Ask Doug Rieder about Sterling Risk Advisors, the surety and insurance brokerage firm where he’s worked for more than a decade, and he’ll tell you plenty: about how the company has grown over the years, the unique aspects of their business model, whom they’ve hired and how those people have excelled.
What he’s less likely to tell you, though — unless you specifically ask — is that he’s the president of the company. As you talk to him about his business philosophy and Sterling’s corporate values, you begin to understand why.
“We’ve kind of run the place by consensus, sort of like a law firm,” Rieder explains. “We don’t like to have to over-manage people, so our structure is very simple, and our rules are very simple — they apply to everybody. It’s destabilizing when an organization holds people to different standards or lets upper management play by a different set of rules, so we pay people at a high level and treat them fairly.”
That sense of equality and fairness is informed by both Rieder’s middle-class upbringing in western Pennsylvania and by the master’s degree in finance he earned at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. And he’s helping to promote those values among current students, not only as a donor but as a business leader providing valuable real-world experience through internship opportunities.
‘Nothing but Rave Reviews’
Those opportunities began blossoming a few years ago, when Rieder pointed out that there was a potential gold mine of motivated interns situated right in Sterling’s backyard. “I brought it up in a couple of board meetings that we really needed to reach out to them because they’re right here in town. Why are we not reaching out to Georgia State?” he remembers. “It’s a great pipeline for hiring people. That’s huge for a business like ours that’s been growing at the rate we’ve been growing. We’re blessed to be in Atlanta, no doubt about it, with the talent pool we have here. The people we meet with when we go to conventions and meetings, they don’t talk like that because they don’t have that kind of opportunity in their backyard like we do.”
The ability to relate classroom learning to real-world experiences is important, Rieder says. It’s one of the reasons his classmates at the Robinson College made nearly as big an impression on him as his professors did. “The students were, on average, older, mature businesspeople — which I was not at that point. I was young and green,” he remembers. “But it was a high-caliber student population, and I really thought highly of the program.
“People who pursue their grad degrees at night, I think, tend to be proactive about things — they’re motivated, they’re doers. Nobody likes to confront big challenges, and when I first got out of college and I had to present something to a big group, I was scared to death. But when you go to grad school, just meeting people off the cuff and all that, it really builds a great foundation for the kind of work we do. And Georgia State was a key part of that. It was a great experience top to bottom.”
As someone who earned a few scholarships but paid for the rest of his college education out of his own pocket, Rieder says he’s looking for “a scrappy, get-it-done background” from his interns. And they aren’t stashed away in broom closets to sort office supplies. They join Sterling’s brokers on presentations and sales calls. So far, Rieder says, their Georgia State interns have risen to the challenge. And a few have earned full-time job offers.
“One of the women who came to work for us, Kaitlin [Meurer], joined us three months before she’d even graduated from Georgia State. She was a big help to my CFO when we were moving — she was there all the time and helpful, whatever we needed, and probably kept him from going insane because he was working 80 hours a week for two months. She’s doing great for our medical malpractice group. I hear nothing but rave reviews. The expectation is that she’ll move up the ranks of our service team staff.
“We’re having a steady stream of talented, aggressive professional people come through here. There’s an opportunity here, and we’re developing more of a career path for our interns as a result. I can’t see it being anything but good.”
Atlanta, the Land of Opportunity
“Talented and aggressive” could describe Rieder as well. Only a couple years removed from his undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, he excelled in the training program at Reliance Insurance Company and got to interview for a job at what was then a fast-growing branch in Atlanta. It was a major move for a self-professed “Yankee by birth,” but one that energized him from the moment he got to town.
“When I first arrived, we were intimately involved in construction, and I can instinctively remember coming into town from the airport and seeing tower cranes everywhere I looked,” he recalls. “Atlanta was such a hub for young people from the South. I was a single young man, so one of the first things I noticed was there were a lot of pretty girls, and it just seemed like they were coming from all the good Southeastern schools to work. Particularly for someone in his early 20s who had something to do with construction guarantees, it was just a vibrant place to be in the late ’80s.”
Rieder worked on the underwriting side with several different insurance companies before going independent and starting his own business. He didn’t strike out alone, though — Rieder, fellow Georgia State alum Bart Miller and Miller’s son John all left their previous company as a group, put together a business plan and began operating as Sterling Risk Advisors on April 1, 2003. The $125,000 Bart Miller loaned them to get the company off the ground was paid back by October.
In a relatively short amount of time, Sterling has grown to become one of the top risk management and insurance firms in the region. Part of the reason, Rieder explains, is the company’s broker-ownership model — a rarity in their field, he says, but one that’s enabled them to attract senior talent from nationwide firms. It’s also helped instill a greater sense of teamwork, and along with it a stronger commitment to customer service.
“We view ourselves as problem solvers in that inner circle of advisors to our clients. They’ve got their attorney, accountant, banker, and us,” he says. “We like to tell people, ‘We’re going to be competitive and effective as your broker, but where we’re going to add value is by educating you, referring resources to you, coming up with solutions to problems, not just selling you a policy.’ That’s sort of the negative stereotype of insurance people, that they just want to sell you a policy. I do want to do that, but I’m going to add a lot of value around things if you allow us to. And our clients do — they embrace that.
“And the good thing about a lot of the stuff that we espouse is it’s good business on top of everything else. It’s just easier to be straight with people, to be responsive and professional and ethical. And when you do that, it’s rewarding to you as well. So it’s not all necessarily altruistic, but you still sleep better at night. It makes for a successful, growing business because that’s what people want.”