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BKS-Partners insurance company creates a culture focused on people

Below: BKS Partners founding members, from left, Laura Sherman, Elizabeth Krystyn and Lowry Baldwin in the kitchen area of their office. BKS, a boutique insurance company, won the Times top workplace award for small businesses. At left: Bobbleheads of BKS Partners founding members, from left, Sherman, Baldwin and Krystyn.
Published Apr. 11, 2014

TAMPA

When BKS-Partners set out to create a corporate culture different from traditional insurance businesses, they started with vocabulary.

They defined themselves as a firm, not an agency, and referred to their workers as colleagues. Customer service reps became relationship managers, and carriers became insurance company partners.

And dare say someone should "whip up a cost quote for a customer.'' Instead, they "do a lifestyle diagnostic analysis for a client.''

While unnecessary fluff to some, the partners say the "terms of endearment'' are key factors in ensuring a work environment that's rewarding, fun and full of opportunities. It's the "BKS way,'' and everyone buys in. This year, the boutique insurance agency ranked as Tampa Bay's top workplace among small employers.

The partners — Lowry Baldwin, Elizabeth Krystyn and Laura Sherman — looked at their own needs and values when establishing the firm in 2006. They wanted an environment where everyone was treated equally with respect. Where everyone's opinions mattered regardless of tenure. Where young people, in particular, had the potential to map out a career path, a rarity for many in the insurance industry.

"When we started BKS, one of the things that was attractive to me was structuring a culture that reflected who we were,'' Krystyn said. "It's really easy if you can go to work every day and be yourself and espouse that.''

The company takes a light-hearted approach to an otherwise serious industry focused on numbers and the likeliness of catastrophic events. Its 12,000-square-foot office along Boy Scout Boulevard stocks gum balls and Legos to lighten up meetings. Its kitchen keeps an endless supply of almonds, oatmeal and Cheerios and has two ice makers to help everyone chill.

Like a lot of progressive workplaces, employees dress casual on Fridays — but in exchange for tossing a few bucks into a jeans jar for a local charity. As a bonus, they repeat the perk on Mondays if they are ahead of their sales goals.

Serving the community is a top priority for the company, both in the form of volunteer hours and hard cash. Every year, BKS donates 15 percent of its profits to charities near and dear to the partners and employees. It sponsors a student at Academy Prep in Tampa, and employees take turns delivering food to the elderly through Meals on Wheels every other Friday.

The partners sit on many charitable boards, including the Tampa Museum of Art Foundation, the Children's Dream Fund and Lowry Park Zoo's endowment foundation. It's in part to build connections with potential clients. But it's also to give back to the community and set an example for employees.

BKS believes strongly in blurring the lines between work, fun and public service. Baldwin, 54, set the bar. His great-grandfather, Sumter Lowry, served on the Tampa City Council and granted the land that now holds the Lowry Park Zoo. His mother, Sally Lowry Baldwin, led a high-profile campaign in the '80s to raise millions to update the zoo to its present state.

Baldwin and Krystyn, 47, have been in business together since the 1980s and were at Davis Baldwin Insurance and Risk Management when it was sold to Wachovia in late 2000. Soon after, they met Sherman, 41, who was in Atlanta at an insurance agency also acquired by Wachovia. All shared the same values and passion for the industry. A trio was born.

The firm provides insurance and risk management services to businesses and wealthy people with homes of at least 4,000 square feet. They take a holistic approach to each client by considering their houses, cars and boats, but also the nanny who drives around their children and the handyman who oversees their properties. In the case of business owners, the company provides insurance and employee benefits.

In six years, BKS has grown from eight employees to 60 and annual revenue of $8.4 million. In December, it took a big leap and bought half ownership in Villages Insurance Partners, an insurance agency for residents in the senior community in Ocala. It has an additional 48 employees.

