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EP 36: Brent Davis, Vice President of Sales Talent Acquisition at Leavitt Group

Podcast Transcript

James Mackey  0:00  

Hello, and welcome to Talent Acquisition Trends & Strategy. I'm your host, James Mackey. And today we are joined by  Brent Davis. Brent, welcome to the show! 


Brent Davis  0:20  

Hey, thanks, James. Glad to be here!


James Mackey  0:23  

I'm really excited to talk about all things on talent acquisition with you today. Before we jump into it, could you please just tell us a little bit about yourself, so all of our guests know your point of impact and where your perspectives are coming from?


Brent Davis  0:35  

Yes. I got an MBA from Southern Utah University and then went right into banking. Spent 10 years at a pretty reputable, strong, regional bank down in Southern Utah. Built a large portfolio in hospitality and thought I was going to retire there. In the process of my career with the bank, in commercial banking, I got to know the Leavitt family personally, and an opportunity six years ago came up to come work for them. And, honestly, because of the respect I had for their family, the company that they had, good people they are, it was quite literally a no-brainer to come over and work with them. 


So I came over here and we started this department, talent acquisition focused on salespeople exclusively, no other jobs, but our salespeople. And for six years, we've been putting the pieces together and we'll get any specifics, but it's been highly successful, highly profitable, and still growing. So that's a little about me.


James Mackey  1:55  

That's great. Leavitt, it's an insurance company? Are you guys currently around 900 employees? Is that right?


Brent Davis  2:14  

Oh, no. We're probably closer to 2600.


James Mackey  2:18  

Okay, cool, because I was looking off LinkedIn. So there's actually a lot more. So that's also a good context for us to know as well.  So obviously, for a lot of organizations regardless of what stage of growth they're in from early stage to mature organizations that have been around for a while, hiring sales talent is a pretty consistent need across the board. 


I would love to just learn some of the top lessons that you've kind of experienced over the past six years, hiring salespeople. And I guess there are a million ways we could dive into this. But like, what's top of mind when it comes to hiring top sales talent? From a talent acquisition perspective? How do you approach that?


Brent Davis  2:58  

Let me give us a really quick background on the Leavitt group. We've got a unique business model, there are about 90 agencies, some have one location, and the largest has 17. And then annual revenue varies as well. We don't own exclusively, those agencies are all set up as separate corporations, Leavitt group typically owns 60 to 70% of each one of those agencies. And then the remaining 30 to 40% is owned by a co-owner or CO ownership group. 


We believe that equity shared equity is a good aligner of interests. And so we don't need to micromanage them, they come with their strong sales relationships in their communities. And then we come with the backend support. And so it's important for you to understand that because I'd say maybe 10, 15 years ago, the Leavitt group primarily grew via acquisition and affiliation. Let's go out and buy an agency. 


And a gentleman by the name of Billy Bond, he's retired now, but a great guy, one of my great mentors. He came to Leavitt's group and said, Listen, we're leaving a lot on the table here. We need a sales culture. And so part of that, building out that sales culture was to build a recruiting team and start going after people that can help us grow organically, not just through acquisition. So getting your question, that was the top-of-mind goal when we started building this.


James Mackey  4:49  

Gotcha. So kind of circling back to talent acquisition, what lessons were learned from hiring, sales talent? Has the strategy been relatively consistent since this initiative kicked off? Or, have you seen it work better implementing any changes? Or, what's kind of been the evolution over the past six years?


Brent Davis  5:13  

Yeah, I'd say the most important thing to us from day one is hiring those people with those inherent sales skills. And we break it down into four things. Number one is personality. Now, a lot of times people will get confused and think, Man, that guy's got a great personality, that gal is super nice to deal with, she must be good at sales. That's wrong. Personality is only an important component of it, it's really your ability to connect to and relate to people. 


Attribute number two, that's the sales ability, this is their ability to get in front of decision-makers and close deals. Number three, we're looking for somebody that's basically just smart enough to learn a fairly complex product and sales process. They have the technical aptitude to learn it. And then fourth, kind of a fun one, call it a bunch of different things. We call it our PhD, they've got to have a PhD, which means poor, hungry, and driven. And if they've got those four, as we go through our interview process, we'll make the recommendation for hire, and then ultimately are manageable, and will hire if they're a cultural fit.


