2012 Marketing Agency of the Year
Gillis, Ellis & Baker’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation obviously impressed previous Rough Notes cover agents, as the agency won by the widest margin we have seen since the changeover to a vote by their peers was implemented.
It was indeed a dramatic story of rising above catastrophe and somehow managing to prosper. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, the agency had just moved in to newly renovated digs across the street from the Superdome. And then suddenly it was all gone. Even though much of the new furniture and workstations were still in the office, the infrastructure to support the office was decimated. No phone service, no Internet access, and no good way to get to the office anyway. At the same time, 27 of the 37 employees had to deal with the complete destruction of or significant loss to their homes. And they knew that their clients, many of whom had become their friends over the years, were facing similar tragedies.
Reopening in any part of New Orleans was impossible at the time, but the agency employees knew that this really represented a moment in time when their services were critical. So they reopened in a trailer in Baton Rouge, with the entire staff back to work by September 2 to handle what turned out to be more than 3,000 claims and more than 10,000 phone calls.
At the same time, they had to listen to news reports predicting the demise of New Orleans. But the staff said “no way.”
“As a group, we were committed to returning to our city and helping with its rebirth,” says agency Chairman R. Parke Ellis, CPCU. “When we came out of the trailer and returned home, we weren’t exactly sure what was going to happen to us and to the city of New Orleans, but we were sure that we were going to do our utmost to make a successful recovery.”
The agency buckled down and settled the more than 3,000 claims as quickly as possible so its clients could get back to their homes and businesses. Most of that occurred even before the agency returned to its offices on Poydras Street. And they really got to see how important their work to focus on risk management and proper protection was. “After the storm, 148 of our 150 largest clients were still in business,” Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Douglass C. Mills, CPCU, says proudly.
At the same time, “A lot of horror stories came in from elsewhere,” he continues. Not every business and home owner fared as well as the clients of Gillis, Ellis & Baker. And a lot of those people were looking for a new home for their insurance business and “we got a lot of calls from them and from referrals from clients that we helped make whole.”
That led to a significant growth spurt that continues today. “Our growth rate, in a terrible market, has been on the order of 15% a year,” Parke says. “And that’s all organic growth.”
When it appeared on our March 2012 cover, the agency had grown to 47 people, with a whole new generation added to the staff—16 of the employees are under the age of 35, compared to three in 2005.
Parke concludes, “There’s a great American success story occurring here and we’re part of it. We’re much bigger, much better positioned and much more engaged in the city than we were six years ago. You can just feel the change and excitement.”