Even during the recession, when competitors were cutting expenses, BKS continued to invest in its employees, a strategy that has paid off in employee loyalty and retention. "Since day one, we have never not given raises,'' Baldwin said. "We've never not paid bonuses. We have never not contributed to the 401(k).''

Employees receive free gym memberships to LA Fitness and three weeks of vacation starting the first year, in addition to more standard benefits. As part of the charitable spirit, everyone gets 24 hours a year for community service work, whether it be chaperoning a child's field trip or preparing for a charitable event. Several work remotely.

"I just had a baby and work one day a week from home. I really like the flexibility,'' said Holly Robertson, a relationship manager on the private risk management team.

To add levity and boost morale, the company gives SMARTy Pants awards for anyone who receives a complimentary letter or email from a client or co-worker. The notes are written on cards with a picture of a pair of tie-dyed pants in the company colors (green, light blue and navy). Each is posted on the office bulletin board and published in the weekly Fast Blast e-newsletter.

Once a month, the SMARTy Pants cards are read aloud at the company's luncheon and put in a bowl for a chance to win prizes. The winner gets to spin a wheel with various prizes, from a $20 gift card to Yogurtology to lunch with the partners, considered around the office as the "funny'' prize.

The partners take their work and clients seriously, but not themselves. Their sales people break into a spontaneous "money dance'' when they close a deal. Their most prized possession is a gift from the staff: a set of bobbleheads made in their likenesses, right down to the glasses Baldwin always wears around his neck. It's featured prominently around the office and in company reports.

Aside from the monthly luncheons, BKS hosts monthly breakfasts made by different teams. It might be pancakes whipped up in the office kitchen. Or Sherman's homemade breakfast casserole with cheese grits and fruit.

The company credits much of its strength to its young workforce, most of which is under 30. It often hires people right of college who show energy, passion, smarts and a servant's heart. A good resume is helpful but trumped by a strong desire to learn and embrace the company's culture.

"Because insurance seems like an old, boring type of industry, by going out and recruiting young, educated but inexperienced folks, we can teach them the BKS way,'' Krystyn said.

BKS enjoys low turnover and looks within its own ranks for referrals whenever making new hires. Sherman's last three hires were referrals from employees who recently joined the firm and liked what they saw. They got a big "thanks!' and a $500 to $1,000 referral bonus, depending on the position.

Even mistakes become learning experiences. After meetings, the staff members critique what they did well and what they can improve upon as part of an assessment technique they call BKS 20:20, a play on perfect vision and clarity. There's also a suggestion box, but no one uses it. Employees know their bosses' doors are permanently open.

The partners set high expectations while giving employees the tools to balance work and life issues. Monthly BKS University classes, soon to be called Vitality, focus on topics outside the insurance realm and have included yoga, identify theft, nutrition and self-defense. Twice a month, they offer Bible study in the conference room.

The employees have a financial stake in their own success. Every year, BKS sets aside 10 percent of profits for the "colleague bonus pool'' for anyone not eligible for commissions on the sale of insurance policies.

"We structured it so it feels like they are all owners in the firm,'' Baldwin said. "They all know exactly what we're doing in terms of progress from a profitability standpoint.''

For people like Lori Kilczewski, a marketing representative for the employee benefits group, every aspect translates to a positive, healthy work environment. In her 20 years working in the industry, BKS is "by far'' the best place she has been. Everyone is treated fairly, regardless of tenure, she said. Terms like colleagues and clients aren't just corporate speak.

"They are really looking out for their employees. I love the entire philosophy about wellness,'' she said. "It's a place where you do look forward to coming to every day.''

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Matt Kashdin, 25, left, joined BKS-Partners two years ago not long after graduating from Florida State University.

A commercial risk analyst, he likes the opportunities for career advancement.

He gets consulted on high-level work and is exposed to more aspects of the business than most peers his age.

"The partners are here, but there's none of this, 'Oh, there are the partners.' They are very open and receptive to our input, and you don't get that very often.''

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