New Big “I” Chairman Jon Jensen, president & CEO of Correll Insurance Group, spent his first day in an insurance agency when he was “four days old in the back office in a bassinet,” he says. “I literally grew up in an agency.”
From working at “a typical small family Big ‘I’ agency” to overseeing more than 20 agency locations and over 200 employees at Correll Insurance Group, Jensen has amassed a wide range of independent agency experience, which gives him a “good understanding of all our member agencies,” he says.
Jensen has been a longstanding Big “I” member and proponent of the independent agency system. At the state level, he is a former recipient of the Independent Insurance Agents of South Carolina Young Agent and Agent of the Year awards. At the national association level, he has chaired both the Government Affairs Committee and the InsurPac Committee, earning the Sidney O. Smith Award the year the PAC surpassed the $1-million mark for the first time.
Earlier this year, Jensen was also sworn in as chairman of the World Federation of Insurance Intermediaries in Rome—the first time a Big “I” representative has served in this capacity.
IA talked with Jensen about growing up in insurance, selling the family agency and how Big “I” members can put their best foot forward and attract new talent to the insurance industry.
IA: What’s your personal and professional background?
Jensen: I was born and raised in a town called New Port Richey, Florida. I grew up in a family agency that my mother started in 1959. If you look at our membership, it was a very typical Big “I” agency. My senior year of high school, I got my first license and worked full-time at the agency as a producer. I did work experience for all my classes and helped manage the agency.
Shortly after my mother passed away in 1983, my dad decided to sell the agency. Typically, a son would buy the agency and go from there. But it was an elderly area—20% of our clients died every year. We had several different offers, so I told my Dad to go ahead and sell it, and I’d figure out what I was going to do.
I talked to a couple different agencies in Florida, but after an interview with Correll Insurance, I decided that it seemed like the best move for me. I took a job as a producer and moved to Gaffney, South Carolina in November 1983.
Tell us a little about your agency.
We are a relatively large agency. We’ve got 21 locations in North Carolina and South Carolina with about 220 employees.
But we’re a little different from the typical large agency in that our locations span from the South Carolina coast, where we have offices at Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, to the mountains of North Carolina, to places like Cashiers, North Carolina.
We’re also in metro areas, such as Columbia, South Carolina, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and we’re in very rural areas like Union, South Carolina. We have offices that have 40 people in them, and we also have offices that have two people in them.
I look at our agency and think, “Well, we’re bigger than the average agency, but if you look at all the components, we’re typical Big ‘I’ members.” We’re everything from the big guy to the little guy. We’re a mix of everything.
What do you love about working in insurance and being an agency principal?
It sounds a little cliché, but it’s a fantastic industry. We drive so much of what happens in the economy. People would literally be afraid to buy houses, start businesses and do all those things we do as individuals if it wasn’t for our industry.
It really breaks my heart when people talk badly about our industry because what we do is so vital. When tragic things happen, we’re here to protect our clients. After the firefighters come and put out the fire, we get to be the secondary heroes by restoring lives.
And being a principal is exciting because I get to help people in their careers and be a part of their success. We do a lot of acquisitions, and another of the really cool things is that we’ve brought people together who would never have had a chance to work together otherwise. When you look at all these byproducts, I think it’s pretty neat.
What has been instrumental to your agency’s success?
It’s all about building a really strong team—that’s the biggest thing. If everyone is excited about working together and you’re all pulling in the same direction, good things happen. We look for folks who can lead an agency in one of our different locations and then we empower them to act like they own it, act like they run it and make all the decisions on their own.
Biggest challenge agents face today?
Finding talented, skillful people who are willing to put their best foot forward. In the last year, I’ve worked with staff to develop Big “I” Hires, a talent and workforce recruitment and development program, because we saw this issue all over the country. It’s finding those people who are committed to staying in the same job and not leaving after 11 months.
At our agency, it’s a challenge we face on a weekly, if not daily, basis. We’re always looking for new people, whether it’s a new producer or somebody we can bring in and train in an account manager role. If you lose people, particularly in rural areas, it’s difficult.
What’s next for independent agents?
Recruitment and agency perpetuation will continue to be challenges, and I think we will see more acquisitions. That means the agency world will get a little smaller, but I don’t think that’s a threat to us. Quite frankly, there’s still going to be a lot of opportunity for a lot of independent agents.
I also think we will see more demands from carriers. They want to have stronger positions in every agency. Carriers need to write business. Those pressures will continue to grow.
On the industry side, there’s a lot going on right now in the political environment. Obviously, with terrorism insurance legislation coming up for renewal and flood insurance as it is, those are things we’ve always got to have an eye on. But the Big “I” government affairs team is fantastic, and they do a great job managing those issues for us.
Goals for your term as chairman?
We’ve done so many great things over the years, and one of my primary goals is to carry on the work of our previous chairmen. Continuing their work in areas like membership, diversity and market share is the biggest goal I could try to accomplish, because those are not initiatives you can ever forget about or claim to be done.
Driving workforce and development is another priority. If we lose focus there, we’ll have greater problems than we thought. Continuing the work we’ve started is huge.
The other thing is making sure our members understand the value of their membership. There’s no doubt that some of our members don’t utilize a lot of the things our association offers. If they really understood how valuable those benefits are, they would grow and strengthen their agency in so many ways.
What are you looking forward to most during your term?
It really is a great honor. I look forward to seeing how the things we do mean something tangible to agencies and their associates. As I travel the country, I enjoy being able to meet folks that say, “Wow, this is fantastic. What a great industry.”
When you meet people and work with people, you learn so many things from what they tell you, including how to serve the industry better. I really look forward to that.
Will Jones is IA senior editor.
Above right: Jensen and his wife Julie.
When new Big “I” Chairman Jon Jensen began his insurance career as a teenager, he found it hard to be taken seriously—which meant he had to work extra hard to justify his sales proposition to clients.
“Before I visited a commercial client, I used to call them on the phone at least twice before I went out to meet them,” Jensen recalls. “Otherwise, there would be a 16-year-old kid walking through the door and they’d say, ‘No, I’m not talking to you. I’m not going to let you protect my business. Get out of here, kid!’ I still laugh about it now.”
In an industry dominated by older generations, Jensen’s experience of being young and hungry with something to prove gives him the ability to empathize with what some of the younger agents go through today.
“My advice to young agents is to further yourself, your skills and your knowledge,” Jensen says. “But the big thing is to have confidence in the job you can do.” —W.J.