The founders of BKS Partners are empowering the next generation to take hold

Laura Sherman, Lowry Baldwin and Elizabeth Krystyn never thought they’d end up in the insurance industry, yet their unique paths brought them together to co-found Baldwin, Krystyn, Sherman (BKS) Partners, an agency that works outside the box cultivating long-haul relationships and partnerships with regional and national insurance companies, to ensure the best possible experience for clients.

 The $1.2 billion firm has rebranded its affiliated Baldwin Risk Partners, or BRP Group, to The Baldwin Group, to align with its ongoing transformation and expansion. The changes will be done in phases and include transitioning its nearly 40 regional retail brands to The Baldwin Group, by early 2025.

The three founded BKS Partners in early 2006, after all working for firms that were sold to Wachovia, in 2000. Each waited out a non-compete clause, always knowing they wanted to launch a new firm. 

The relationships they’ve built since coming together are on display when they interact, sharing inside jokes and quips, poking fun at one another freely and without malice and admiring each other’s various skill sets. They are a dynamic trio, with each representing an important part of the vast business empire that they founded together. They are proud to have created a culture and built the chassis which Trevor Baldwin, the CEO, and the leadership team have expanded upon.

Loper Lowry Baldwin 

What’s in a name? A lot, if you’re Lowry Baldwin. The fourth generation Tampanian is the grandnephew of Sumter Lowry Sr., the namesake of ZooTampa at Lowry Park, formerly known as Lowry Park Zoo, and Baldwin’s grandfather’s brother, on his mother’s side. Sumter Lowry was honored in name recognition for his contributions to Tampa’s civic life. 

Anyone in the Tampa Bay business community, and even those far outside it, knows that Baldwin is the guy. The man, some might say. 

 Between his family legacy and the insurance firm he’s built, there’s much to live up to. But live up to it he has.  

“I had an idyllic childhood. My parents were very engaged. My mom was the disciplinarian. She was called ‘the Sarge’ growing up, she was a total badass,” Baldwin recalled, endearingly.

 His mother, Sally Lowry Baldwin, is considered the “First Lady of Lowry Park Zoo” as she turned it from a traditional caged zoo into the wild zoo it is today. She was also the first woman to ever serve on the board of Tampa Electric Company (TECO). She passed away in 2013, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. His father, Walter Baldwin, is still alive, at 94 years young. 

 “She was a pioneer. She would’ve been a CEO and entrepreneur, today. My dad was an over-the-top personality, incredibly engaging, warm, what you would think of a salesperson who could walk into any room and make friends with everybody in 10 minutes.” 

His love and admiration for both parents is palatable as he describes their community service, including various boards — such as the zoo — and philanthropic endeavors. 

 His dad’s infectious personality and chosen career path, in particular, would play an important role in Lowry Baldwin’s life, but more on that in a moment. 

 Baldwin grew up much like any kid, despite his local fame. He loved sports — hunting and fishing, anything outside. He still does. It’s his ranch, steeped in Florida history and conservation efforts, where the photo shoot and interview took place. He’s a middle kid, the third born of four, including two brothers and a sister. Baldwin describes the four as “the epitome of Darwin’s view of genetic diversity.” 

 There were some advantages, including his attendance at Jesuit High School, a private school in Tampa. He went on to attend Wake Forrest, where he studied not zoology, or anything related to animals in a nod to his family name adorning a whole zoo, or insurance, like his dad, but psychology.

 “Growing up, I had no interest in insurance,” Baldwin said. “I had a view that people who sold insurance were calling families, at dinnertime, trying to get somebody on the phone to sell ‘em something. It took me a while to figure out that’s not what really good insurance brokers and risk management folks do.”

 But that education in psychology, meant as a getaway from his dad’s industry, wound up being “the best degree that I could have received,” Baldwin said. 

 It’s because he’s in the behavior business. It’s part of what separates Baldwin’s insurance brokerage from others and why the company has found so much success. 

“It turned out to be fantastic grounding and a precursor to what I ended up doing,” Baldwin said of his college education.

 He left Wake Forest, in 1981, and began working for Aetna in its then-property and casualty division, before the company was known as it is now, a major health insurance provider. It was there, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Baldwin married his wife, Jennifer, who he met in college. Ironically, he may have married a mirror image of his mother. Jennifer was known by her children, and their friends, growing up as the ‘Honey badger.’ As grandma, she’s lovingly evolved into the ‘Honeybee.’ Baldwin credits much of his success to her.  

Working for Aetna was the beginning of following in the footsteps Baldwin thought he had avoided. His dad co-founded Baldwin Italiano Insurance, in 1963, with his college roommate and childhood friend, Nelson Italiano. 

