FROM THE GROUND UP
Washington agency owner wins Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance Agent for the Future Emerging Leader award
“In the insurance industry, certain dedicated young professionals stand out
among their peers and are members of an elite squad
of individuals. These are their stories. “Dun dun.”
By Christopher W. Cook
What happens when a health-only agency decides to branch out into the world of P-C, with the assistance of the agency owner’s son who has a background in banking? You get the humble beginnings of the insurance career of James Castell, owner and director of sales and marketing at Castell Insurance in Sequim, Washington.
“Growing up, my dad was a self-employed long-term care agent, selling door to door—like the traditional five appointments a day at people’s coffee tables,” says Castell, a self-professed Insurance Jedi, according to his LinkedIn profile. “In the early- to mid-2000s, he started branching into Medicare as that product line really expanded. He and my uncle built up a good Medicare, health-only agency, but when they transitioned from a small home office to a Main Street office, they started having a lot of walk-ins for home and auto. That’s when he reached out to me.”
Castell, who studied economics at the University of Washington, had recently been appointed a Seattle-area branch manager with Bank of America.
“I was also recently married, but we were at the right time of our lives to transition,” he says. “I had been a manager for about a year, and I think my dad saw that Bank of America had well-groomed me as a financial professional. He thought ‘shoot, anyone can learn insurance if you put your mind to it.’
“We decided to forge into the property and casualty realm with absolutely no experience, and I quit my job at the end of 2011,” Castell recalls.
His transition to the insurance world flowed smoothly, thanks to the guidance and tutorage of three individuals. “My father, Phil Castell—who is retiring from the agency this year—is a great mentor in how to treat people,” Castell says. “He just loves, to this day, sitting and talking to couples about Medicare insurance and helping them out. He’s taught me a lot about not forgetting where you come from.
“Gabe Oh (principal of Western Pacific Insurance Group in Mill Creek, Washington) is one of my best friends, and he runs an agency similar in size as ours and we have kids similar in age. I think it’s good to have a network of people in the industry to ask questions, celebrate and commiserate. I can call my best friends from grade school, who I’m still friends with, but they don’t understand what profit sharing is or the difficulties of training people about raters.
“Claudia McClain (president of McClain Insurance Services in Everett, Washington) has been an inspiration. I have learned so much from her about how to coach and manage and inspire and incentivize. You go from being a producer to hiring producers, and it’s a different ballgame.
“When you’re a producer, it’s about the relationship with your customers, but when you go into agency ownership, it’s about the relationship with your team members—taking stock of what’s going on with their lives and valuing them,” he continues. “I think Claudia was a trendsetter in that, and that’s what employees want now more than anything: a leader who inspires trust and believes in them. It’s not pounding numbers and pencil pushing; it’s developing careers with people.”
With mentors inspiring him along the way, what advice does Castell have for new industry professionals? “Relationships matter; take the time to talk to and get to know your clients; I always joke that we’re not quote monkeys,” he says.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. I had a lot of experience with financial products and banking, but it took me maybe five years to really feel proficient in insurance. Did I know stuff in year one? Yeah. But the confidence to really talk with clients, that took a while to build. I think that far too often people beat themselves up over not being good immediately. Be patient.”
While Castell’s agency is involved with its local Big “I” chapter, the firm’s remote location on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington hinders its participation with industry-related events. “Our location isn’t super convenient, so I’ve been pretty uninvolved based on the distance that we are,” he says. “I was happy to be a guest speaker at last year’s young agents conference.”
Trying to stick to virtual events during the pandemic is important to Castell, because nothing’s more important to him than his family—his wife, Sarah, and two boys, ages seven and eight.
“My wife recently went back to work, so we are both working and juggling the kids between school, packing lunches, and sports; it’s a busy, fun, robust life with lots of activity and two high energy kids,” he says. “We spend as much time as we can outdoors—we tend to do better with fresh air on our faces—whether it’s playing in our yard, going for hikes, or camping, which we’ve got four or five camping weekends already planned this year.
“Camping’s my way of trying to disconnect from the constant connectivity of work and life. When you get out of the house, I think it helps to really share the time with the kids while they’re still young. The time with the kids is so cherished, because soon enough they’re going to be teenagers rolling their eyes at me.”
With the busy family life—he also serves as a coach for his sons’ youth sport teams—Castell still finds time to be involved with his community. “In a small town, I get asked a lot for board positions, but I basically have taken the stance that every time I say yes to something, I’m saying no to my family, so it has to ring true to my core values and what I want, not what I think would be good exposure for the business or me professionally,” he says.
