On the job: Insurance agent
This month I spoke with George Stevens, owner of the George Stevens Insurance Agency Inc.
Q People keep telling us that we need to have insurance—but what is it really for?
A Well, with all types of insurance—home, health, and auto—if there’s been a loss, insurance is supposed to make things whole again. So if you have homeowner’s insurance and your home is destroyed in a fire or flood, you would file a claim and the money you receive is meant to make things whole again: either rebuilt or replaced in certain circumstances. That’s how it works with auto insurance—although you should know that if you’re driving a really old car, it might be considered “totally” if it’s in an accident. In that case, you can’t expect to get enough to fix it, but should receive something that helps you toward your next car. And with health insurance, the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, is the best thing to ever happen because now everybody can be insured.
Q I remember some years ago, when homes were destroyed during a hurricane, the homeowners complained that they were getting the runaround by their insurance companies. What happened there?
A What probably was, the claims that they filed weren’t honored because they didn’t have flood insurance. I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re talking about. Ever since Hurricane Floyd [in 1999], home-insurance policies have printed on the first page, “This policy does not cover flood.” That means it’s up to the homeowner to take out flood insurance on his own to make sure he’s covered. So if you’re buying a house that’s in a flood zone, and you have a mortgage, you must have flood insurance.
Q Are all insurance agencies pretty much the same?
A Not really. We’re a retail agency—we’re independent and have access to 20 companies, and we insure “everything.” We sit down with the customer and talk about their individual situation, income, and goals, and then offer a policy that we feel is best for them. We insure individuals, people with small businesses, entrepreneurs, craftsmen … We represent the customer, not the insurance companies.
Now, there are brokers who can take on clients other insurance companies can’t handle … for example, tightrope walkers or others who represent a substantial amount of risk. Someone that’s taking on higher risk will have to pay a higher premium and probably a higher deductible as well. They sometimes go to insurance wholesalers who are willing to take them on. So retail insurance agents work with the general public and those in wholesale deal with the insurance brokers. They call insurance a game of risk.
Q How did you get your start in the insurance business?
A I went to a small-business school and then started working for an insurance company in 1962. I liked how it worked back then—I got paid every day. Suppose I sold a policy at a cost of $100—I would get to take my $25 commission right there and send the balance to the company. Nowadays, the company gets the entire amount; then they “massage” it a little bit and dole out your pay. It’s hard to convince young folks to go into the insurance business because your success is up to you. Lots of folks would rather get a paycheck where they know what to expect. But with insurance, your income is based on your ability—and I like that. I like the adrenaline—it’s a challenge. In sales, you’ve got hills and valleys. You try not to live on the mountain and you sure try to stay out of the valley.
Q Did you always plan to open your own insurance agency?
A Well, I was single when I first started out, and then I got married the following year. My mother-in-law wanted me to join one of the big companies, so I went to work for North Carolina Mutual. I worked there for 32 years—they had excellent principles. They were all about educating their employees so they could help their customers. Everyone went to training sessions every Thursday throughout their careers.
Q You come across as really meticulous and smart. I’ll bet you had something up your sleeve to set yourself apart.
A Well, I did pilot a plane for a while. I was the regional agency director and flew my own airplane to cover my area. I used to head up the Triangle Aviators Flying Club. They changed the rules, though, and I wasn’t allowed to fly as a part of my business. You know, liability issues.
After 32 years at Mutual, I decided to retire and go solo. I ran my agency out of my home for eight to nine months, but found out that mentally I needed to get out. I needed an office to report to. So I rented a space, only 8 by 6 feet, in a building very close to the one we’re in now (which I had built in 2006). From Day One I set myself up on a payroll. I believe that infrastructure in the most important part of your business. I had a payroll company make out my paycheck even though I was by myself. It was good discipline. The printer I was sharing the building with stopped paying his rent. So, one day the landlord—he was a old guy around 80 years old—came in one day and said, “The building’s all yours.” I didn’t have any warning and my rent was double what I was paying before. My daughter, Valerie Dobson, was working at a bank in Charlotte. She wanted to come home and help me build the agency. And we’re doing fine.
Q So, what are your plans for the near future?
A We’re gearing up for the new open enrollment period for Affordable Care (ObamaCare). North Carolina had one million uninsured people when the ObamaCare started, but only 450 thousand signed up. A penalty will be imposed, but the rest should get insured. We go to churches and other groups to talk about Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance. The enrollment period’s from November 15 to February 15, so they need to seriously look in to getting health insurance.
Q What do you like best about being an insurance agent?
A I like meeting people, and helping them. I really like paying the claims because I like to see the joy and relief on their faces. I like knowing that I did right by them. Years ago, I used to counsel people about being careful not to spend all their money at once. I’d tell them to “sleep on it” for a few days before making a decision. Nowadays if the payment is a particularly large amount, we give them a checkbook so they can spend their money thoughtfully. The insurance business is changing, and even though you can go online and “do it yourself,” you can cheat yourself if you don’t know all of the ins and outs. We can help you with that.