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Entrepreneurial Journeys: August Felker

At the tender age of 31, August Felker’s theme song could be “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

Well, almost everywhere. The well-traveled Felker has put down roots Middleton as CEO of Murphy Insurance Group, but while he’s settled, he’s not really done moving.

Felker is more interested in building than settling, and that’s exactly what he’s in the process of doing with The Murphy Insurance Group.

From his formative years in St. Louis – yes, he’s a Cardinals fan, so prepare for some well-earned gloating – he’s been building toward a career in the insurance industry, thanks in part to a family that was immersed in it.

As he began to build his career from coast to coast, first at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he studied economics, and then at Marsh, a large Bay Area insurance brokerage where he performed analysis work for large technology clients, the goal was always to run an insurance organization.

Had he been more of a settler, he would have stayed at Marsh, but he began to grow restless there after a couple of years. “Marsh is a large publicly traded company in San Francisco, but a big company wasn’t for me,” he stated. “I wanted to build something.”

Brokering a deal

Felker comes from a line of insurance brokerage entrepreneurs that stretches back to his great grandfather. Even his involvement with the Bluebird Investment Co. was undertaken in 2009 for the purpose of investing in a commercial insurance agency, and when an opportunity came to invest in and lead an organization, he chose to engage in a new partnership with Murphy Insurance Group.

It was January of 2010 when Felker announced the investment, and he became the group’s new CEO, but it wasn’t anything like a venture capital arrangement. Steve and Patrick (P.J.) Murphy, then principals of The Murphy Insurance Group, still are shareholders and serve as president and executive vice president, respectively.

At the time, Steve Murphy called partnering with Bluebird the ideal scenario, and he stressed the group would remain the same firm for customers and underwriting partners. The same firm but larger because in a tenuous economy, the partnership has been working to position the organization for growth. “We hit it off right away,” Felker said of his discussions with Steve Murphy. “I liked the way he had run the business, and he welcomed the opportunity to build on what he started.”

Felker was somewhat familiar with Madison because his brother graduated from the UW, so he wasn’t reluctant to build a life or a company here. His first visit came on the weekend his brother graduated, and his initial exposure to the Madison “experience” left a favorable impression.

Felker had heard of the Murphy Insurance Group through a mutual acquaintance. As his due diligence progressed, he learned the company had grown every year of its existence.

That eliminated any need to act like a bull in a china shop. “I didn’t have to come in here and change a lot of things,” he acknowledged, “but we needed to build on what Steve had started.”

“I wanted to find someone who needed help perpetuating their business. Steve and P.J. are still part owners. It wasn’t a VC deal or a leveraged buyout, but an investment.”

Insurance fanatics

The Murphy Insurance Group was founded in 1990, and it has sought to help small-to-mid-sized business clients control insurance costs with risk management programs and value-added services.

In Felker’s third year at the helm, the company is in the midst of an aggressive expansion strategy, including a new office in metro Milwaukee (Waukesha), and it’s looking to conquer new markets as part of a geographic expansion initiative. Among its Wisconsin locations are Bloomer, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Marinette, Merrill, Prairie du Sac, and Waunakee.

Management prefers organic growth to acquisition, but a company with a compatible corporate culture is a possible acquisition target. Felker described that compatible culture as entrepreneurial, with a hardworking staff and an employee retention rate well above the industry average, and one that has adopted, or is open to, a “fanatical” customer service model.

That basically means doing anything it takes to please, but Murphy’s ability to grow depends on its customers’ ability to do the same. At the moment, Felker said the company is spending considerable time consulting on forthcoming health care reforms and their impact on employee benefits.

In addition, the Murphy Insurance Group has beefed up its bonding and surety division to address a barrier faced by some clients. As a result of the sluggish economy, they have found that bonding is an obstacle to securing desirable project work.

“We take a consultative approach,” Felker stated. “Our clients want us to think about these things for them and approach them proactively.”

It doesn’t take long for Felker’s colleagues to notice a focused style. Marc Emery, COO of the Murphy Insurance Group, has known Felker for 11 months, and has come to view Felker, the person and the businessman, as an energetic, family-oriented “guy’s guy.”

“He’s someone I would be proud to call my friend, even if I didn’t work here,” Emery said. “For his relative youth, he’s very insightful from an executive standpoint. He’s a visionary, but he also has a lot of what I like to call common business sense.

“He can seek out the focal points of any argument or challenge, and he just gets it, and I really enjoy working with that type of individual.”

No regrets

As his tenure with Murphy has unfolded, Felker has come to realize that entrepreneurism is much more stressful than being another cog in the machinery, but still he enjoys it more. The lesson of his entrepreneurial story is the importance of staying with it.

Felker’s exposure to the Bay Area’s risk-embracing culture helped him somewhat, but his personal nature would have led him to take the entrepreneurial plunge in any event.

“I knew that if I didn’t, I would always regret it,” he said. “The future favors the bold.”

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