James Mackey  6:34  

So is this primarily entry-level sales talent? Because I know you were saying you're looking at aptitudes. So is it entry-level, like people at the beginning of their careers? Or is it more so people that might be changing career paths? What's the typical experience level that you're pulling in right now?


Brent Davis  6:50  

Yeah, it's gonna be all across the board. Some agencies are gonna have different needs, some people are gonna need perpetuation, we've got some managers and coders that are getting a little log in their career, and so we'll need to find somebody to help them perpetuate. And in that case, we're gonna find somebody that's a little more seasoned, and possibly, even in the industry. 


The vast majority, though, I'd say we're looking for sales professionals that have been out of college for a few years, maybe two to five, at least, have been in a sales role, and are maybe looking for something a little more than what they have. They've got that PhD and the attributes, and they're not being compensated the way that they feel they're capable of being compensated. Insurance has a lot of money in it. And those people that are good at it, can do pretty well for themselves financially.


James Mackey  7:52  

I always felt it was harder to hire for aptitude than for just down-the-pipe experience in highly relevant environments. I particularly like when I'm working with earlier growth stage companies, companies much smaller than the Leavitt group, right? Let's say, 30 to 200 employees, or maybe as many as 500 employees.


When I'm working with companies of that size, I typically recommend going for down-the-pipe previous experience, because they're usually hiring less at scale, or they're not, it's not as much of a repeatable motion yet, where they've done it just for years and years. So, to eliminate risk, if they're gonna hire a smaller amount of people, it's always better to just say, Let's just find somebody who comes from a really relevant environment, and make sure they can get references from previous direct managers just to limit risk as much as possible. 


But I guess for a larger organization, that becomes less of a problem because you're hiring again, like, if you're hiring 30 salespeople, right, or something like that, it's not like you're just hiring too. And so you can almost play a little bit more of a numbers game, I suppose. Of course, we don't try to do that, right? But it's like, the risk isn't so high that you know, you could just focus on the aptitude piece, but maybe I'm thinking about that wrong. 


Do you feel like you can hire just as well from a quality perspective, hiring for aptitude as you could for experience in a relevant environment?


Brent Davis  9:19  

Yeah, I think it is a little more difficult for us to speak of, because of the nature of our product. We specialize in middle-market companies and most of the time, this is one of the largest line items on their financial statement. And so they're not going to just trust me, they're the client or the business owner or CEO. They're not just going to trust this part of their business to someone that's just got out of college. Sometimes you need a little bit of grey hair, maybe some glasses, you've got to be around the block a couple of times. 


So finding those people with relevant experience, which is sales right? That's the relevant experience. When we've focused, I won't share any of my numbers, but we've actually found that finding people from a sales background rather than an insurance background, it's cheaper for us. And the results are a lot better.


James Mackey  10:33  

Well, that's a good combination. So I'm interested because still like switching industries. Well, I guess it depends on how similar the sales process is, right? If you switch industries, but it's a very similar sales cycle, you know, they've been selling to mid-market companies or something like that, that I can see that being an easy transition. But you also hire people from a transactional sales background, selling to SMBs or consumers. And then, are you able to kind of onboard them to a mid-market environment? What have you seen work there?


Brent Davis  11:11  

Yes. I'd say if they're more toward the beginning of their career, I'd say that works out a little better. We're looking for that entry-level, we've got an agency with a good sales culture and a good mentor. Maybe finding somebody from more transactional sales, it could work out but typically no. We're finding somebody that does a type of sale that's similar in nature to ours. They're calling on CEOs and that business-to-business type sales already.


James Mackey  11:49  

For sure. So that's the experience piece. So beyond the aptitude, it's a similar sales environment. And you mentioned that you have a bit of a unique interview process. I would love to hear about that. 


How you optimize specifically for sales hiring. Because, you know,  I think a lot of orgs are still kind of stuck in the trap of like their process looks the same for revenue org as it does for tech, as it does for G&A. And I think the more mature organizations out there are taking a little bit more tailored approach. So I'm curious to hear more about what you do for sales hires. 


