Getting tattoos, running for mayor and teaching in high schools are all part of a day's work for independent agents leading their communities.
In an industry centered around helping people, it's no surprise that many independent agents are actively involved in their communities in times of need.
“There are few other professions that have you frequently talking to hundreds or thousands of people in the local community," says Ben Rathbun, partner and personal and commercial producer at The Rathbun Agency in Lansing, Michigan. “It allows us to see what's going on and connect."
With 2020 providing plenty of opportunities to exercise leadership and lend a helping hand, agents are establishing themselves as trusted members of their communities through charity, politics and education.
Rathbun grew up in his agency, which was founded by his grandfather's two brothers 64 years ago. With both his grandfather and father later joining the agency, Rathbun first started working at the family business at the age of seven, running client paper files to customer service representatives. He now owns the business with his father and another partner.
Five years ago, Rathbun pitched an idea to his father: Quotes for a Cause. Every month the agency picks a small, local nonprofit and donates $5 per quote. At the end of the month, the agency hands the nonprofit a giant check for the total.
“When I came up with this, I thought we could do this for a bit, but we'd probably run out of organizations to support after a while," Rathbun says. “At this point, we've supported over 60 local charities, and I still haven't run out of initiatives we can give to."
The Rathbun Agency sends a monthly newsletter to 5,000 of its customers, which highlights the Quotes for a Cause nonprofit for the month. “A lot of clients had never heard of these local nonprofits right in front of them," he says. “It's given them exposure to donate to causes they're passionate about but didn't know there was an organization fulfilling that purpose."
Rathbun's dedication to serving the community has led to an opportunity he didn't expect.
“It's created a niche for me of writing nonprofits, just because we're in constant communication with different nonprofits," he says. “I didn't intend to write nonprofit business, but it rolled around our community that whenever people think of insurance agencies who give back, we're top of mind."
For independent agent Brock Elliott, serving the community involved getting a tattoo.
Elliott, a producer at Elliott Group in Louisburg, Kansas, fundraises for many organizations in his community but highlights Noah's Bandage Project, a nonprofit based out of Kansas City.
Pediatric cancer patient Noah Wilson was disappointed the hospital didn't have fun bandages as he dealt with IVs and shots. Before passing away in 2015, Noah founded Noah's Bandage Project to distribute exciting bandages and raise money for pediatric cancer research. The Elliott Group has hosted bandage drives for the past three years.
“Being a competitive person, I make a game out of it," Elliott says. “I've lost every single time. That resulted in getting my head and beard shaved one year—and last year, I lost and had to get the Noah's Bandage Project logo tattooed on my leg."
With the coronavirus pandemic putting many plans on hold indefinitely, Elliott's involvement in the project has gotten even more creative, leveraging social media to create a “dare-ioke."
“I posted a video of me on social media singing a song," he explains, “and then I challenged other people to either sing a song and challenge someone else or donate to the project."
COVID-19 has made community involvement more challenging for many, but for Lori Hopkins, owner of Hopkins Insurance in Pocahontas, Iowa, the pandemic gave her agency a unique opportunity.
Trusted Choice® recommended agencies host a community ice cream social and offered to help agencies fund their events. After acquiring a college intern in the spring who wanted to focus on marketing, Hopkins Insurance had the personnel to get the idea off the ground.
“Our first thought was that National Insurance Day was June 28, so the ice cream social would be celebrating that," Hopkins says. “But then we realized it's our agency's 20-year anniversary and our town's 150th anniversary—and all the festivities had been canceled. We thought this would be a little bit of fun during the pandemic."
The social itself was a community effort. One of Hopkins Insurance's clients owns an ice cream business and provided the ice cream. Hopkins Insurance staff with masks and gloves held trays with ice cream to hand to people as they drove by.
“Our area is rural, and has a lot of older people," Hopkins says. “They're just stuck in their homes. They appreciated a place where they could just go out and get some ice cream while being safe."
“Insurance is an intangible thing," she continues. “It's about protecting your relationships. People want to know that you care, and there are so many opportunities to show that."
State Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne), Indiana House of Representatives majority floor leader, 2020 president of the National Council of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL), and a partner at Bixler Insurance in Berne, believes bringing his mindset as an independent agent to the state and national stage was a natural fit.
“Insurance agents are problem-solvers by nature," Lehman says. “We look at a risk, analyze it, decide the best way to protect it, and give counsel. In the same way, when we make laws, we ask: 'Is it in in the best interest of all?' and 'How do we make sure it'll be applied equally?'"
