Some people feel they are born to lead, while others almost accidentally fall into that realization. Though Heath Ritenour loved being a leader in the world of sports, he never saw himself at the helm of a company. He certainly never thought he would take on the leadership position of a national insurance company. Battling cancer in the midst of his professional height wasn’t in “the plan”, either. However, as Heath soon learned, an open mind is the best roadmap to success professionally, and personally.
A Family Legacy, And A Humble Beginning
Heath’s father, John Ritenour, had built a successful insurance company from the ground up. Growing the business via 30 years at the helm, John Ritenour mentored his son, and prepared him to take the reins one day. It made sense that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and lead Insurance Office of America (IOA)—except Heath didn’t want it.
Heath’s deep admiration for his father translated into emulating his hard work ethic. In fact, Heath often cites his father as being the “hardest working guy I’ve ever met.” During college, Heath Ritenour began his career by interning at IOA. As he watched the eight IOA Partner Agents work, he realized that half were very good and truly put their customers first. The other half were more worried about pushing sales and landing accounts. They still made sales, but they didn’t have the same impact ,or get the same respect as the first four agents.
Heath was impressed by the difference in results that he witnessed, based on the intention and focus of the Agents. He thought he could do the same thing, and focus on caring about customer relationships, needs, education, and long-term satisfaction. After his internship, Heath decided to join IOA as the company’s ninth Agent. It was all uphill work from there. 100 cold calls per day were of a normal pace for the determined young professional. Following his father’s lead from the very beginning, Heath Ritenour outworked everyone on the team.
Doing It His Way
It was when he stopped the canned responses and fake confidence that he really started landing accounts. Most business owners were at least ten years older than him. As a young addition to the insurance industry , most business owners weren’t interested in entrusting their business to him for coverage. Thus, Heath leaned into the reality of the same position that kept getting in his way.
“I realized that’s the elephant in the room,” Heath says. “They’re going to realize I’m new at this and I’m a young guy. So, why not call it out and say, ‘Hey, I know I’m young, but I will bust my butt for you. No one will care more about you than I will. No one will work harder for you than me. Just give me a chance, and fire me if I’m not doing everything I say.’” It was this attitude that really ramped up his professional trajectory. As soon as he started pursuing authentic pitches that kept his customers first, he started landing more accounts.
Heath Ritenour also asked his clients if they saw the value in his work. Of course they did. This transparency harnessed thoughtful and proactive communication. It also allowed him to ask if they knew anyone he could help out in the same way. By year three or four, he wasn’t cold calling anymore—he was working solely from referrals and networking.
Heath Ritenour kept building relationships and advocating for the clients he had. Those clients referred their friends when Heath did everything he said he would do. That difference made him the top salesman in the company.
Putting In The Work
It would be easy to imagine that Heath rose through the ranks fast in the company his father had built, but that just isn’t how things played out. Heath Ritenour proudly did the grueling work for 12 years. In various interviews, he says he wouldn’t trade any of that for the world. Heath gained relationships and knowledge about the company that can only be gained when you start at the bottom.
Rejection was the hardest part of the journey. It took all the cold calling and working from the ground up to realize that the failures he experienced weren’t the part he should focus on. What was meaningful was the value he could offer his clients, and the hard work ethic that he could lean on to drive forward.
Mindset Is Everything
He started thinking, “next, next, next” instead of worrying about negativity and rejection. As he made that change in attitude, his closure rates went up. As he started offering that value and leaning into “the elephant in the room”, clients started seeing him in a different light. After more than a decade, Heath’s father felt it was time for him to take on more.
“We’re a generational business. We’re not for sale. We’re not going public,” John Ritenour told his son when he first talked to him about taking over the position of CEO. “I didn’t just say no. I said ‘Hell no,’” Heath recalls. He didn’t feel ready to take over that role, and he recognized the need to continue learning prior to taking on such an important role. Even though his father touted Heath a natural born leader, Heath felt inadequate, reporting, “I’m a sports guy, not a sales guy. It scared me.”