Brent Davis  12:31  

I wouldn't really call it unique. But I'd say it's thorough and it's purposeful. And so one thing we want to avoid is sitting down with a candidate, I can't tell you how many times I've been called up by a department manager at our company or one of our CO owners and said, Hey, Brent, give me a list of your interview questions. I don't have any,  it's more of a process. When we interview people, we're not looking for just quick data points. You know, give them a question. You know how to do this, you know how to do that? We're looking for patterns of behavior. 


When we start a search, now, again, we use probably a lot of the same tools that everybody else is using. LinkedIn is a great partner of ours. We've got some really great reps. Stephen Weiss and Derek Bellinger have been really great partners of ours, with LinkedIn. And so if I tell you, I'm in sales, if you're a salesperson, you're on LinkedIn. So they're a great partner,  Zoom Info has a really good product that we like, of course, you know, the job boards. 


So we'll start the process. And we're just gathering names. We will, in a typical area, and of course, it changes per size of the location, but we may go over 200 to 500 resumes and profiles. And if we're able to phone screen 20 to 30, we feel like we've done pretty well there that typically it's 15 to 20 phone screens, we'll go through. The purpose of that phone screen, we're just looking to see how they sell themselves. And to see if they've got that, you know, we talked about that experience with those building blocks. We're talking about their sales cycle, who they're selling to, and very trying to keep it 15 to 30 minutes tops. And if they get past that level, maybe there's going to be five to eight of those candidates that will move on. And then we sit down for at least a one-hour interview. 


We have not involved the hiring manager at this point, it's just me and my team, me or somebody on my team. In this interview is where we are able to get a better sense of who that person is. As I said, we don't ask a list of magic questions. We basically have this candidate, walk us through the resume. And they typically start at college, right? And start working through it. And we're looking for opportunities to ask follow-up questions with these candidates. I'll give you an example. 


James Mackey  15:45  

I'd love to hear some of those follow-up questions that you're asking.


Brent Davis  15:47  

I'll tell you a really easy one. Is when they transition from one job to the next. A common thing we'll hear from somebody is, My boss and I didn't see eye to eye so we mutually decided to part ways. And so many times, when we interview, we give the person the benefit of the doubt. And we just glance right through a statement like that. That's a key time to start digging. And it's a lot of what, why, how, tell me more.


Right? It's like, you gotta have that three-year-old mentality. But why put why?  


Exactly. Don't fill in the blanks for them.


James Mackey  16:31  

Well, one thing there. I feel like salespeople are very guarded when they haven't hit quota. I don't really hold it against people if they haven't hit quota, because so many companies have quotas that are based on nonsense, like actually no numbers. So they're not necessarily a bad salesperson if they haven't hit quota. 


If I was advising a startup, I would say don't risk it. But for later-stage companies,  I would say, you have to dig a lot deeper. For instance, what I'm concerned more about is Okay, how big was your peer group? How many salespeople? Did you work alongside? And how did you rank? Right? To me, that's going to be a better indicator of success than if they have 60% of quota, or 150%, of quota, like, what's the context of their team? And where did they rank within that is to be like a much better indication of their actual performance. You know what I mean?


Brent Davis  17:28  

Yeah, and you listen to how they talk about it, right? Like, how confident are you talking about what you did and how you built it? And How'd you hit your goals, or achieve whatever ranking you had within the company?


James Mackey  17:43  

And if they're not self-aware of how they got results, then I'm less confident that they can replicate their success.


Brent Davis  17:50  

Right. There are a million people out there that give you the book answer. 


James Mackey  17:55  

That is very generic, it's like a textbook type of stuff. I don't know why people feel like that plays well, it doesn't. 


Brent Davis  18:07  

They do that because they don't know. And they're just trying to sound good. They're trying to play the part in the interview. And so many times people just play the part where you would get into that sterile environment and have an interview, interviewer and interviewee and just kind of play the game, you know, and we're nice to each other, but we've got to, we've got to dig deeper into things and be open. I hope they're digging into us, too. That's a good side is to see them ask questions. 


There's one fun part of this interview that we tried to do. And I tell you, we have to be more careful with it on the east coast, or the west coast. But we tell the candidates, at some point in the interview, why we don't think they're a good fit for the job. There is no perfect candidate out there. And even a candidate that I love and I know halfway through the interview I want to make this person an offer. I'm still going to tell them why they're not good for the job. Western US culture they're going to be offended a little more easily. We've noticed, they'll stand-ups like Well, heck with you then.