Castell previously sat on the board for Sequim Free Clinic—a non-profit that provides free healthcare for those who are uninsured or can’t afford deductibles and co-pays—and sticking with his fondness of being outdoors, Castell is currently a “pilot” for an adaptive bicycle program called Sequim Wheelers. “There’s a person who rides the bike, and then it’s got a bucket wheelchair up front; it allows us to take folks who are physically unable based on either age or disability on bike rides,” he says.
“In an aging community, which ours certainly is, there are a lot of people who are in senior living facilities or long-term care facilities. Some are 93 years old and couldn’t imagine getting on a bike. But they get to feel the wind in their hair. They can smell and hear the fields as we’re riding along this cool trail. It’s magical.”
With their love of camping, Castell’s family prepared for and experienced a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” during the pandemic. “In 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, we bought an old motorhome and renovated it. In 2021, we went on a two-month, 59-night road trip.”
This family excursion across the country put a new spin on the phrase “working remotely.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. … I think that far too often people beat themselves up over not being good immediately. Be patient.”
Owner and Director of Sales and Marketing
“I have a great team,” Castell says. “They took a lot off my plate; I think it was them giving back to me what I try to give them on a daily basis—flexibility. I was very fortunate to have anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours of work a day, some days basically none. It was amazing.”
While the workflow was minimal, the challenges to get the job done were present. “I had bought a cell phone booster to try to get hotspots, but it doesn’t matter when you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re not getting signal,” he says with a laugh. “There was a time where I was sitting on the wooden stairs outside this old library at the Grand Canyon at eight in the morning with my laptop, trying to get Wi-Fi. My kids were with me, and sure enough the library was closed due to COVID, but then the librarian brought out this 3D map and taught my kids all about the canyon. So what started as a horrendous experience of trying to get Wi-Fi, turned into a cool half-hour private lesson with the Grand Canyon’s librarian.”
In another example of the Wi-Fi struggle, Castell was set to be a guest speaker in a webinar presented by an industry publication. “We were in Zion National Park, and my internet was so crummy that the local hotel there let me poach a room for Wi-Fi,” he says. “I just made do. When you needed connectivity, you’d find it. I had my team running the shop and they did it swimmingly. It was an experience of a lifetime.”
Castell filmed lots of video during his trip and is planning to make a five-to-10-minute video for each stop his family made on their journey. His usage of videos for work, he believes, is one of the key areas that came to the attention of Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance, which led to his being named the 2021 Agent for the Future Emerging Leader award winner.
Castell was in “total shock” after receiving the news, especially after winning one of the competition’s regional awards in 2020. “I got a templated email from my territory manager saying, ‘Hey, everyone, don’t forget to apply for the Agent for the Future,’ and I jokingly responded to her saying, ‘You should probably take me off this list now that I’d won [the regional award].’ She said I should apply again, so I did a little bit sheepishly.
“I think a lot of people go to conferences and write stuff in notebooks, but they never actually take action; they’re fearful to hit launch and to fail. I think we’ve just never been scared to fail.”
“When I won the award, it was shocking, humbling, and really cool for my team,” Castell continues. “As much as leaders come up with the ideas, it’s really about having a team that adopts the vision. As much as it says my name, to me it’s an agency team award; I know how hard my team worked when I was away.”
Being a remote agency, the transition to becoming an “agency for the future” began at Castell Insurance about three years prior. “We had a snowstorm that kept us out of our office for about a week; we had 20-plus inches of snow and our town does not get that,” Castell says. “We couldn’t check voicemails and most people couldn’t check their email. We had digital technology, but we were rendered useless.
“The first year that we won, it was a lot about the fact that we were ready to respond. We worked remotely and grew the agency by like 20%. I think a lot of what Liberty Mutual and Safeco liked about our story is our video marketing—basic how-to videos, video proposals, and videos during renewals to compare plans.”
The agency also utilizes text messaging and Docusign. “We’re a small family-run agency that sees good ideas and tries them,” Castell says. “I think a lot of people go to conferences and write stuff in notebooks, but they never actually take action; they’re fearful to hit launch and to fail. I think we’ve just never been scared to fail.
“If you go back and look at Facebook videos of ours from seven or eight years ago, they’re pretty terrible. It took years of practice. If you’ve never lifted a weight in your life, you cannot expect to deadlift 500 pounds. You got to start from the ground up.”
As Castell said earlier, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and as he also said, you start from the ground up. But by starting at ground level, there’s plenty of opportunity to be looking upward. “Keep watching the skies.”