For our 14th episode President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Rick Kahle, Senior Vice President at Alliant Insurance Services, who shares all on standing up a KC office, inspiring company loyalty through employee benefits, and the secret behind why so many deals are done on the golf course.
Ethan Whitehill: Hello again. I’m Ethan Whitehill, President and Chief Creative Officer of Crux, the “un-agency.” This is To The Point, our monthly podcast for thought-provoking conversations that get to the crux of it all to help businesses elevate their brands and amplify their missions.
Today’s guest is Rick Kahle. Driven by impactful outcomes and passionate about serving people, Rick serves as a trusted advisor, adept at helping clients solve their most complex business challenges. As a senior vice president of Alliant, Rick is leaning into his entrepreneurial experiences to help build and lead the firm’s Kansas City office.
Following a 27-year career of employee benefits consulting and brokerage, Rick switched gears and followed his passion for investing in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Kansas City. in 2019, he co-founded Crux-Xcelerate, which combined sales and marketing acumen to develop sales performers and leaders, drive value and accountability, as well as fuel sustainable revenue growth for organizations.
Rick is passionate about supporting the greater Kansas City community and has served in numerous leadership positions, both charitably and civically. Most notably, he continues to serve as chair of Phoenix Family, which provides support services to 6,000 residents of affordable housing communities. He also recently rejoined the KC Chamber Board and helps his alma mater, Rockhurst University, with its Annual Leadership Speaker Series.
Rick, it is fantastic to have you and I gave some background, but I would love to hear your backstory in your words.
Rick Kahle: Thank you, Ethan. Great to be here. Thank you for having me.
I grew up in St. Louis, and those of you that know me know I’ve lived under a bright shining star, and it started with wonderful giving parents, older sister, younger sister, and we couldn’t tell if we were poor or had modest means. All I know is I wouldn’t have traded the way we grew up for anything. And father was a traveling salesman hugely into sports, coached our teams, rode my backside like no other, and through him learned about hard work and dedication and what it took to be successful. Diehard Cardinals fan, yes indeed, growing up in St. Louis. From my mother, it was about caring for everybody and everything. And again, feel super grateful to have had that. Moved to Kansas City to come to Rockhurst—then College now University—had a terrific experience there. And one of the things that stood out to me there, Ethan, is the “servancy”—being servant leaders—in addition to a really good liberal education. Part of who I am today was developed through that experience at Rockhurst.
Ethan Whitehill: Yeah, it sounds like it aligns perfectly with your upbringing.
Rick Kahle: It does. And like I said, we were a very modest means growing up. My parents valued education. And later in my dad’s life, he passed 10 years ago, I said, “how did you and mom afford putting the kids through private high school and contributing in college?” And dad said, “you remember when mom was smoking more, and all the bills were around the table? That was when we were trying to figure out which goals were closest to us,” but the priority they made was to make sure that we could have a better opportunity than they did, and path for that in their mind was a good education.
Ethan Whitehill: You know, thinking about education, thinking about your concern for others and sort of that Rockhurst background, it makes me wonder what drew you to the insurance industry when you chose a career. I suspect it might be that service aspect of your background.
Rick Kahle: Part of it for sure, but there is everybody, you know, nobody wakes up one day and says, “hey, I want to be in the insurance business.” You know, you think of two 73-year-old men dripping their tie in their soup when I grew up. But to answer your question, my mother worked for a State Farm agent, so I saw the problems they solved and how they helped people on an individual basis. My dad was a traveling salesman and he put on 55,000 miles a year to provide for us. And together, I was able to bring those experiences together as an intern through Rockhurst co-op program with a company called The Woodsmall Companies. And I worked, dad hired me in that job. Mike Brewer provided the opportunity to bring those things together. And what I learned was commercial insurance is far more sophisticated, complex—important business challenges and problems exist—and it’s been a basis for a good portion of my career, wildly more interesting than I might’ve anticipated growing up.
Ethan Whitehill: What drew you to the insurance services industry?
