A GROWING CONCERN
Acquiring eight locations over I3 years, this agency owner is good to grow
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Just back from California, recently married, and with a one-year-old daughter, Lee Ann Pridgeon knew she needed to find a job with flexible hours so she could achieve that elusive state known as work/life balance.
Insurance definitely wasn’t on her radar screen, so when an acquaintance told her that the owner of a local agency was hiring, her response was: “But I don’t know anything about insurance.”
“That’s perfect!” her friend exclaimed. “He doesn’t want you to know anything about insurance.”
Pridgeon interviewed for the job and was hired, and there began her journey from customer service representative to agency owner. “I interviewed with Rick Peagram on Tuesday and started on Wednesday, and that day was super busy,” she recalls. “I was basically thrown into the job and knew I had to sink or swim, so I started to swim.”
About five years later, Pridgeon says, she was trying to decide if she really wanted to pursue a career in insurance or if something else would suit her better. “I went to work in a doctor’s office doing patient accounting, and almost before I knew it, I was moved into the insurance department. After I had worked there for about 18 months, Rick called me and said, ‘Okay, are you ready to come back?’ I was, so I returned and essentially picked up where I had left off. In 2008, Rick decided to retire, so I purchased the agency via owner financing.”
While serving on the board of the Alliance of Auto Insurance Agents of North Carolina, Pridgeon met a woman who wanted to sell her three locations of AllCare Insurance. “Brenda Davis and I worked out an arrangement for me to purchase her offices in Belmont, Gastonia, and Charlotte. While I was buying her locations, I was approached by a friend, Chris Hundley, who had an agency in Shelby that he needed to sell for health reasons. He wanted to finance the purchase himself, so I proceeded with that acquisition. That took me to five locations effective January 1, 2017,” Pridgeon says.
“In September 2017, a marketing rep told me about an agent who wanted to sell his agency, which was located about five miles from my Belmont office,” she continues. “I met with him at 8:00 a.m., and by 5:00 p.m. I had bought his agency. I didn’t have my driver’s license, which had just expired on my birthday, September 11,so the notary asked me if I had any other form of government-issued ID. I had my concealed carry permit with me, so that’s what I used for identification. The owner of the agency had a Winchester rifle that had been given to him by a client, and he thought it was appropriate for him to give me the rifle.”
Pridgeon was now up to six locations. In 2019, she purchased an agency in Winston-Salem, and in October 2020 a marketing representative introduced her to a woman who was ready to retire and wanted to sell her agency in Stanley.
With eight locations and 20 employees, Pridgeon’s organization covers seven counties in North Carolina and serves the entire state. “I’m just shy of the mountain ranges, and I don’t have any locations on the coast,” she explains.
What’s in a name?
With eight acquisitions under her belt, Pridgeon faced a daunting challenge: What to call her string of assorted office locations?
She liked the sound of AllCare Insurance because it conveyed two key messages: “We care about our clients” and “we offer them all forms of insurance.” Thus was born AllCare Insurance Services, which places personal and commercial lines, life and health insurance, property coverages, and stand-alone jewelry insurance.
“When I first bought the agency from Rick, 99% of our business was personal lines,” Pridgeon recalls. “I’m happy to say we’re now at about a 70/30 split. We have three full-time commercial lines agents, so we’re working hard to build up our business on that side.”
That said, she says she’ll always offer personal lines, based on her belief that one should, to quote a familiar Southern phrase, “dance with the one what brung ya.”
“As long as I own the business, we’ll be a market for standard and nonstandard personal auto insurance,” she asserts.
Among Pridgeon’s 20 staffers are nine bilingual employees who can interact with the area’s significant Hispanic population. “One of these employees has been with me for 18 years and another for 13 years,” Pridgeon says. “I think we’re well positioned to grow our business among Latino families.”
How does AllCare market its products?
“Our basic marketing effort has gone by the wayside to some degree because we found we were bringing in more business in other ways,” Pridgeon explains. “We place messages on restaurant menus, on benches outside retail establishments, in local departments of motor vehicles, and on the radio. Before COVID-19, we sponsored Friday night football games.”
AllCare Insurance represents a healthy mix of regional and national carriers. “I believe it’s my job to ensure that my employees have the tools they need to serve our clients,” Pridgeon says.
A woman’s place
As a veteran of almost 30 years in the business, Pridgeon recalls a time when, as she says, “Women were accepted in the business, but not as agency owners. We were expected to work as CSRs or agents, but it never seemed to occur to anyone that a woman might want to own an agency. When I bought the agency from Rick, one of the marketing reps said to me: ‘Okay, you bought the agency; now what?’”
As the agency’s office manager for 15 years, Pridgeon essentially ran the operation except for making hiring and firing decisions. “It really galled me that this rep got in my face on the assumption that I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “At that point, I decided I was going to make it my mission to prove to this rep and anyone else who expressed doubts about my management skills that not only can I do this, but I will do this, and I’ll do it well.”
For Pridgeon, “doing it well” means checking in with a peer to make sure she’s on track and get feedback about how she’s doing. “I have a friend who owns two agency locations, and I consider her to be my mentor,” she explains. “Of course, she says I’m her mentor, and we’ve developed the kind of mutual respect and understanding that we can serve as each other’s sounding board and reality check.
“As a woman, I don’t run my agency like a man,” Pridgeon remarks. “I run it like a woman, and occasionally I react emotionally to something rather than remaining impersonal. I feel very protective of my employees, and sometimes my mentor reminds me that I’m not their mother but their boss.”
Pridgeon maintains a professional demeanor when dealing with marketing reps and other company people. “I’ve gotten nothing but respect from them and believe they treat me as they would any other business owner,” she says. “I’m on several agent advisory councils, and I don’t think I’d be invited to serve if I hadn’t earned that respect.
“I see so many more women business owners than I did when I first bought the agency from Rick,” Pridgeon continues. “National General asked me to come up with a list of women who could serve on a female advisory group where we could support each other. The fact is that ours is a male-driven industry where women feel like they have to work harder. That may not be entirely a bad thing. If any woman, including me, needs that motivation to push herself, that’s fine with me.”
Do you know a female independent agency leader we should feature? If so, please email details about her as well as contact information to Elisabeth Boone, CPCU (email@example.com). We’ll take it from there.