People on the East Coast, specifically the northeast, probably can play these games with a little more.


James Mackey  19:25  

Punch back.


Brent Davis  19:28  

That's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for that punch back. Let me just give you a couple of fun little examples if you don't mind. 


There was a guy that we interviewed. And he was that typical given the Book answer Hey, I've got this wonderful sales process, and the more and more I kept digging into it, he couldn't explain it. So I finally said Listen, I just don't think it exists basically. I don't think you can pick up the phone and grind for four hours, you know. And so he wound up like monologuing for about 15 minutes and then wound up like banging on the desk and he got really mad at me and he said, I can't sell, is that what you want to hear? But anyway, just the whole objection just brought out this awful behavior and it was awesome. When we rejected him, he sent us a really nasty email with some colorful language in it too. But you know, that showed us who he was.


James Mackey  20:34  

Right. I mean, it's funny. I think some of that is very industry specific. I do that, like why you're not a good fit for the role, but I'm transparent with, like, Hey, this is something I think we mutually need to think about. Right? Like, you know, I think this stuff is aligned, I'm not sure if we're aligned in this area. And it's like, mutually beneficial for us both to like to figure this out. Like, I want to see if it's a good fit for us. I also want to make sure it's a good fit for you. But I think again, it's like something that's industry-specific with like, in culture, like, you know, or within the industry, or the industries you're recruiting from. Like in SaaS, you know, a lot of the stuff that we do in tech. I expressed it a little bit differently, but it's along those lines. 


The other thing, you touched on this, was the whole digging into us thing, like asking questions. I think the best candidates are the ones that asked me smart questions. Like when people get to the final round at SecureVsion to work here. Like one of my first questions is  What questions do you have for me? As a business owner, you can ask me anything, strategy, finance, work-life culture, ramp, onboarding, vision, just whatever you want. And there's a direct correlation between the people who answer that question the best and their performance on the job. 


I look for people that are aware enough to ask good questions. I want people that are critical about their career like they're thinking, what is going to make the most sense for my next move? And if people aren't asking questions, they're just like, accepting whatever is put in front of them. And they're not asking me intelligent questions and digging deep, and it's like, why aren't you? Are you just gonna accept an offer without digging into us as a company? I mean, I find that concern so that's one of the ways that I make a decision when I'm hiring. I want their questions to take up, like 30 minutes of the interview. And then for the last half, I ask questions. And, you know, recruiters are similar to salespeople. I think the recruiter is a salesperson, right? So we hired a bunch of recruiters.


I'll ask them like, Okay, your current employer, if you remain CEO tomorrow, what are your top three initiatives? What do you change? What do you double down on? What do you discontinue?  Whatever you want, just top three initiatives, and then that's looking for business acumen. Like, do they understand what's working in their environment and the challenges they have? And do they understand how to optimize it and make it better? So even if they're not, like moving into a strategic role at SecureVision, I want to understand how they think about things and like how they think about solutions and problems. And if they're aware enough about their environment to make recommendations on how to make it better. So that's one of my favorite questions to ask in the final round.


Brent Davis  23:25  

Yeah, that's good. I mean, I think about what you're talking about there with just the questions that the candidate will ask. You know, I don't care if it's a top-line guy or your entry-level bookkeeper. 


For example, some bookkeeper that's asking a lot of questions in the interview, that communicates to me and should communicate to the managers, that this is somebody that's going to ask a lot of questions in the job too, and is somebody that I don't have to hold their hand. And they're gonna make my life a lot easier in training them? Because they're intuitive. 


James Mackey  24:03  

Intuitive. That's a great word. It's like business acumen, part of that is being intuitive. Right?


Brent Davis  24:08  

Yeah, they're taking their career seriously, they're gonna take this seriously.


James Mackey  24:12  

It's also people that are going to grow with the company most likely. Like they're going to be able to level off and add more value.


Brent Davis  24:18  

And I'll tell you what. Our industry is old. If you look at the average age of the insurance professional, it's going to be in the 50s 50 - 58. And maybe even higher. We're losing leaders. We need more leaders in this industry. There's tremendous opportunity here. So yeah, we're just not plugging, you know, plugging and chugging here, filling holes.


