Ken Fortier said being connected and knowing people is the true joy of his life, and he strives to apply it toward helping others.
Fortier in February was appointed vice president of business development for Hylant’s West Michigan office based in downtown Grand Rapids, a job he was recruited for through his friendship with Jeff Lumpp, president of the firm’s West Michigan operations, whom he met through their service together on the Davenport University Alumni board.
One month into Fortier’s new role, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan, spurring myriad questions about the future of the Toledo-based insurance brokerage and business services firm across its eight-state footprint. While no one had definitive answers to the challenges at hand, Fortier said the move to working from home (for everyone who could) became an opportunity rather than a roadblock.
He saw clients and community members were full of questions and longing for guidance, so he helped Hylant start one-hour, video-based business peer groups, where, up to three times a week, he brings in lawyers, accountants and other experts to help answer people’s questions in small groups on Zoom.
The resource is completely free — he stressed it’s not meant to be a tool for marketing insurance products or generating leads — and the main goal always has been to connect people, to make them feel they aren’t alone, and to offer a safe and confidential space to discuss business challenges and ideate solutions.
Fortier is uniquely positioned to be able to offer this resource, he said, based on about a decade of experience as founder, owner and coach at NetPlus Connections, a business leader training program he ramped up in 2012 after publishing his book, “NetPlus Connections: Be the One Who Makes Everyone’s World Bigger and Better.”
The book instructs business professionals how to become valuable “net-plus assets” in other people’s networks by strengthening relationship skills through better and deeper networking.
Organization: Hylant West Michigan
Position: Vice president of business development
Birthplace: Tampa, Florida
Family: Wife, Diana Kauffman; twin 8-year-olds, Eliana and Asher
Business/Community Involvement: Co-chair of the Davenport University Alumni board, member of the Kids’ Food Basket Fund Development Committee and co-chair of KFB’s largest outside annual fundraiser, the Driving Out Hunger Golf Classic
Biggest Career Break: Publishing the book “NetPlus Connections” in 2012 and going full time with his business leader training program of the same name. “I had over 400 people go through the small-group training about how important it is to make connections. … We’d talk about some skills that we should be working on, then we’d go out and practice the skills and then come back. It’s really helped me in my career, to develop a much stronger network and really great friends. And it’s helping me in my career at Hylant … (develop) the ability to take authenticity and bring it into business.”
The connections training program is based on the principles of the book, and Fortier said he has coached “hundreds” of participants in small-group settings over the years on how to connect meaningfully.
He was working full time at the firm when he was recruited for the role at Hylant, and he still does some informal mentoring on the side.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop being in NetPlus Connections, because it’s just me,” he said. “The idea of taking those skills of helping people connect in an authentic way and developing stronger relationships — those skills are applicable in what I’m doing today and what I have been doing since 2012.”
Fortier said he was raised to follow his parents’ example of being hardworking, generous people. His family was part of the St. Alphonsus Parish community in Grand Rapids, and he and his brother and two sisters attended Catholic Central High School, where they were given a good education and taught to help others, Fortier said.
His father worked sometimes three jobs to pay the bills, while his mom stayed at home, cooking dinner for the family every night.
“It was always about taking care of others,” he said. “I remember my dad, when I was really young, probably about 10 or 11 years old — we didn’t go out to dinner very often, so when we went out, it was kind of a big deal — he took us to this restaurant called Oyster Haven at Michigan and Fuller, a really nice little seafood place with lobsters in a fish tank.
“There was this table next to us. These ladies were being really loud and laughing and having a good time, and my dad called over the waitress, whispered in her ear, and something happened, and we rushed out of the restaurant. I was like, ‘Mom, what did Dad do?’ And she says, ‘He paid for their dinner and took care of their drinks.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Your dad thinks it’s important to add to other people’s lives, to do something more than just take care of the family. We need to take care of others, too.’”
Fortier said his parents are “the most selfless people you’ll ever meet,” and he learned from them “how to be a contributor to the community” and “how to donate our time, talent and treasure.”
Though one of the quiet kids in high school, Fortier said he started to come into his own during his first year at Grand Rapids Junior College (now Grand Rapids Community College) in 1986, where he found himself becoming someone who could find out what was happening socially and connect others through that talent.
“I remember having 50 cars following me to a house party one time, and we would all meet at 7-Eleven, I would have directions, I would have a pager with people paging me, I’m pulling over to a pay phone — it sounds funny now but I can tell you that I’ve got very close friends to this day that came out of that time 30 years ago,” he said.
“In that time, just being connected and knowing people, I found a purpose that I never really knew before.”
Fortier went on to study business at Davenport University after many years working in retail following GRJC.
“I had this feeling that I wanted to build something, that I wanted to contribute in a different way than just working in the grocery store business,” he said. “With business, I knew I had unlimited potential and could do anything I wanted.”
After Davenport, he entered the telecommunications field, sticking with it from the 1990s through 2013, following in the footsteps of his father’s lifelong career. First, Fortier was a technician for GRCC. He worked with the Donnelly Corporation from 1996 to 2000, then started his own business, Quantum Leap Communications, in 2003. He sold the business in 2013 and transitioned to his NetPlus Connector work on the side while also holding jobs in sales, marketing and investor relations at firms such as REV Business Solutions, DEKSIA and IMMY Inc.
In 2018, Fortier made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican candidate for state representative for the 73rd House District in Michigan, a seat ultimately won by one of the three other GOP candidates, Lynn Afendoulis, who succeeded retiring Rep. Chris Afendoulis.
When Lumpp called him to invite him to join the team at Hylant this year, Fortier said he laughed and said, “I don’t know anything about insurance!” Lumpp responded, “I don’t need you to know anything about insurance. I just need you to know about people.”
In addition to his business development work and role as a connector and facilitator for the Zoom peer roundtables at Hylant, Fortier runs the company’s GR Stories campaign, in which the firm highlights three nonprofit organizations per quarter to help them build more awareness and connection with the community. GR Stories was a program Fortier developed while working at DEKSIA, then Lumpp hired him to run it in-house.
“We’re taking the money that we used to just blindly donate to golf outings and tables and all these things, and we’re taking that budget and applying it right to these nonprofits,” Fortier said. “You can nominate your favorite nonprofits, and we go through and pick three of the nominations. We show a video for each of them, and we promote them on billboard, radio and digital, which is fantastic, because a lot of times, these organizations don’t have the budgets to do that. So we pay for all that.”
The next three nonprofits will be featured in July.
Hylant’s West Michigan office has 38 full-time employees, and Fortier said prior to COVID-19, they sat on a total of about 40 community boards — a fact he believes illustrates Hylant is a force for good in the communities it serves.
“We have a very strong commitment to helping in the community, and that stretches across the whole business,” he said.
“Our organization is here to help. We want our clients and our prospects to think of us as more than just an insurance company. … We want to be known more as the company that will help you connect to solutions that help your business.”
In addition to its insurance business, Hylant offers risk management services, employee benefits consultation, loss control and more for businesses and individuals locally, nationally and internationally out of offices in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia.
The family-owned business has about 750 employees, and the West Michigan office is currently hiring for roles in sales, employee benefits, property and casualty, recruiting, marketing and account servicing.
Fortier said the West Michigan office ranks 10th out of the company’s 16 offices for revenue right now, and his goal is to make his office No. 1 by the end of this year.
“We can do it,” he said. “West Michigan is the perfect environment for it.”