 It didn’t take Baldwin long to join his father, leaving Aetna in 1983 and heading to the family business, and it wasn’t long after that Baldwin set his sights on growing it.

 “We grooved for the next six, seven years and then, in 1989, I started talking with Chuck Davis and the Davis Brothers agency about bringing the two together. We brought them together, in 1991,” Baldwin said. 

 Chuck Davis was second generation in the Davis Brothers Insurance Agency, which was established in the early 1930s, and was one of Tampa’s oldest independent insurance agencies, at the time. The elder Baldwin’s firm, then Baldwin and Sons with Lowry Baldwin on board, merged with the Davis Brothers agency to become Davis Baldwin Inc. Lowry Baldwin served as its Chief Operating Officer after the merger. Over a nine-year period, Davis Baldwin grew into the 33rd largest privately held insurance, broker before selling to Wachovia in November, 2000.

 Now, Lowry Baldwin serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of one of the most successful insurance broker agencies in the U.S., ranked in 2022 by Business Insurance as the 18th largest in the nation. The firm is ranked by Insurance Journal, for 2023, as the 9th largest independent Property/Casualty Agency in terms of revenue. 

The Baldwin Group was rated #14 by USA Today/Top Workplaces 2024 in the category of organizations with more than 2,500 employees.

Elizabeth Krystyn

Born in Evanston, Illinois, to a true Midwesterner, Krystyn moved with her family to Jacksonville, when she was in third grade. It was a city which she had no intention of returning to. 

She graduated from the University of South Florida, being one of three children in college at the same time, her mom begged them all to go to Florida schools. It’s where she met her husband, who she’s proudly still married to and is quick to point out, that none of the following could have happened without his support. 

 You wouldn’t know it from her stellar resume — executives at her level are often wound tight with the burdens of leadership — but Krystyn was once a chill high schooler, doing her hair while others were studying. She once dyed it purple. Now, she reassures parents worried about a perceived lack of ambition among their children that it’s nothing over which to fret. 

 “Just breathe and hold on for the journey,” she offers, in a sage piece of wisdom any experienced parent can appreciate. 

Krystyn was a good student, but she jokes that she probably worked harder than she should have. 

“I probably missed out on some fun,” she mused, adding that had she not, “there wouldn’t have been quite so much work.” 

 Yet there’s no lesson here from Krystyn, no wisdom to impart about the pitfalls of ditching class. Instead, she embraces life and spontaneity. One of her sons recently left for a trip to Florence and she did have some advice for him.

“Ride all the rides. If someone says, ‘Let’s go to Paris for the weekend,’ you say yes. If someone says, ‘Let’s stay later,’ ‘change your flight,’ you say yes,” she said it in a way that might make some of us wish she were our mom. 

It’s the type of mentality that can be lacking at the highest echelons of the C-suite. Too often the thought process is, to work yourself into the ground to get ahead, and keep doing that to stay ahead. 

But Krystyn manages the balance, as she always has. 

Her second job out of college was a referral from a friend to a broker. Turns out, she liked it. 

 That start would eventually lead her to establish the employee benefits operation — from scratch — at Davis Baldwin. She established — and it’s one of the reasons Baldwin describes both Krystyn and Sherman as the brains behind the operation — the entire business model, to become one of the largest brokerages in the southeast. 

Bringing her on board was, as Baldwin describes it, a ‘no-brainer.’ 

Laura Sherman

 Laura Sherman’s partners at the firm call her “the Woo.” Because she has a gravitational personality, they said. 

“If you get into that orbit, you don’t want out of it, it’s like a tractor beam,” said Baldwin.

Laura is also married; she met her husband the weekend before she was supposed to marry someone else. He must’ve gotten into her orbit. Laura’s love for him shines through, as does her admiration for his ability to let her build a career that now enables her the freedom to enjoy being a mom to her two teenage boys. 

 Sherman was key to the business, in the early days, because of her experience in private risk lines. No one, at least no one like Sherman, was doing business holistically and incorporating risk management, in the country, nearly 20 years ago.  

She was able to bring to the firm a higher value proposition, drawing high net worth and affluent individuals and families. She had worked on brands like Ferrari and The Antique Road show, pretty sexy for a girl slinging insurance. 

 Also, a funny irony for a woman who openly jokes about being “white trash,” growing up in Newark, Ohio, (she says ‘Nerk’) and raised by her grandparents. 

Sherman was born to a mom who was pregnant, while in college. Her mom, finding it difficult to manage being a young mother while furthering her education, knew she would need some help. Because Sherman was born 3 weeks late, and on her grandfather’s birthday, he saw it as a sign from God that this little girl needed to be raised by Grandpa and Grandma. 

To be clear, she’s not trash. And her grandparents did a heck of a job. 

