THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Young agency owner also serves as local high school musical director
By Christopher W. Cook
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.”
Sometimes plans change or ideas get tabled, and then we must adjust. Before the pandemic, at a state association young agents conference, I had a great idea to write a screenplay (yes, I’m an out-of-practice screenwriter) that takes place at an insurance conference, and even started outlining in my head all the wacky things that could happen. And then someone told me about Cedar Rapids, a 2011 comedy that had slipped my radar since it was before my time working at Rough Notes. Womp womp. (But, seriously, check out that movie; it’s funny stuff.)
However, the show must go on.
For Joel Dunham, president of Ovation Insurance in Fort Wayne, Indiana, his career path needed an adjustment while he studied business marketing at The Ohio State University. “My dream was to work behind the scenes at an advertising agency, but after a couple of less-than-fulfilling internships, I realized that it wasn’t a world I wanted to be a part of anyway,” Dunham says. “Three-and-a-half years into my degree I’m wondering what to do.
“I was contacted by my aunt Elizabeth Dunham, the owner of Stoller Insurance Agency, who was in the Columbus area for an insurance event. She asked if I wanted to join her at the event for an evening and I agreed. I made some industry connections and was interested in what a career in insurance would look like. She invited me to check out agency life after college and I’ve been here ever since.”
Career and advice
After graduating in 2008 from The Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business with a business marketing degree, Dunham began working at his aunt’s agency, which he purchased and re-branded as Ovation Insurance in 2016. Now, as president, he supervises and oversees the rest of his team. He had learned a lot about working with and managing people as an operations management supervisor with UPS while he was in school.
Even though he’s an agency owner, Dunham continues to expand his insurance knowledge. “I currently have my CPIA designation and am very slowly working on my CIC,” he says. “The information I’ve learned from each class has been valuable; the CIC in particular has given me better insight into reading and comparing insurance forms, which in turn has hopefully made me a better agent to my clients.”
Participating in insurance associations has also proved beneficial to Dunham’s career. “I’m involved in a number of groups and associations both locally and online, but I am currently most active in PIA, of which I’m the current president for the state of Indiana,” he says. “The greatest thing I’ve taken from that is that as a natural introvert it puts me in front of people I wouldn’t ordinarily be talking to and having conversations I never would have had otherwise.
“It’s also interesting to see how the advocacy groups function, and all the hard work that goes into that. There are great people behind these organizations who are working hard to help agents get what they need, and I have very much benefitted from getting involved at the level that I have.”
Out of all the great people Dunham has met throughout his career, a number have helped him along the way. “There are so many agents, mentors, and so forth that I’ve met over the years who have been absolutely critical to my success, so I’ll keep the list local,” he says. “First and foremost, my aunt showed me how to be patient and make intelligent decisions, and ultimately gave me the chance to be here in the first place. The staffs at PIA Indiana and Underwriters Alliance of Indiana have pushed me to take additional steps in my career and to serve my local insurance community and they have provided me with plenty of
opportunities to do so.
“The sales calls will get better. The understanding of the differences in policy forms will happen in time. But when you push through and get your first I0,000 hours in, this is a pretty great career to be in.”
“And, of course, my staff puts up with my ‘mad scientist’ mentality when it comes to our agency tech, processes, and constantly making changes—and they’re never afraid to make their case when they believe there’s a better way to do things.”
The agency’s staff has helped Ovation Insurance be named a Big “I” Best Practices agency for four years running. Other highlights in Dunham’s career include being named a Rising Star in an industry publication in 2019 and winning the PIA Indiana Young Insurance Professional of the Year award in 2018.
When it comes to individuals interested in a career in insurance, Dunham advises to “get involved. Find your people and throw yourself into what they’re doing. This has never especially been easy for me to do, but if you want to meet the people who can help you, push you, and share better ways of doing things so that ultimately you can be that person for someone else, just get involved.
“If you’re new,” he adds, “it’s going to be messy for a while; it’ll probably be messy forever, but you’ll get used to it and learn how to handle it. The sales calls will get better. The understanding of the differences in policy forms will happen in time. But when you push through and get your first 10,000 hours in, this is a pretty great career to be in.”
Life outside insurance
Dunham stays busy when he’s not in the office. “I have been on several local boards including the Christian Community Health Care Clinic in Fort Wayne, which provides free healthcare to those in need in our community,” he says. “This is also my ninth year as the director of Wayne Trace High School’s musical program, which I’ve done every year with my wife, Jenna.
“I had little interest in that sort of thing until my sophomore year at Wayne Trace, when some of my friends invited me to try out and it ended up being a great time,” he continues. “When I moved back to the Northwest Ohio area (Fort Wayne is 15 min from the state line and the school is in Ohio), I was asked to assist with a few odds and ends with the shows and over time I took on more responsibilities.
“Shortly after I started directing, after our show was finished for the year, a neighboring school had asked if I could help with their show in the pit. This is where I met my wife, so it’s always been something we’ve worked on together. Nobody wants me teaching them any dance moves (trust me, nobody) so she handles that.
“It’s been a great way to spend the winter months and it’s an entirely different energy than working in insurance,” he adds. “It’s also wonderful to stay connected to the community that helped raise me.”
For the next few months, Dunham and his wife will be running rehearsals for SpongeBob: The Musical, which he says with a chuckle is “not as dumb as the TV show.”
On top of the spring musical rehearsals, Dunham and his wife also both sing in a choir through their church. “Our members are spread out over multiple states so we can’t get together as often as we’d like, but it’s always great to sing and perform with them,” he says.
The couple had some extra celebratory singing in November when their son turned one. “It’s so exciting seeing him learn new things; the time goes so fast,” he says. (A feeling this writer knows so well having a son who turned two this past summer.)
During COVID, Dunham set a goal to run at least three miles five days a week. “It helped keep me sane and healthy during the pandemic and, thankfully, I just never stopped,” he says. Dunham is also always down for a conversation about cryptocurrency. “I’m way down the rabbit hole and my wife hates hearing about it, so if you’re reading this, reach out,” he concludes.
When I started writing these profile pieces last year, I initially challenged myself to end every installment of The Young Pro-Files with the phrase “keep watching the skies,” because the format of the article’s title gave off a The X-Files vibe. And, yes, some of the usages of the phrase were quite tacky and “pushing it.” So, as we wrap up another year, we’ll wrap up this tradition. Sometimes plans change and we must adjust, but the show must go on.