Inside Track: Williams ignites a ‘no limits’ attitude
Acrisure CEO leads growing global insurance brokerage with a vision outside his line of sight.
Gregory Williams is not the kind of guy who rests on his laurels.
The co-founder, president and CEO of Caledonia-based Acrisure — which is planning a $33 million move into downtown Grand Rapids’ Studio Park development next year — said he knew from a young age that if he was going to succeed, he would have to do it on his own.
Williams was 14 when his 39-year-old father died of a heart attack in 1976. His mother, who had been a stay-at-home parent, was suddenly faced with the need to support Williams and his three siblings on her own.
At that point, she did what Williams called “the greatest thing that a parent could do”: She sat him down and told him the truth.
“She said, ‘Look, whatever you want to accomplish in life, you’re going to have to do it on your own. I’m not going to be able to help you,’” Williams recalled.
“It took a few days to sink in, but I did get it. It was (the realization), ‘If I’m going to do something with my life, it’s up to me.’ … That galvanized my thinking and made me start looking at people who were very successful and understanding not so much what they did, but how they think. If I’m going to emulate somebody, it’s got to be somebody who’s been successful.”
After that conversation with his mom, Williams said he began to see the big picture. During his four years of high school, he played football, basketball and ran track, while also working to pay for clothing and transportation and to save for college.
As a young adult, Williams worked at Michigan National Bank in Lansing while taking evening college classes part time and sometimes full time.
By age 25, Williams was a vice president at the bank, supervising 100 employees. His manager, the CFO, was a mentor who encouraged him to embrace that success and build on it. After a nine-year career at the bank, he moved on.
“I had an entrepreneurial itch that was not going to get scratched in a bank,” he said. “It took me nine years to decide that the corporate world wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. (Working at a bank) gave me some tools and a foundation to go out and build a business.”
In 1990, Williams seized the chance to start a sales and service telecommunications company that secured long-distance calling contracts for entities such as hotels, banks and gas stations — anywhere that had high call volumes from guest telephones or pay phones — on behalf of large telecom companies. Once established, the contracts generated recurring revenue for his business from commissions.
“It was such a compelling opportunity because it had the financial attributes of high recurring revenue, nice profit margins and low (capital expenditure) requirements, which is basically a description of (Acrisure), the insurance brokerage business, today,” Williams said.
Williams left his job at Michigan National Bank on a Friday and by Monday had started the telecom firm, hiring 40 contract sales representatives in the first 60 days of operations.
Due to shifting dynamics in the industry, including new legislation passed by the Federal Communications Commission that made his business model obsolete, Williams sold his company in 1993.
Between 1993 and when he established Acrisure in 2005, Williams founded and ran an investment banking firm that handled mergers and acquisitions for private equity firms across the U.S. and Europe.
“When I started Acrisure, I didn’t have an hour of experience in insurance, but what I had was a lot of experience working with capital markets and private equity investors,” he said.
He also had experience sitting on boards, where he learned about board governance, the various types of management structures and what factors contribute to healthy or unhealthy company cultures.
“It gave me great insight into successful businesses — the ones that work and why they work, and the ones that don’t and the reason they don’t,” Williams said.
After 12 years as an investment banker, Williams was introduced to the insurance brokerage industry by a business contact. At first, he assumed it would be very dull. But as he dug deeper, he saw the similarities to the “fantastic” financial fundamentals of his former telecom company and the opportunity it presented to build something big.
He noticed the inorganic growth model of a brokerage — i.e., growth by M&A rather than growth by an emphasis on increased productivity and output — and he suddenly “felt strangely qualified to build a business in this industry.”
Williams started Acrisure in 2005 with co-founder Ricky Norris, who is now Acrisure’s executive vice president and works from its Lansing office. During their research phase in 2004, they traveled across the country and talked to 20 companies that had been acquired, doing a “deep dive” on what life was like during and after the transaction and whether change was collaborative or forced upon them by management.
A high number of companies they interviewed said their acquisitions were “not pretty”; they were “disruptive.” Of the 20 businesses Williams studied, 12 — or 60% — regressed financially after the acquisition.
“There was too much change being imposed on these businesses. Change to the brand, a name change, change to how salespeople were paid, change in leadership, change in physical location — it was just change, change, change,” he said. “No wonder things were going backward. Too much change was being forced upon them in a relationship-oriented industry.”
Norris and Williams decided to be different and adopted a model of “collaboration rather than control.” While Acrisure buys a 100% stake in each of the agencies it acquires, it also lets them remain independently controlled by its existing leadership team with the value proposition being that the companies gain Acrisure’s greater financial resources and central support services on an as-needed basis.
The model worked.
In just 14 years, Acrisure has grown to become a $1.8 billion company that was recently ranked the No. 10 insurance broker in the U.S. by Business Insurance and landed at No. 1,149 on the Inc. 5000 list in 2018, with a three-year growth rate of 428%.
In keeping with its key values of trust, stewardship and partnership, as defined in Williams’ 2018 book, “Limitless,” the firm successfully completed a buyout from its private equity ownership in November 2016 to gain management and board control. It is now primarily owned by the operating partners in its subsidiaries, and their employees, as well as by central management and some of the corporate support staff members.
Acrisure’s growth skyrocketed beginning in 2017. The firm completed 92 acquisitions that year, followed by 102 in 2018 and 113 in 2019, as of Nov. 4.
The firm currently has 7,300 employees, 1,000 of which are shareholders.
Williams said he firmly believes his personal value of independence — having it in himself and fostering it in others — as well as his “no limits attitude” and dedication to having “a vision beyond your line of sight” have been the fuel to Acrisure’s meteoric rise.
“We have 1,000 people today out in the world telling a very compelling story about what they did, who they did it with, how it’s worked out, and oh, by the way, if you want to join us and have some of this fun, too, I’ll introduce you to somebody on the M&A team,” Williams said.
“It’s led to unbelievable growth. … When you get it right, it’s magical to see.”