When Joe Leahy made the transition from a career at the Massachusetts State House to independent agent, a fellow agent and family friend told him not to forget his roots.
“I was talking with him about getting involved with the local association,” says Leahy, president of Leahy & Brown Insurance + Realty, Inc. in Springfield, Massachusetts. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do that, don’t forget the most important thing you can do is advocate for these agents. From where you came from, you have a unique ability to be able to do that.’”
Almost 40 years later, Leahy is still advocating for agents in the State House, on Capitol Hill, in the insurance industry and beyond. As he begins his term as Big “I” chairman, Leahy talked with IA about the challenges agents face—and what the association is doing to help members succeed.
IA: What’s your personal and professional background?
Leahy: I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts in a neighborhood called Hungry Hill. It was a very ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood. My father owned a market. All the relatives lived in the neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody. You grew up with a sense of community. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I got involved in association work—that sense of community.
I went through school and ended up at the Massachusetts State House Senate office. I grew up with the senator I worked for. It was an interesting position, but the burnout rate is very high. We were commuting a lot back and forth between Springfield and Boston, which is 90 miles each way. After I was there for about five years, my senator received an offer from an independent agent to become a partner. He said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but I want to bring Joe along with me. He wants to move on, and this would be a great business for him because it’s a people business.”
That’s how I ended up in the insurance business. After a short time, I broke out on my own. My wife Fran and I started our own agency in 1979, and here we are.
Tell us a little about your agency.
Massachusetts was a unique place for years. Up until 2008, the auto rate was set through a hearing process. That all changed in 2008, and our business has changed as a result.
Although we’ve lost a few points in market share, Massachusetts independent agents still lead the country with the largest market share in personal lines. I think that’s attributed to the type of agencies we have. We’re still 80% personal lines, 20% commercial lines. We know our customers. We continue to grow every year. There’s a great opportunity out there today for independent agents.
What is the biggest challenge agents face today?
I think keeping up with technology is one of them, and that’s one of the reasons we belong to associations. We don’t have an IT department. Our business is changing, and we need to stay up to date. The Big “I” and the state association working together are a great benefit to our office.
The other part most agents don’t have time for is advocacy, and the Big “I” plays an important role there, too. The old adage when I was at the State House was, “One piece of legislation can do more damage to your business than all your competitors combined.”
What has been instrumental to your agency’s success that other agents could learn from?
The things that have been helpful are things that I’ve learned from other agencies, to be honest. You always return a phone call, even if you’ve got bad news. You always call somebody back—at least they’ll respect the fact that you called them back. I think most people, regardless of what business they’re in, have a tendency to think, “I don’t want to call them because I’ve got bad news.” But you have to return those calls. That’s what separates us from 800 numbers.
In June 2011, we were hit by a tornado in Springfield. It passed within about a third of a mile of our office. It looked like the place had been bombed. You had to walk because you couldn’t drive down the street. We obviously insured a lot of people in the neighborhood, but because we knew the neighborhoods, we knew where to go and how to get to people.
You’ve got to know your customer base. If you have a good insured, and they refer someone to you, more than likely, they’re going to be the same type of person. This business is about taking care of people.
What advice would you give a young agent entering the business?
You have a huge upside in front of you. Get out there and start talking to people. Talk to agency principals. Start looking for ways to acquire agencies. This is a great business to be in. Talk to your state associations. They’ve got a lot of different programs that you can learn a lot from. You need to be a member of your state association.
What are your goals for your term as chairman?
Historically, a new chairman comes in, they come up with a program they want to push, and time runs out quickly. A year is not that long. So I’m taking a little different approach. Everybody on the executive committee is going to be working on a specific issue.
Jon Jensen is going to go full boar with workforce training. He’s already started working on it, and then can continue to do so during his year as chairman.
One of the other big areas is going to be diversity. We’ve got to start looking like America. John Costello from New York is going to work with me on that.
Bob Fee will work on membership, finding ways to assist state associations in bringing in new members. Mike McBride will devote his efforts to developing plans to assist states in growing market share for the independent agency channel.
Finally, we’re going to be spending some time on trying to pump up the Advantage subscriptions for TrustedChoice.com. What I’ve learned is that with many programs, it’s out of sight, out of mind. We want to keep them top of mind with members.
What are you looking forward to most during your term as chairman?
Working together with the executive committee and the directors. I hope our members appreciate the amount of time our directors put into this. They’re not compensated, and they truly want to be challenged. They want more. If you talk to individual directors, they’re saying, “What do you want me to do? I’m ready to go. If you tell us what we need to be doing, we’re right behind you.”
That’s what we’ve got to do—engage our board even more, because they’re very bright business people. I’m really looking forward to working collectively with the executive committee and the board to move all the association’s programs forward.
Katie Butler is IA editor in chief.
Photos by Carl Kaufman.
Above right: Leahy with wife Frances and Morgan, the office mascot
Joe Leahy’s service to the Big “I” state and national associations started in a familiar place: the State House.
A bill was coming up on personal injury protection on the auto policy. Years earlier, Leahy had worked with the Speaker of the House when he was a regular state representative, but now, “they needed somebody to speak to him as an agent,” Leahy recalls.
Leahy wasn’t even involved in the local Big “I” at that time, but somebody called him and asked, “You know him pretty well, don’t you?”
“I said, ‘Sure,’” Leahy says. “They told me what the issue was, and I advocated, and agents were successful.”
Soon after that, Massachusetts State Executive Frank Mancini—whom Leahy knew as the Big “I” state lobbyist—called to say the Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents was in need of a representative from the western part of the state.
“He asked me to join, and that’s how I got on,” says Leahy, who joined the executive committee two years later. “I went through the chairs, became the state chair and then I did my past chair year.”
At that point, the association was trying to rebuild InsurPac donations and the state PAC, and sought out Leahy for his help. “The next year, our national director’s term was expiring, and they asked me if I would do that,” Leahy says. “I became the Massachusetts director, and that’s how I got to the Big ‘I.’” —K.B.