Rick Kahle: So, mom worked for a State Farm agent, dear friends of ours. So that was the insurance component, and I saw how they solved individual’s, people’s risks. My dad was a traveling salesman and getting into college and the co-op program through Rockhurst, I found an opportunity with The Woodsmall Companies as a summer producer intern to combine those two. And what I learned through that process, Ethan, is these are real business problems that every business has to deal with—the employee benefits, how do I attract and retain people and afford to do so? On the property casualty side, used to be just property and liability and work comp, now you have things like cyber risks. So, what I thought maybe as a small child may not be super interesting, as you grow up, you learn how important these things are, and solving complex problems is something that, you know, I found to be very rewarding. And to your point, it’s truly helping individuals help their company is part of what fuels me every day.
Ethan Whitehill: I love that sort of reason to be. And, you know, that idea of helping companies, you’ve been very successful in your career, and you’ve had the opportunity then to help companies in other ways as an angel investor. Talk to us a little bit about that. Why is angel investment so important to you?
Rick Kahle: After first chapter—27, 28 years in commercial insurance—I had friends who were entrepreneurs, including Melea McRae at Crux, Condon at Bardavon, who I just had tremendous respect for. And at that point in my life, I thought, we have a country that gives us the opportunity, I really want to learn and explore this and run to this opportunity. I think Kansas City will be defined 10 years from now by how well we treat our entrepreneurs and what kind of ecosystem and environment we create where businesses and early-stage, younger businesses can thrive. And part of that is investing and supporting those, getting behind them, leaning into them with the boards and board of advisors. And that has been, for me, such a wonderful experience to help people I care about grow their businesses and flourish. But also, serving in those environments, the learnings from those entrepreneurs and from the other people that they attract on their boards and board of advisors has been amazing. I will tell you without question that I’ve been the smallest house in some very nice neighborhoods, but I’ve learned a ton with the people with whom I’ve been able to interact and watch them ask good questions and guide the entrepreneurs to good paths.
Ethan Whitehill: And you haven’t just applied those learnings to for-profit businesses, you’re doing that with nonprofits, as well. You talk about the importance of giving back, of time and treasure, and you certainly do that in spades through mentorship and board service with nonprofits like Phoenix Family, which I mentioned earlier. Why is this such an important facet of our development as professionals and why is that community focus so important here in Kansas City?
Rick Kahle: One, it’s the right thing to do. And as we look back, you know, I’m really touched when I go to funeral services and in addition to thinking about the families, I always think about is anybody going to show up for mine and what are they going to say if they get some truth serum in them? We get an opportunity here to live a relevant, meaningful life, and giving back where we can, to me, is critical in that, more so, I have gotten out 10 times in good feeling and return for everything that I’ve ever invested in—time or in money—in these organizations. One of my really good pals, Jonathan Cohen, helped me understand it’s an “and” conversation when you serve charitably. Business and charitable work go together beautifully. You have to do it like everything, the right way, but those two things complement each other very well.
It’s difficult to say, gosh, Ethan’s a bad person, yet I see him over here doing great things for people who need his help. Seems really inconsistent If a competitor is saying bad things about Ethan, ’cause that’s not the person I see every day as we’re working together, arm-in-arm, to help people who need our help. So, I’m humbled by a lot of things in life. One of those is the opportunities that I’ve had to invest, to serve as Phoenix Family’s chair for as long as I have. By the way, big news in that regard, Mark Garrett—total rockstar—January 1st is taking over as Phoenix Family’s chair, passing the baton after 15 or 16 years. It’s in the best interest of the organization. I’m going to stay on the board. He’s going to take us to where we need to go.
The second question, Ethan, you said about mentoring, whether it’s our kids’ friends, people who are out of a job and looking for some help, all the way to, I met this morning with a very accomplished peer who is looking for his next opportunity. I get great energy out of having those conversations, trying to be a resource to people, trying to ask good questions and trying to help them. However, Pam, my wife, laughs at me regularly, says, why do people constantly reach out to you for help? I don’t know exactly why that is, but I sure enjoy that they do.
