Finding the Right Niche to Grow Business

Bruce Denson overcame his inexperience in the insurance industry to help expand Cobbs Allen’s presence on the national stage

Bruce Denson would be the first to admit that working in the insurance business wasn’t his first choice, but there’s a very good chance that it will be his final business stop. Denson is the president and chief operating officer of Cobbs Allen, a Birmingham, Alabama-based risk management and insurance firm. The company offers a unique approach, called “the guideline process,” to local, regional, and national businesses in commercial and personal insurance, employee benefits, and alternative risk financing.

Although Denson has a high-profile title and a father who’s a staple in the insurance industry, a career in insurance was anything but a foregone conclusion for him. In fact, he had no plans to work in insurance, let alone to live in Birmingham. He studied philosophy and classics at Vanderbilt and had his eyes set on becoming a pastor after he graduated.

“I started seminary in a masters in divinity program with the purpose of becoming a college minister,” he says. “I’m still very interested in those things. I still read every day and am close with many friends in academia and ministry, but it wasn’t the right fit for me.”

After two years, he was unsure of where he should go or what he should do career-wise, so he called his father, who always thought he’d be great in the insurance business, and asked if his offer to join Cobbs Allen still stood. His father responded by asking when he could start.

“I started in January 2005, with no experience, no knowledge of the insurance business, and no real business knowledge,” Denson says. “I didn’t know much about economics. It was a really big learning curve and something that, initially, I simply enjoyed learning about. It was a whole other world of problems and thinking that was different and new.”

Given his lack of knowledge of the industry and business in general, it’s no surprise that success didn’t come right away. When Denson started, Cobbs Allen was mostly a Birmingham-area agency, and anyone he could try to bring on board was already a client or very familiar with the firm. His plan to expand the business’s reach outside of Alabama was solely to pick up the phone and call people, which left him with only a small level of success after two years. He knew that if he was going to excel, something had to change.

“I had this realization that what I was doing wasn’t really working,” Denson says. “I enjoyed the work, but we were never going to write enough business out of state that way to grow. I had to find a new way to write business somewhere other than Birmingham. I needed a way to give that initial phone call more meaning; that was the reality.”

Denson’s plan to get business outside of Alabama was to focus on risk management for specific industries throughout the country rather than focusing on selling insurance. These narrowly focused niche practice groups would be the differentiator Cobbs Allen needed to grow.

His first two attempts didn’t go well. He first worked with pizza delivery companies but only had one client hire Cobbs Allen to write one line of insurance, and it wasn’t for a lot of money. His second idea was to try the same plan in the home-building industry. Denson found a little more success there. A local home builder hired him and then introduced Denson to one of the leading home builder consultants in Denver, who ultimately endorsed his program.

The idea was good, but the timing wasn’t. Denson started to gain momentum in the home-building industry in 2006 and 2007, which happened to fall upon the eve of the housing industry falling apart.

“We were actually marginally successful with builders,” Denson says. “We had one of  the largest builders in the Southeast hire us. It was moving in the right direction, and then the economy fell apart and that business went away.”

After the first two misses, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone, including Denson, if Cobbs Allen had decided to move on from his practice group initiative. Fortunately, the third time proved to be the charm; he discovered the need for risk management in the vocational school industry.

“They have their own basket of risk issues that a traditional four-year state university or private college doesn’t have,” Denson says. “Since, at the time and even now, most policies and procedures were tailored to traditional four-year institutions, there was a real gap in the market for vocational schools. It’s a different kind of risk.”

The vocational school practice group continues to be a boost for Cobbs Allen. The company has its own customized policy forms tailored to the vocational school space and a partnership with one of the largest education trade associations in the country. What looked like too risky of a venture has now produced the company’s largest book of business.

“That is one of the great things about our firm: we encourage risk taking and don’t punish failure,” Denson says. “After the first two had bombed, a lot of people would have been like, ‘Hey, why don’t you just focus on our core business in Birmingham?’ But that wasn’t our culture, and Cobbs didn’t do that with me. Consequently, we don’t do that with other people now.”

The risk-taking spirit has spilled over throughout Cobbs Allen, as it has branched out into other practice groups and opened three offices since Denson became president. Practice groups have become the foundation of that expansion to Kansas City (PEOs), Houston (Energy), and New Orleans (Marine).

It has also pushed Cobbs into entirely new concepts that bridge the divide between traditional insurance and the financial and healthcare markets. Two years ago, Cobbs Allen started Out Front Financial to bring traditional financial risk products onto an insurance platform, and this year, the company started Out Front Health, a subsidiary that provides innovative health insurance solutions to professional employer organizations.

“The ideas we are executing in those business units are pretty cutting edge,” Denson says. “We have several ideas in the pipeline, and our practice leaders of those two divisions are two of the most creative people in insurance. Bringing that kind of new thinking will help us grow in new directions that have the potential to be exponential.”

For a guy who wanted nothing to do with insurance, Denson not only found his footing, but he also helped grow his company’s presence on a national level. Now, he admits that calling his dad was one of the best career moves he’s ever made.

“I said when I started I was going to be here for five years, go to business school, and do something else, but I ended up just loving the business,” Denson says. “It’s a great business. My dad and the other executives at Cobbs Allen have been great mentors. We hope we can continue to expand and are looking for more cities and growth opportunities for 2018.