Her path to the Tampa Bay area was long. In high school, college was a way out of Ohio and a way to freedom. 

“I was a good student because I wanted to do anything to get out of there,” she said.

Sherman chose DePauw University because they offered her the most scholarship money.

There, Sherman took internships every summer and worked every extended break. It wasn’t unlike her to throw herself into work as aggressively as she did. Sherman started working when she was just 14 years old, taking just about any job she could find whether delivering newspapers, clerking in a video store or even lending a hand at a nursing home. 

One of her most interesting jobs was for a home fuel oil delivery company, a role that seems out of place for a such a prim woman. 

Together They Founded a Unicorn

The firm is fresh off its best financial first quarter ever and their stock is surging because of it. The rise has been meteoric.

BRP experienced explosive, organic growth and realized an acquisition strategy, married with their robust growth, was the way to continue that trajectory.

Trevor Baldwin, now CEO and Lowry’s oldest son, having joined the firm in 2009, took the lead on bigger dreams. What the founders dreamed was a $100-200M firm, what Trevor and his leadership team saw was the potential for a billion-dollar company and knew the way to get there was through an Initial Public Offering.

The firm went public in 2019, just 10 years after Trevor joined. 

“We didn’t go public just to be public,” Lowry Baldwin said. “We went public because we had a very cogent acquisition strategy. We had a really good value proposition for other like-minded entrepreneurs that didn’t want to sell to private equity or the Marsh or Aons of the world.”

The team visited family offices, private equity firms, investment bankers and anyone else that might help them achieve those goals. They eventually settled on taking the company public as the best strategy to access capital in the most favorable and efficient terms. 

“It’s why most companies go public,” Lowry explained.

The BKS Success 

Culture is important to the founders and a big differentiator for them in the industry. But maintaining that priority turns out to be harder with 4,000 employees than it was when they had 40, or even 400. 

“Because good culture, first and foremost, drives behavior. Behavior drives performance. It should be the lens through which we make all our decisions and when we get it right, it binds us to a much higher calling. Ultimately, good culture tells people what you stand for and who you are, period,” Baldwin said.

Their culture strategy is an essential element of the upcoming brand revision and they’ve vowed it won’t waver from the values they’ve always stood for. 

The Legacy

Times have changed since Lowry first got into the insurance game, in the 80s. Technology, in particular, has presented a new set of both challenges and opportunities. 

Lowry believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will be transformative in the insurance industry.

“We’re investing a lot of time, energy and capital in understanding what those applications are going to look like. But it also has a profound impact on the type of colleague that we’re going to be seeking because in a world that’s driven, or co-piloted, by AI tools and agents, you’re going to be looking for people who can apply exceptionally good human judgment, really good critical thinking skills,” he said, outlining a delicate balance between AI and a personal touch and the impact that has on human relationships. 

It’s a big part of why, he says, they made the $5.2M investment in The Baldwin Group School of Risk & Insurance investment, at USF. And why $2.6M of that was Lowry’s personal contribution?

“I think it’s a great way for us to leave a legacy of being a learning organization, which we are. One that’s designed to leave the world in a better place, hopefully. The insurance industry is very virtuous, when done well,” said Baldwin. “So how could we not, in our backyard, with an Association of American Universities (AAU) accredited university, support the growth of our future industry?”

Now not very involved in the daily operations, the founders have found themselves with more time for family, more time to travel and see the world, more time for things like hand painting note cards for Krystyn, supplying alligator eggs to providers of alligator skins for the likes of Hermes and Versace for Baldwin and attending her boys football games, for Sherman. 

When asked, all resoundingly answered, “They would do it all over again.” And why wouldn’t they?

How many people can say they founded a Unicorn? 

AFFILIATIONS

Krystyn: Member of the Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay; chairperson of the personnel committee at Frist Presbyterian Church of Tampa; a 20-year member of the Junior League of Tampa and member of Lifepath Hospice Women of Philanthropy, member of the board of trustees at Academy Prep Center of Tampa, Tampa Preparatory School, ARISE Alliance, USF Foundation Board, Muma College of Business Executive Advisory Council and Chair of The Baldwin Group School of Risk Management and Insurance at USF. 

Sherman: Board of Directors Meals on Wheels of Tampa, Children’s Dream Fund, Metropolitan Ministries, the Council of Professional Advisors for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Florida Aquarium Capital Campaign, St. Joe’s Children’s Hospital Capital Campaign, Council for Insuring Private Clients, Clearwater Central Catholic Football Booster representative and Co-Chair, Leukemia Lymphoma Society of North Florida’s Light the Night Campaign, alongside Bridgette Bello. 

Baldwin: University of Tampa Board of Trustees

Photos by Pamella Lee

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