Ethan Whitehill: Well, I know you’ve been a great mentor and advisor to Crux and we appreciate that. And early on in Crux’s history, you and Melea got together and you hatched an idea called Crux-Xcelerate, which provides sales coaching and business development services. And we’ve had John on earlier podcast to share all about that company with our listeners. But it’s clear from your success that you have a knack for sales. And, you know, this was a passion of yours when Crux-Xcelerate was started. And I happen to know you’re particularly skilled with a 9-iron. And I’ve got to know, why are so many deals done on the golf course?
Rick Kahle: ‘Cause life is wonderful. And all the sports I played growing up, I’m a huge sports fan—I’m sitting here in my chief gear right now—golf could be the best sport ever invented. And where else are you going to have the opportunity to spend four or five hours with somebody in a beautiful environment competing for something? And it’s a wonderful relationship development opportunity. In my world, honestly, I try not to talk business very much on the golf course. I learn about them as individuals—their families, things that are important to them. You can tell a lot about a person and how they comport themselves on the golf course, good and bad—me included. But life is so much to me about just meeting interesting people, being interested in them, learning about what’s important and how I might be able to help them. Sometimes that means business opportunities, as well. So, golf is part of the arsenal. Younger in my career, it was a really important part. There were customers that expected it. It just takes too much time. So, for all you golfers out there, golf does not have to be four and a half or five hours. Three and a half hours is plenty.
Ethan Whitehill: What about Topgolf? Does that count, too?
Rick Kahle: Absolutely. Topgolf is a wonderful place for people to go that aren’t the most gifted ever. We can still have a good experience. We can develop those relationships that we enjoy and get in and out of there with some food and some pops and everything is good.
Ethan Whitehill: So, I understand, too, that while you’re playing golf, you might be talking about a new venture today. You recently jumped back into the game with Alliant in Kansas City. Who is Alliant and why is the timing right?
Rick Kahle: Alliant is an amazing company that is top 10 in commercial insurance service provider in the country. Heavy influence on the East coast and the West coast, in Texas, and have a neat opportunity to help build in the middle part of the country. Things that stand out to me and what attracted me include that 52% of the company is owned by employees. So, there’s a lot of alignment and team orientation and a true “we” culture.
There’s some amazing people, including the people that I got to meet in the South-central part of the country. So, there are now four of us that really have the responsibility of coloring in the center part of the country with some amazing people. It’s an entrepreneurial company that hires adults and treats them as such. So, there was a really good fit. I felt like a college kid in the portal for a number of months. And for me, everybody says this, it truly was not about who’s going to pay me the most. It’s where am I aligned? And I feel like I found that with Alliant. And just a couple months in, but I’m humbled and just thrilled with the team that was here in place. There were eight amazing professionals here and we’ve brought on some rock stars—Holly Munson and Andy Pasquale joined just a couple weeks ago. And, big news, Andre Davis is going to join us as well.
Ethan Whitehill: He’s been a guest on the podcast, as well!
Rick Kahle: Andre is a force of nature. He is a problem solver, and he asks the right questions, he listens, he will attach them to resources and just super excited to bring him on board soon.
Ethan Whitehill: Well and talk about time, talent, treasure, you know, he absolutely brings those things and aligns with those values.
Rick Kahle: Yeah. And people I mentioned, you know, having the opportunity to plant the flag in Kansas City, we’re building a diverse group of people in thought, in gender, in color. And it’s a meritocracy that we’re finding this through. We’re finding amazing people naturally building a diverse workforce. That’s really important in honestly, what’s been a male dominated, lily-white industry. That was super important to me, and the fact that we’ve been able to do that with just absolute top shelf people, it makes my heart very happy and will help us be successful.
Ethan Whitehill: Talk a little bit about the customers then. You know, so what is the value that Alliant is bringing to Kansas City and the businesses here?
Rick Kahle: So, a couple different disciplines. The employee benefits side, we are targeted and we have resources, people with experience for the hundred plus employee marketplace. So, what they’re struggling with now, Ethan, is they’re paying roughly $15,000 per employee per year for medical coverage, staring at an inflation of eight to 10% and could be lower than that, sometimes could be significantly higher. How can I control my budget? What are things that are innovative while attracting and retaining the very best people?