There were a few more times the topic came up. Prior to his retirement party, John Ritenour made one last aside to Heath. “I would never ask you to take on a job you don’t feel led to do,” Heath’s dad said. He just asked him to go home and pray about it.
Heath went home and prayed. He listed off all the reasons he wasn’t right for the job. He yearned for a response to those questions—he wanted a clear feeling of confidence in accepting or turning down the role. Instead, he felt one clear question: “If not you, then who?”
If Not You, Then Who?
Heath recognized that while he may not be traditionally trained to take on the role, the professionals next in line would be after it for the wrong reasons. IOA was founded by his father’s goal to be different, innovative, and caring in the insurance business. The company was the “little guy” who took care of its Producers and clients. As a privately owned company, IOA wasn’t battling for revenue growth every quarter to impress Wall Street. IOA was in it for the long haul. As the CEO, Heath Ritenour wanted to keep it that way.
He realized that his decision to lead (or not to lead) would directly impact the families of the 500 employees working at the company. This was not a decision he took lightly at all. He was confident in what he loved about the IOA culture, and determined to protect the corporate culture he admired.
A New CEO
In mid 2008, Heath Ritenour agreed to take on the role of CEO at Insurance Office of America. It was the right move for his personal career and for the good of the company, despite an extremely tough downturned economy. By the end of 2009, IOA gained nearly $6 million in new revenue.
“I learned from [my dad] that you’ve got to put your customer first,” Heath said. “When you transition from sales to leadership, you don’t lose relevance, right? You know what your people do every day. You’re not the ivory tower guy that sits in the corner office. You’ve had to hunt your own food too. You know what it takes.”
Since IOA got back on track in 2009, things have only improved. The company has seen steady growth since it was first started 30 years ago by John and Valli Ritenour. Heath says most of his growth has come from tough seasons and losses. In 2015, Heath faced one of the biggest challenges of his life when he hit a shocking roadblock in his journey as CEO. He was diagnosed with cancer.
A CEO and Cancer
Thankfully, Heath’s cancer was caught and diagnosed in its early stages. However, by the time surgeons removed the tumor, it spread to his lungs. He had to undergo chemotherapy. He made the very difficult decision to take his private health battle directly to his team.
“Who wants to talk about cancer? That’s about the worst thing you could get up in public and talk about. It’s embarrassing,” said Heath. “I wanted to be authentic with my team and this was used for good.” He created a company-wide heartfelt message about what he was going through and how the company would stay strong. Often, in the professional realm, leaders find it difficult to be seen as vulnerable.
However, Heath saw the “bigger picture” purpose of sharing his journey with his team. After Heath’s message, three other men in the company found similar lumps and two were cancerous—detected early because of Heath’s reminder.
Like the other tough moments in his life, Heath is thankful for what he’s been able to take away from his battle with cancer. He was powerless and out of control. He had to be vulnerable and more authentic than ever before.
A Passion For Life
Heath takes his passion for life seriously. He spends most of his free time with his family to be the best father and husband he can be. He also reads a lot. Working from the ground up, Heath Ritenour learned about the power of curiosity. He learned to constantly seek knowledge. The topics he had to white-knuckle at first now come easy to him, and he loves to learn more about aspects of the company, industry, or personal growth.
Heath Ritenour has grown a lot in his leadership role. He realizes how important it is to be authentic and not just appear a certain way. “When I first came in, I wanted everyone to see me working. I realized I was wasting a lot of time. As I grew, and started to live and die by referrals, I realized there were much better ways to maximize my day,” Heath says. “I started to be intentional with my day—not shooting the breeze or spending time on ‘busy work.’ If what I was doing wasn’t productive, I moved to something that was.”
Since his first internship, Heath Ritenour has navigated the roadmap to professional success. Faced with several curves and roadblocks along the way, Heath never lost sight of the values, missions, and driving forces that allowed him to maneuver successfully. Now, at the helm of IOA, Heath Ritenour has found his stride as a leader.