In his twenties, he was elected to the county council. During his 14-year service on the council, he became involved in the Big “I" Government Affairs Committee and served a term as chair. When his state representative retired, he ran for the seat in the Indiana House of Representatives and won.
“We work in a heavily regulated industry, and I thought if people are going to make rules about me I want to be a part of it," Lehman says. “I served on the insurance committee since that's the expertise I brought to the table."
In 2015, after five years as insurance committee chair, Lehman became the House majority leader. He also currently serves as the 2020 president of NCOIL. “With many issues—the ride-sharing economy, lawsuit lending, rebating—I've worked on them at the national level in NCOIL and then brought them back to the state of Indiana," he says.
Unfortunately, Lehman sees very few agents involved in politics. “Whenever I speak to agent groups, I hear 'I'm so happy with what you're doing on the state and national level—keep up the good work.' I'll ask if they have a young producer in their agency interested in joining politics as the next generation, and they'll say, 'But I can't give up my producer.'"
Lehman points out that his political job is only part-time, as he is still a principal in his agency. With technology, one can work from anywhere. But many agency leaders struggle with the thought of competing for their young producer or principal's time against a political office.
“But by doing that, you've deferred the decision-making on insurance issues to a farmer, banker or lawyer," he says. “Not that those are bad individuals—but where is their insurance expertise?"
When it comes to expertise, Ashley Brady, mayor of Marion, South Carolina and vice president and principal of First Charter Company Inc., believes that running an insurance agency has prepared him to serve his community through political excellence.
“It's the same principles," Brady explains. “Balancing budgets, communicating with a variety of personalities and being consistent in what you do."
Brady felt that many of the decisions being made by the previous mayor weren't beneficial for the city. After a few people suggested he run in the next election, he won the race and has been serving for over three years.
“The previous administration had been hitting the rainy-day fund pretty hard, so I've been concentrating on restoring fiscal responsibility," Brady says, who has also been leading the city in replacing outdated equipment for trash pickup and hurricane cleanup.
“Having run an independent agency for 20 years before I jumped into politics, a city is run basically the same way," Brady says. “A city might be five or 10 times bigger, but it comes down to treating people well and being responsible with your money."
To Brady, independent agents make great community leaders because “what's good for their community is good for their agencies. And agents know the community because they have their boots on the ground."
Through the InvestSM program, independent agents across the country can educate the next generation of insurance professionals. Invest provides educational courses for high school and community college students on insurance, financial services and risk management topics, and encourages them to pursue a variety of careers in the insurance industry.
“We teach Invest classes at three local high schools, as well as a community college," says Valarie VanGorder, vice president at Bailey Place Insurance in Cortland, New York. “People don't really know anything about insurance. Before I got into insurance, I'd get my insurance policies and I'll file them away without ever looking at them. The chance to show people a little of insurance's importance is one of my favorite things about being involved in education."
Bailey Place Insurance is highly involved in other educational service opportunities. “If there's a math class or personal finance class at a local high school, we often go and talk about budgeting for, say, their first car and the insurance involved, and how to work toward that," says Jeremy Boylan, vice president at Bailey Place Insurance. “I also present in college courses, such as entrepreneurship classes and introductory insurance classes."
VanGorder and Boylan also teach important safety tips in driver's education classes at high schools, as well as emphasize the importance of flood insurance in communities. “We have a lot of properties in our community in special flood hazard areas, so we do many presentations for the county board of realtors, landlord associations and more," VanGorder says. “We're known as the go-to agency if you have a question about flood insurance."
“It's not all just students and teachers," Boylan adds. “It's about educating the community and the general public as well."
“We have a karmic responsibility to give back to where we live," says Andrew Giambarba, vice president of commercial insurance at Insurance Office of America—Miami in Doral, Florida. “I know the people that have been most important in my life were the people who volunteered their time to mentor me or help me understand things that I was interested in."
For the past 12 years, Giambarba has taught Invest programs at five different high schools in the Miami community.
“It's amazing when you have a discussion with students that fundamentally changes the way they think about anything from insurance fraud or the claims process to work ethic and the insurance industry," Giambarba says. “I love being able to change the optics on what the insurance industry is all about. If I can teach on why insurance exists and how helpful it is—and about our ability to make people whole after a loss—it helps our communities understand our industry better."
Whether agents are stepping up in charity, politics or education, building relationships is the key to becoming a trusted adviser.
“Agencies have a unique opportunity to be able to give back because our business is very relationship-focused," Rathbun says. “And at the end of the day, when clients make decisions about their insurance, they want to talk to someone they can build a relationship with—and somebody that's in touch with their community is better positioned to do that."
AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.