On the property casualty side, property rates are through the roof. Cyber is a very difficult challenge along with your other traditional property casualty challenges. So, these are problems that if employers do not have trusted advisors or are concerned about things—the direction that things are heading in their business—if they’re outgrowing their current brokers, we’re looking for those organizations that have some critical mass and that have challenges that we might be able to help them with uniquely.
Ethan Whitehill: Oftentimes insurance is kind of an afterthought, and it should be the first thought, you know. And you don’t think about it until you need it, but you should be thinking about it before you need it. Right?
Rick Kahle: That’s so true. And each individual has their own unique lens, you know, in the benefits world. How can I come someplace? So, roughly if you’re newer, it might be 30%, 40% of your compensation is what your employer is doing in non-pay in your employee benefits piece. So, that’s a hugely important part. And we each have our own needs. Mine are different than yours—the family structure, the health needs, the challenges. So that’s just super important.
When you get a little longer in the tooth and/or you develop some healthcare challenges, it becomes that much more important to you. Maybe you’re making some more compensation, but boy, the fact that the employer has been thoughtful about we have a program that works for each one of us becomes personally important. So, as we’re advocating for our clients and trying to become their trusted advisors, we’re thinking about every one of the people in their company and trying to put together a plan that is not only what the budget can withstand, but programs that work for the people.
Ethan Whitehill: That makes a lot of sense. As an employer, you know, we see that in sort of the war for talent as we’re competing for great people. Culture is definitely a big part of it, and you addressed that, but it’s also what is that total compensation, you know, beyond just my salary, how else are you taking care of me? And it is a competitive force for us, for sure.
Rick Kahle: The marketplace remains, there’s some softness in the tech areas in so many areas. The battle for talent remains super high. Example, clinicians in the healthcare space. Still scrambling like crazy to try to find the nurses, and I don’t see the dynamics of that changing anytime soon. So having a robust benefit program, a robust overall compensation program, is going to be super important.
Ethan Whitehill: Well, that is fantastic insight. Now we’re going to switch gears. We’re going to go to my mystery question. I’ve got my 20-sided dye in my hand and now we’re going to get some insight from you that is totally meaningless.
Rick Kahle: Alright, let’s go.
Ethan Whitehill: This is about the trivial insight.
Rick Kahle: So, what did I roll?
Ethan Whitehill: 14. See what 14 is. Ah, I don’t think I’ve asked this one before. This is going to be very telling, Rick. Would you rather live without the internet or without bathing?
Rick Kahle: Gosh, I’m not much on B.O., especially my own. You know, I’ve become pretty addicted to that phone and everything it can provide for me. So, I guess you all are going to have to stay away from me. Keep your distance ’cause I think I’m going to have to go without bathing as hard as that’s going to be.
Ethan Whitehill: Because you need the internet to take care of your customers and you could do that remotely so they don’t have to, you know…
Rick Kahle: Maybe we could order some nice perfume or something. Keep me from being too pungent.
Ethan Whitehill: Well, thank you for the candor. I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Rick Kahle: Well, I didn’t see that one coming.
Ethan Whitehill: So how can our listeners connect with you, learn more about Alliant?
Rick Kahle: Yeah, I appreciate that. LinkedIn is the best way to get in touch with me. My friends at Crux have done a terrific job of elevating my profile and helping me become better known through the LinkedIn function. That’s a great way to get in touch with me. If you’d like to learn more about Alliant, alliant.com, which is A-L-L-I-A-N-T.com, is a great way to learn about what’s important to our company and the resources. And personally, I’m recruiting here in Kansas City primarily for producers—insurance term for salespeople—and lead client service team members. Those folks are in high demand and if you have interest, especially in those roles, please DM me and reach out via LinkedIn.
Ethan Whitehill: Fantastic. Rick, thank you for joining us.
Rick Kahle: Great being here. Thanks so much.
Hosted by Ethan Whitehill
Ethan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.