James Mackey  24:45  

Right. hear you.  So I'm curious to learn more about your onboarding strategy. You're pulling people from different industries, and relevant sales environments. Maybe they don't need that training, but they obviously need training on products, clients, and ICP, just like sales strategy, how to engage, differentiators, and overcoming objections. 


What is that onboarding process looks like, because it must be pretty robust if you're pulling people from different industries?


Brent Davis  25:16  

Yes, first off our department, we try to avoid some of our agencies that struggle with mentoring, we don't have strong leadership or a good sales culture. Because mentorship is the load-bearing wall of this whole thing, it's that windshield time, somebody can come to your appointments with you. But around that,  I'm a part of the larger team that is focused on basically everything that touches sales, and a big part of that is not just our incentive trips and sales competitions, but our development, led by a gal by the name of Peggy Hanson, she's phenomenal. 


I don't think Peggy will ever retire. She just loves it, she's phenomenal at her job. And her role is really to come in and insulate those mentors, provide structure for them and help insulate their training. Make sure that these new producers understand the markets we work in, understand the tools and resources that we have. And then also provides sales mentoring. We've got a producer school out here in Utah, we fly all of our new producers within the first four to six months and provide some sales training that's specific to our industry.


James Mackey  26:52  

Sounds good. Follow-up question Is all of this kind of ad hoc sales training that varies greatly, depending on the agency? Or is it like there's some kind of overarching process that is shared with all of the agencies on This is how we sell? These are the scripts? This is the sales process, this is going to get you the best conversion rates. On an ongoing basis, how centralized is the sales training versus up to the individual agency?


Brent Davis  27:23  

Yeah, it's about as centralized as we can make it which is more ad hoc, right? With insurance, there's really no industry out there that it doesn't affect or who doesn't touch. And you've got some producers that are selling to lawyers and others that are selling to dairy farmers. And so it's a different approach and is so diverse. What Peggy's helped to build is very customizable and it's very, very one on one. She and her team they'll have at least one call with every producer for six to 18 months, one on one. Big effort, but it's worth it. And that's why we have to be so careful with who we hire, you invest so much into them. We can't play the proverbial throw the spaghetti at the wall and see who sticks.


James Mackey  28:27  

So for performance is sales performance done on an agency basis, or are their performance standards that Leavitt group kind of help put in place for the agencies like, this is what good looks like? 


Brent Davis  28:41  

There's definitely a standard. There is a little bit of fudging that we can do per agency, per area. But I think that's important. But we do have a standard. And the goal for us is not revenue generated in the first year, but its activity. 


How many qualified first appointments, are they able to go out on a week or per week, right per month? Because if we believe that if they're generating activity, eventually those sales are going to come. We had a producer down in Houston that closed $7,000 with a business's first year. Was terrible. But he was doing all the right things that we stuck with him and his next year. And this is a dramatic example. Right? So he's the one I share, his next year he close $245,000 within the business


James Mackey  29:38  

That's great. And that's all like recurring revenue and insurance. Right?


Brent Davis  29:42  

Yeah, you're looking at probably an 85 to 95% retention rate on your account.


James Mackey  29:49  

That's great. Is there like a net retention rate in terms of upsells within year two, that kind of covers the attrition of that 10 to 15%? Are there a lot of upsells?


Brent Davis  30:01  

Yeah, like you're talking about, staying at your book, continuing to grow?


James Mackey  30:06  

Yeah, like, Okay, you close an account for X amount of thousands. And in year two, you're able to upsell to other kinds of packages, I guess.


Brent Davis  30:15  

I don't have those numbers. Imagine there's a degree of that, but mostly, it's just report replacing accounts. 


James Mackey  30:25  

Yeah, that's really cool. So, to kind of speak to the current market. Have you seen any change in terms of competitiveness and hiring sales talent over the past year, like maybe six months? Is it just as hard as last year? Is it getting easier? What are you kind of seeing out there as a trend for hiring salespeople?


Brent Davis  30:45  

Yeah, what a wild couple of years we've been through. I actually think it got easier through the pandemic, through the Great Recession, right? Or not great recession, great resignation, excuse me, right? Yeah, that would have been bad. We don't want to feel that again. Because you saw a lot of your sub-level candidates disappear. Your eight players were still out there. And so we were weeding through fewer candidates. But I'll tell you, the last maybe three months and I don't have any numbers on this yet but now we have seen a major uptick in candidates.


