But it’s nice to have a good mix. We’re helping (new businesses) out, walking them through things. And we truly are an asset to them because they’re not going to have a CFO. They don’t have the cash to do that. So they’re relying on us for some of these CFO-type duties.
IF YOU COULD GIVE AN ASPIRING OR NEW BUSINESS OWNER ONE PIECE OF ADVICE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
NK: If I failed this business at all, it was anytime I questioned how great it could be. Anytime I settled, that was the issue. Whether it was a hire or just thinking, ‘I’m not going to go after this account because we’re not ready for it.’ Anytime I doubted myself or the business as a whole, that’s when we struggled. So the advice I would give is: believe in yourself. Anything is possible, as long as you’re willing to work for it.
“And surround yourself with great people. If you have that drive and surround yourself with people who fill voids where your weaknesses are, I think that 20 percent success rate would go way up if people would, instead of folding up, they doubled down and said, ‘We’re pushing through this.’
Great North Insurance Services
675 13th Ave. E #101, West Fargo