WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
Faced with unexpected challenges, this determined agent turned them into opportunities
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
This statement has been repeated so often that it’s become a cliché. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t fundamentally true.
In 1997, when Casie Powell joined Krueger Insurance Management in Newton, Kansas, the plan was for her to perpetuate the agency upon the retirement of its owner several years into the future.
The future suddenly became the present in 2017 when the owner was diagnosed with terminal cancer. With little time to spare, Powell had to figure out how to purchase the agency and navigate the transition from employee to owner.
Powell began her insurance career in 1996, but as is so often the case, insurance wasn’t on her radar screen. “I was in college and wanted to become a nurse,” she explains. “I applied to the nursing program but wasn’t accepted; I was selected as an alternate. I found an office job with an agency in Goodland, Kansas, and the day I started, the school notified me that I had been accepted into the nursing program. I had to decide right then and there which direction I would take. I didn’t want to go into my new boss’s office and say, ‘By the way, I quit,’ so I decided to stay with the agency and declined the nursing program opportunity.”
Powell worked for that agency for a year, and in 1997 she and her husband moved to Newton, where she joined Krueger Insurance Management. After she had worked for the agency for a few years, the owner, Brady Krueger, said he would like her to buy the firm after he retired. “Brady loved working in the agency, and his retirement seemed to be far in the future,” Powell says. “I honestly thought he would work until he was 100 years old.
“In February of 2017 he was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain,” she says. “We had to act quickly, and in March my husband and I started the process of buying the agency. We closed the transaction in May, and Brady died in July. I was able to help him during the last months of his life because my mother had died of lung cancer that also had spread to her brain. I knew what he and his family were going through, and I knew what to expect,” Powell says. “I believe it meant a lot to Brady to see the transaction completed and to see his agency perpetuated with me as the owner.” Both personally and professionally, Powell says, this was an extremely stressful time.
Powell has a staff of three in the agency’s Newton headquarters and one employee in a small office in Whitewater. Both locations are in the greater Wichita area in southeastern Kansas.
“Because we’re a small agency, each of us does the work of both a producer and a CSR,” she explains. About 60% of Krueger’s premium volume is personal lines, and 40% is commercial accounts. On the commercial side, a niche market for the agency is vendors, specifically those who sell their produce at farmers markets in surrounding towns. Other classes the agency writes are contractors, municipalities, and machine shops. “We write a little of everything,” Powell says, “and we do quite a lot of business in the excess-surplus market. We enjoy the challenge of placing coverage for unique classes of business.”
Having earned the CISR, CIC, and CPCU designations, Powell is a strong believer in professional education. She encourages her employees to pursue designations and participate in continuing education courses. “I tell my employees: ‘You can never know everything there is to know about insurance. Go to seminars and workshops, attend company webinars, and listen to the experienced people around you.’”
After everything Powell went through to acquire the agency and make the transition from employee to owner, you’d like to think she went on to enjoy sunny skies and smooth sailing. That wasn’t to be; in February of this year a fire destroyed the interior of the agency’s office.
“The exterior of the building survived, but the interior was a total loss,” Powell says. “We had to relocate and quickly get up and running.” An engineering inspection revealed that the fire originated in the closet that housed the server.
“Having that second office was a blessing,” Powell asserts. “I sent two of my employees there. This was a challenge because we had to roll our four phone lines from the Newton office into one line in the Whitewater office. An employee would answer the phone and tell the client she would call back on her cell phone. It got pretty crazy.”
Powell and one of her employees stayed in Newton and had the good luck to find office space next door to the building where the fire had occurred. “In four days we had the office up and running,” she says proudly. “Most of our clients didn’t even know what had happened.”
As a result of this experience, Powell says, the agency now has a step-by-step disaster recovery plan in place. “I took detailed notes throughout our period of recovery and created a checklist of everything we would need to do in the event of another emergency situation,” she says.
Women as leaders
Although she’s never encountered outright sex discrimination, Powell says that when she was studying for her CIC designation, she observed that most of the women in her classes were service employees who didn’t have a career track to management in their agencies. At the agency she joined in 1996, she recalls, “I was a successful producer, but some men who came into the office insisted on talking to the owner, who was a man.” That kind of behavior, she notes, still exists today; after purchasing the agency, she was told she should hire a man because many people prefer to do business with a man.
On a brighter note, she adds, “I earned my CPCU designation in 2017 and attended the 2018 convention in San Diego. It was great to interact with so many professional women from all over the country.”
Asked what unique qualities she thinks women bring to leadership positions in agencies, Powell cites patience, humility, listening skills, and creativity. Other traits she mentions are determination, persistence, and resilience. “Women often have to work harder than men to achieve top positions,” she comments. “We tend to keep pursuing our goals even when we may become discouraged because of obstacles we encounter.”
All of these qualities shine through in Powell as she guides her employees along fulfilling career paths. Those same traits came to the fore when the boss she admired became terminally ill, during the hectic period when she was financing the purchase of the agency, and in the aftermath of the fire that gutted the interior of the agency’s office.
“I just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she says. “In any challenging situation, I make a plan and work hard to put it into action, and the results are often beyond my expectations.”
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, senior features editor (email@example.com). We’ll take it from there.