Succeeding An Icon

Posted on Jan 1, 2011 :: Small Business Spotlight
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Courtesy of Dufour Advertising

Easing transitions is always a concern with businesses in flux. Whether the company is being acquired or an executive retires, there is often uncertainty on the part of both the staff and clients. But when Maritime Insurance recently faced an ownership transition, it addressed the situation early to ensure no interruption of business.

“This wasn’t a sudden change. The transition was planned for ahead of time,” says Maritime’s new president, Mike Mrdjenovich. He and several other corporate stockholders now lead the multi-line insurance firm, with locations in Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Plymouth.

“There’s security of knowing that the agency will continue to be there,” adds Don Hammond, who heads the company’s financial services division.

Maritime’s longtime owner and chief stockholder, Wayne Sather, retired in late 2009 after leading the firm for 35 years. “Wayne was an icon in the insurance agency,” says Mrdjenovich. The question the other employees pondered was, “How do you follow that act?”

Mrdjenovich adds, “This transition took place over a two-year period of time. We were all involved in the management role before Wayne retired, so the transition was seamless. We didn’t really lose any customers. Many businesses don’t plan this far ahead.”

That’s a wonderful lesson, he says: Plan enough ahead of time so clients aren’t taken by surprise. “Have an agreement in place so vendors and customers know if a key person leaves, the business is going to continue.”

Maritime – so named because of its proximity to Lake Michigan – was founded as Gottsacker Insurance in 1937 and had undergone numerous name changes and owners over the years. Likewise, the company’s divisions have branched out as well.

Now the company, one of the largest independently owned insurance firms in the state, offers several lines of insurance, representing dozens of companies. Among its biggest sectors are commercial insurance and employee benefits. The company also offers personal lines, as well as financial services.

“Personal and financial services are growing,” says Mrdjenovich. “It’s nice to have a good mix of each. We’re successful because we’re diversified.”

Maintaining that diversity while continuing to grow the business were key goals for the new ownership team. Having experts in the respective divisions is important, Hammond says. “Everyone working for our company is a specialist. I think our clients really appreciate that we don’t try to be everything to everyone.”

While insurance is not a new field, it is an industry undergoing many changes, especially in health care. Staying informed on the changes and relaying that information to clients has helped Maritime weather the recessionary storm.

“We’re trying to look at changes in health care as mainly positive,” says Niel Larsen, head of Maritime’s employee benefits division. Clients are wondering, he says, “where are we going, how are we going to get there? It’s gotten us a lot of phone calls.”

Larsen and the staff hope to quell those clients’ worries. “It’s a great opportunity for us,” he says. “We’re finding a lot of clients yearning for someone to explain it to them. One of the main things we’ve used is the portal resource; that has a lot of information about legislative updates.”
“Where we can be of help is to put ourselves in their shoes,” says Mrdjenovich.

Maritime has surprised even itself in this economic recession. “We’re meeting or exceeding our goals and objectives” in terms of customers,” says Mrdjenovich. “With a tough economic climate, we were just hoping to stay even. We actually grew.”

The continuity of long-term employees taking the helm allowed Maritime to follow that philosophy, says Mrdjenovich, who has been with the company 20 years. Hammond and Larsen have 10 to 12 years’ tenure.

“The employees know our style; our style is very similar to Wayne’s,” says Mrdjenovich. “We all get along because we’ve all worked together a long time. The chemistry is good.”

Tim DuFour, president and owner of DuFour Advertising in Sheboygan, agrees. He has been affiliated with Maritime for two years, working on branding and expanding the company into new geographic markets.

“The previous owners had a very clear division of where they wanted to go,” he says. “The new partners have a good vision for the future, and they have great support from all their employees to move forward.”

Mrdjenovich also credits the stockholders’ presence in the community with raising awareness – and, in turn, business. “We’re very active in the communities we’re in,” he says. “The more you’re out there, the more business will come.”