Journeys are unpredictable. They can take you down routes you never intended to go, toward dead-ends, or they can lead you to the right place at the right time.
Dawnyel Smink, CEO of Canyon Lands Insurance, sat down with Openly to discuss how her journey from teaching to entrepreneurship led her to acquire Canyon Lands Insurance and taught her how to carve out a niche for the company in an increasingly crowded industry.
Finding your purpose and evolving
Before making the switch to insurance, Smink was a 6th-grade teacher. She loved educating but found it challenging to innovate within the classroom. One thing that was never challenging, however, was finding her purpose.
“I love to connect with people,” she said. “I wanted a career that gave me the opportunity to do that.”
Working in insurance allowed her to serve others without being boxed in. Smink discovered she could recreate herself and innovate as her career in insurance progressed, expanding her role beyond what she had originally envisioned. “As an insurance agent, you can evolve and do different things. You don’t have to leave the industry to go down a different path.”
Smink doesn’t just speak in platitudes, either. Awarded Arizona Republic's Top 35 Entrepreneurs Under 35 in 2009, Smink’s career was taking her to all the right places. “The award gave me confidence to see myself as more than just an insurance agent. Seeing myself surrounded by other young entrepreneurs gave me the permission I needed to be and do more.”
Canyon Lands Insurance
Smink launched Arizona Insurance Agents in 2003 and within five years acquired Canyon Lands Insurance.
Just as Smink isn’t your typical insurance agent, neither is Canyon Lands Insurance your typical agency. A network of independently owned insurance agencies, Canyon Lands Insurance is a team working together to bring choice to clients.
From the outset, Smink sets expectations for what clients can expect from Canyon Lands Insurance—and what the agencies can expect from clients. “We expect you to let us know about life changes. We aren’t mind readers.”
Canyon Lands Insurance may not be mind readers, but they are trailblazers.
With a corporate team of 12 and over 78 franchise locations across 18 states, Canyon Lands Insurance is committed to preparing its network of agencies for the future. “We work from an operation of being proactive and anticipating any possible pain points, versus being reactive.”
Smink believes that this proactive approach and focus on solving problems at the source are what sets Canyon Lands Insurance apart from its competitors; they’re not just satisfying clients' current insurance needs, they’re ensuring clients are confident that future needs will be met.
“We ask clients to take a journey with us. They typically have preconceived ideas based on previous experiences, so we ask them: ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Where are you now?’ ‘Where do you want to go?’ With every conversation, we’re planting seeds for the future so we don’t lose their business down the road.”
Tips for agency growth
According to Smink, there are three operational traits that are essential to the success of an independent agency (and that of independent agents).
Put clients first
“Always know who you serve. We are of service, and sometimes that gets twisted.” Canyon Lands Insurance isn’t willing to sacrifice the client’s needs and satisfaction for the sake of growth. Smink believes that at times you have to walk away from a client if it isn’t in their best interest and their needs can’t be met.
Pivot and innovate
Smink views failure as an opportunity to innovate. “Pivot and innovate,” she says. “By recognizing that you can pivot and innovate on something you would think is a failure is how to learn and gain a competitive advantage.”
Plan for risks
One of the key takeaways from her professional journey and Canyon Lands Insurance’s success is that it is essential to plan for risks (not just take them) and have contingency plans in place for every scenario. “I don’t take risks. I plan A, B, and C, and every risk in between, and then analyze it like crazy.”
Strategic business partnerships
Understanding the value of partnering with carriers that align with your business model has been essential for Canyon Lands Insurance’s growth. “Finding carriers that fit your philosophy and the people that you serve is imperative. If it isn’t an agency fit, it is a disservice to the agency, the carrier and the client.”
Smink advises independent agents to prioritize the client. “You have to think holistically about each client. Trying to slot them into a product suite that isn’t a good fit helps no one.”
Although she prioritizes clients, Smink doesn’t neglect agents, and is dedicated to ensuring that independent agents have a voice within the industry. She says it all goes back to the start of her journey: educating.
The concept of independent agencies is still foreign to a lot of homeowners because of a lack of education regarding how they work and the strong grip legacy carriers have on the market. Smink says agents need to figure out a different way to get their message out there and show their value.
“The goal is for independent agencies to be the dominating channel in the industry. We offer choice, we offer value, and we offer the consultative side of the agency owners.”
One way she working toward educating the marketplace, is by establishing the “Declaration of Independence Podcast” which will be a medium for telling the story of why agencies (and agents) are independent.
The changing face of the industry
Smink acknowledges that the road to success has had certain challenges.
“I’ve been the only female in the room—or the first—many times. People don’t like to hear it, but it’s a fact. I’m not saying it to bolster myself; I’m saying it because I want more people to see it. It shouldn’t be ‘the first woman;’ there should be many women.”
The face of insurance is changing and because of that, Smink co-founded WIISE, Women in Insurance Sharing Empowerment. But WIISE isn’t just for women; it's inclusive of everyone.
“We talk about empowerment on both sides—empowering each other; mental well being; confidence and communicating that to each other; being disruptive without disrupting.”
Confronting the different barriers agents face is the next evolutionary step for the industry and empowering agents for success will only lead to the betterment of the entire industry.
Success isn’t a destination
With aspirations of expanding to 200 locations nationwide and not willing to sacrifice quality of service to achieve their goal, Canyon Lands Insurance—and Smink—are on a constant path of evolution and growth.
“Success isn’t a destination. It’s moments of you getting to a place you need to get to. The problem is that most people just move from one thing onto the next so they never really feel successful. I have moments of greatness. And I embrace those moments of greatness.”
Fortunately, Smink has cultivated a culture at Canyon Lands Insurance that fosters people’s best selves.
“Is this bus going to take you where you need to go?” Smink asks. “This isn’t just my bus. The bus has to take you in the direction you want to go, with the people you want to be on the bus with, and in the right seat. We move people within the organization based on their strengths, interests and potential.”
Her journey, and that of Canyon Lands Insurance, shows that just because one role isn’t the right path, doesn’t mean there isn’t another road just around the corner that will take you to where you want (and need) to go.