Van Wyk Keeps It Local

January 7, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The company Max Van Wyk founded “with little more than a leap of faith” in 1982 has been growing at a rate of at least 20 percent each year, with little public fanfare for the accomplishment.

Originally known as Van Wyk Insurance Co., Van Wyk Risk & Financial Management has grown into a full-service, multi-million dollar independent insurance and risk management company. Its motto — “Where clients come for good” — is fitting for a company that has retained 98.5 percent of its clients year-over-year. Van Wyk attributes that achievement to his “powerhouse team” of 18 employees who use their expertise and creativity to successfully mitigate clients’ risk.

“At Van Wyk we are committed to building long-term relationships with our clients and serving as a true partner and advisor,” Van Wyk commented. “It is this service promise and how we fulfill it that allows us to maintain and enjoy a client retention rate that is the envy of the industry.”

Van Wyk grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., where his dad owned a gas station and also contracted with businesses for fuel delivery. Van Wyk earned a degree in economics from Calvin College, got married, and worked a couple of years for a security company before taking a trainee position at CNA, a large Chicago-based insurance company. Over his 10 years with the company, he worked his way up to the post of CNA’s marketing manager in Grand Rapids, where his job was to interest other insurance agents in using CNA as their market. He also earned an MBA in marketing from Western Michigan University. During his time in Grand Rapids, he and his wife, Carol, a native of Chicago, took a real liking to the community.

“I was 35 years old, I was climbing the corporate ladder and was getting ready to be transferred to another city,” Van Wyk recalled.

“Even though my wife and I came from other cities, we liked this community and what it had to offer. We decided to raise our two children here. I had this knowledge of insurance and had always had the desire to own my own business. At that point, I decided to hang out a sign and start my own agency.”

Van Wyk was confident in his knowledge of the insurance business, but there were some major drawbacks: He didn’t have any money to start a business, and he had never sold an insurance policy in his life. Another drawback, he said, was that all of his friends were insurance agents, so when he hung out his shingle, they were no longer his friends. He entered their arena with the desire to “do things a little bit differently.” For the first six years, he was the agency’s sole employee.

Van Wyk Risk & Financial Management offers risk management solutions for everything from commercial property and casualty insurance, to loss control, risk consulting and personal insurance and risk management. The company serves clients both large and small, including institutions, contractors, manufacturers, retailers, family-owned businesses, distributors, equipment dealers, franchisers, transporters, engineers and financial service providers. The majority of the company’s clients are based in Michigan, but clients’ businesses take the firm to many other states, Van Wyk noted. Its clients have annual sales anywhere from $100,000 to billions of dollars in annual revenue. 

Van Wyk refers to his company as “kind of a boutique risk management shop.” It competes with the national brokers extensively, but Van Wyk Risk & Financial Management is family-owned and local: Its employees work and live in the community, support the community and attend community functions, he said. 

“Once people realized they could get the same services from a home-grown agency and from people that they know, the more clients started to fall in line,” Van Wyk remarked. “In the last several years, we’ve seen clients that had been with national brokers migrating to us. We’ve had a very strong transition of those types of clients.”

In 2007, the Michigan Business & Professional Association recognized the company as one of West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. EMC Insurance Co. recognized it as a Premier Partner, and Frankenmuth Mutual Insurance Co. named it Agency of the Year.

Name: Max B. Van Wyk

Company: Van Wyk Risk & Financial Management

Position: Founder, Chairman and CEO

Age: 60

Birthplace:Sioux Falls, S.D.

Residence:Grand Rapids

Family/Personal: Wife, Carol; two grown daughters and a grown son, two of whom work in the family business.

Community/Business Involvement: Former chair, Better Business Bureau of West Michigan; past chair, Kent County Association of Independent Insurance Agents; former chair of CNA Grand Rapids PACER panel.

Biggest Career Break:

Getting approved for the initial line of credit he needed to start his own business.

“The most unique thing is that in spite of the economy and its ups and downs, we have never had a year here where we’ve grown less than 20 percent. We’ve always been a very marketing- and service-oriented business. Everyone here loves to go out and explain to new prospects what our services are so we can develop new clients.”

Everyone at Van Wyk Risk & Financial Management — whether salesperson, receptionist, service clerk or account executive — is “incentivised” to bring in new business: Each quarter the company takes a portion of the revenues it generated and doles out bonuses to everyone, and Van Wyk believes that, too, has contributed to the company’s growth. Additionally, the firm has always tried to hire the most professional people in the industry, he said. The firm carries no debt, so it has the ability to do what is necessary to attract top talent to its team, Van Wyk pointed out.

“Everything we’ve done has been organic; it has all been internal growth. Unlike other companies, we’ve never merged with or bought another agency. We’ve always kept a pretty good handle on the company culture we wanted and the markets we wanted to be into.”

Van Wyk said he loves the insurance and risk management business. Van Wyk Risk & Financial Management passed a milestone last year: its 25th year in business.

Van Wyk said he can’t predict what the next 25 years will bring but said the company’s core values will remain constant.

“The ‘value’ is that we’ll always want to serve others and bring added value to clients,” Van Wyk said. “We have this trend of growing 20 percent a year. I don’t know how long we can do that, but, by golly, we’re going to keep trying.” 

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