WAVERLY — When Mike Byl and Tim Gassmann were coming up in their careers, with The Accel Group and Millhiser Smith Agency, respectively, both men had the ability to climb up the company ladder to the top.But it wasn’t clear, given the state of the insurance industry market, their own employees would eventually be able to do the same.

So the two, who have been friends for 15 years and running similar operations — Byl in Waverly and Gassmann in Cedar Rapids — began talking earnestly with one another about how to solve that problem.

“Basically, that was our whole goal,” said Gassmann. “How do we create and afford the same opportunities to our employees that Mike and I had when we started?”

There were two directions insurance agencies like Accel and Millhiser Smith were headed, reasoned Gassmann: Get bigger, or go away. Both preferred the former.

“To be relevant in the market, we felt we needed to be larger,” Byl said.

Two years ago, the companies began working with a consultant to decide if a merger of their companies was the best course of action.

“We spent a lot of time working with financials, but more importantly with culture,” Byl said. “The number one reason a merger doesn’t work is culture, so we spent a lot of time working on that.”

Byl said both companies strive for a “family atmosphere,” where employees’ time is respected with flexible time off and paid time to volunteer throughout the year.

“We like to promote a work-life balance — that’s a strong culture with both of us,” he said.

When it was finally clear a merger would make sense, the two companies combined into one, officially, on Jan. 1 of this year. The merger combined Gassmann’s 40 employees with Byl’s 39 into The Accel Group, keeping offices in Cedar Rapids, Waverly and Cedar Falls and becoming one of the largest Iowa-based insurance agencies.

“Our employees have been great,” Gassmann said. “They’ve embraced the new change.”

Byl said customers have been excited for the change as well — if they even noticed at all.

“In the Cedar Valley market it’s really been, ‘Congratulations,’ and a lot of good comments,” he said. “But if they haven’t followed the press, they might not have even known.”

Byl’s new title is president, overseeing day-to-day management of the company, while Gassmann became CEO, in charge of looking for new opportunities to merge or acquire more like-minded agencies.

“We plan on growing both organically as well as through mergers and acquisitions,” Gassmann said, noting they would continue to look for companies whose cultures meshed with their own. “Industry-wide, I think 2017 (had) the most acquisition activity in the insurance industry in quite a few years, and that continues to be at the forefront.”

And both say growing larger isn’t just good for themselves and their employees — it’s good for their clients as well.

“Obviously (the merger) gave us more leverage, more diversification, which is kind of critical,” Gassmann said. “We want to be able to offer a wide range of products and services to our customers.”