James Mackey  31:33  

Inbound candidates, that are applying or?


Brent Davis  31:35  

Yeah. So I'd say last year, about 75-80 % of our hires came from passive efforts, meaning we reached out to them. Where I can't remember the last good applicant we had. But in the last three months, we've actually had some pretty solid applicants, or we're starting to see good candidates.  There's a lot more people out there. It's fun. Have a lot more people talk to you.


James Mackey  32:21  

Yeah, absolutely.


Brent Davis  32:22  

I don't know if that answered your question. But that's a trend we're definitely noticing.


James Mackey  32:27  

More and more inbound applications, more quality inbound applications.


Brent Davis  32:31  

And we also have more agencies wanting to grow and wanting to find producers.


James Mackey  32:37  

Yeah, that's cool. So a lot of these agencies what's the typical size that you're working with? Is 30 - 50 person companies primarily, or what?


Brent Davis  32:47  

Yeah. There are even some that are 10 to 20.


James Mackey  32:53  

So it's like founder-led sales primarily? So it's like the business owner, that's primarily doing the sales?


Brent Davis  32:56  

That's definitely the smaller ones for sure. Those are the ones like, you know, going back to the first part of our conversation, those are the ones we're gonna look for. You know, we might poach somebody off a competitor, or I find somebody that's a lot more high level. With your 30 to 50, you've probably got at least 8 producers, 5-8.


James Mackey  33:32  

I guess they're all like sales-driven organizations, for the most part, right?


Brent Davis  33:35  

Yeah. And keep in mind, Leavitt group, we've got LGE here, Leavitt group enterprises that are carrying a lot of the backend, we employ all the accountants, and the IT staff and HR. And so these agencies when you say 30 to 50, it's a lot of client support and sales.


James Mackey  33:55  

Yes. It's all like revenue stuff. But yeah, I see the value there. Would this be considered not exactly a franchise? There is a word for it? Like to explain this? Co-ownership?


Brent Davis  34:12  

Co-ownership that's the word we throw around a lot, partnering. These co-owners at these agencies, they're partnering with the corporation level, Leavitt group enterprises. It's a unique model. 


James Mackey  34:26  

Well, yeah, I mean, it gives them a much bigger chance of success and they can accelerate growth. So it's just like a decision like, Okay, do we want to stay independent and learn all this stuff on our own? Or do we want to accelerate growth and have a big partner that can give us all these resources, which I definitely see the value out there. That makes a lot of sense.


Brent Davis  34:45  

Yeah. Which is, we get access to carriers and capital. A gentleman in Alabama, had a big agency and we bought up 70% of it, and his goal was to take his now 30% and regrow it to what it was when he had 100%. And he has since done that several times over. 


James Mackey  35:06  

So what's the exit strategy look like? Do you guys have like a write a first review of refusal where you buy it directly from the owner? Or can they sell their stake to whoever they want? How does that work?


Brent Davis  35:17  

No, co-ownership is not something we just throw around lightly. We want to make sure that this person is aligned with us, their values, and their goals. And so typically we do make that decision together with our local partner.


James Mackey  35:37  

Okay, for sure. Well, this has been a lot of fun. I feel like I've learned a lot about your space. And for our audience, obviously, there's value in understanding the niche, but also, there are a lot of crossovers, right? Hiring great salespeople is difficult across the board. Regardless of what industry you're in, or what phase of growth you're in. It's difficult. So I know this has added a tonne of value. We're coming up on time here. 


I just wanted to ask. For anybody that wants to follow you, or engage with you online.


Brent Davis  36:07  

Yeah, LinkedIn, that's probably the best place to go find me. Brett Davis Leavitt group. So hit me up on LinkedIn, especially if you're a salesperson. And if you're in a job where you feel like you can have a lot more for yourself. Not just money, but time and building some equity within your book. Hit me up, man! Let's talk, we've got agencies in almost 30 states. So we'll probably find a home for you.


James Mackey  36:37  

That sounds great. Well, Brian, thank you so much for coming to the show today. And for everybody tuning in, thanks for joining us, and we'll see you next time. Take care. 

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