Preserving tradition, embracing progress

Preserving tradition, embracing progress

Tolen, Elaine

THE CHANGING FACE OF THE INDEPENDENT AGENT

Georgia agency’s rich history is springboard for Trey Sherwood’s career

Valdosta, Georgia, is a growing city of 50,000, located halfway between Atlanta and Orlando. Its temperate climate and beautiful countryside make Valdosta a sportsman’s paradise. The city’s nickname is “Winnersville” because its high school football team is the winningest team in the nation, according to the city’s Web site. But the team is not the only winner in Lowndes County. Julian C. “Trey” Sherwood, III, CIC, is also a winner– professionally and personally.

A native Valdostan, Trey has gone from part-time “runner” at Valdosta Insurance Services, Inc., to an agency principal in just 11 years. In a warm, southern drawl, Trey humbly credits his success in the insurance industry to “a lot of luck and being at the right place at the right time.” Add to that Trey’s hard work and winning attitude, and you have a recipe fOr success.

During his senior year at Valdosta State University in 1991, Trey got a part-time job at Valdosta Insurance Services through f-amily friend and agency principal Will D. “But-Ii” Burgsteiner, Jr. The agency, which was founded in 1933, operated for 53 years as Roberts Insurance Agency, Inc. It will celebrate its 70th anniversary this year.) As a runner, Trey recalls. he did a variety of tasks, from measuring the square footage of homes and businesses to taking photos to delivering documents.

“The three principals were looking for someone who might work into a permanent position at the agency.” explains Trey. So after graduating in 1991. he became a producer at Valdosta Insurance-for eight weeks. “Then the bookkeeper retired, and they asked me to fill in at that position for awhile. A lot of companies were shutting down at the time in the area. so I thought I’d give it a try.” A year and a half later, in 1993, Tire returned to being a producer. He worked mostly in personal lines. but also did some commercial work. His book of business evolved into handling bigger accounts; his current book is an even mix of’ personal lines and commercial lines.

Looking back at that period, Trey says is it was “invaluable. I’ve been , the yardman, the bookkeeper, a CSR for both commercial and personal lines, and a producer. I know how the entire agency operates.”

About a year after joining the agency, Trey became involved in the Young Agents Committee (YAC) of the Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia (IIAG). Through the organization, he became friends with H. Byron Courson, who was working at Anderson Insurance Agency at the time. In 1994, the principal at Anderson started to think about retirement. Trey explains that Byron was interested in buying the agency, and approached Valdosta Insurance about a partnership. The Valdosta Insurance principals asked Trey if he would like to be part of the buyout. “Two days later, we signed the papers,” Trey says. “It was just the right thing to do.”

With the purchase of Anderson Insurance and its merger into Valdosta Insurance, Trey and Byron became principals of Valdosta Insurance Services. The retirement of one of the principals in 1999 left the four current principals and main producers: Trey. Byron. Butch and Len A. Carter. Besides being a principal and a producer, Trey also serves as office manager for the 12-member support team.

Trey believes that some type of ownership is important to most young agents. “Allowing agents to own part of the corporation or a percentage of, their book of business is mandatory. Ownership gives younger agents the security that they need anti gives them a sense of control over their destiny,” he says.

Providing good customer service comes easily to Trey and Valdosta Insurance Services’ staff “Ninety– eight percent of our clients are in Lowndes (County, of which Valdosta is the county seat. We know our customers as well or better than anv other agency in the country,” TreY wagers. “We also pride ourselves on our relationships with our carriers.”

Adding life and health products has been one way that Valdosta Insurance has met the changing needs of its customers. “Three years ago, we brought in a producer for life/health, and that department is growing by leaps and bounds,” Trey says. The agency has recently hired a second producer for life/health.

This synthesis has paid off for Valdosta Insurance, according to Trey. “Our top 50 accounts have one hundred percent of their insurance business with us–commercial, personal, life and health. Providing all of these services is important; it helps us fulfill all of our clients’ needs,” he says.

Professional growth

Trey credits much of his success in the insurance industry to those who have mentored him. Naming his three partners, Trey says: “I have known Butch [Burgsteiner] all of my life. He gave me the break I needed. I am also thankful that Len [Carter] was willing to give me an opportunity. Byron [Courson] continues to help me with the technical side of the business. They have been supportive in my career, as well as my involvement in the community and the industry.”

For example, when Trey was trying to decide whether or not to go through the Georgia YAC leadership positions that led up to chairman, he consulted his partners. “It was going to be very time-consuming, as well as a financial commitment. I wanted to know how they felt about that level of involvement. They were very supportive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten so deeply involved in the organization,” Trey explains.

In 1995, Trey took on leadership duties within the Georgia YAC. He served on the membership committee and organized the YAC’s mid-year conference, then moved through the ranks to become YAC chairman in 2001-2002. The Georgia YAC won several awards from the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America (IABA) during the time Trey served in leadership positions.

Being part of the young agents group “has made me who I am today,” emphasizes Trey. “The value of networking with other young agents-from Georgia and throughout the country-is priceless. I know someone from every city in the state. We have a good time at meetings, but every day these other agents-my friends-are the most unbelievable resources of information.

“For instance, the Atlanta market is about six months ahead of the rest of the state,” says Trey. “I have friends there who call and keep me abreast of the latest developments. It helps me keep ahead of the curve.”

Besides his partners and fellow agents, Trey’s mentors include several company people. “The late Ted Carlton-who worked for The Insurance House-is a legend in Georgia’s insurance industry. He helped start the state young agents committee and much of its success is due to him,” says Trey. “I have also spent time with Ed Parker [who is with Continental Special Risk] and Terry Christen [with Providence Washington]. Terry, especially, spent extra time with me, a wet-behind-the-ears young producer. These men have been influential in my career.”

Commitment to community

Trey’s commitment to helping others goes beyond his clients to his civic involvements. He has served on a variety of local boards, including the Azalea City Kiwanis Club, Valdosta– Lowndes County United Way and the Boys & Girls Club Alumni Association. (He worked at the Boys & Girls Club part time while in college.) He is an active member of the First Christian Church.

“Every now and then, you have to say ‘no,'” Trey acknowledges. “You just have to be balanced in how you spend your extra time.”

Family time

Balancing Trey’s extra time includes spending time with his wife, Leslie, and their nearly three-year-old daughter, Abbie Jane. Trey says: “Having my daughter brought a new dimension to my life. You have to shut off work sometimes. When all else is gone, your family will still be there. Take advantage of the opportunity now to grow your relationships. That’s easy to forget.”

Having strong family ties extends to Trey’s and Leslie’s families. “All of our family lives in the area,” he explains. “One of my grandmothers is still living, and loves to babysit our daughter. I feel so blessed to have known all four grandparents, two greatgrandparents, and one greatgreat grandmother.”

Besides enjoying his family, Trey loves the outdoors. Lowndes County boasts several hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing and camping preserves and clubs-one being the Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area, which covers 1,350 acres and is part of a 13,000-acre wetlands complex.

“I get 75 to 125 calls every day at the office, and being in the outdoors gives me a break,” Trey says. “There’s no phone ringing, just the birds. It’s peaceful.”

Challenges and opportunity

With Valdosta State University and Moody Air Force Base nearby, Valdosta and Lowndes County are growing in terms of population and businesses. As a principal, Trey’s future goals for Valdosta Insurance Services, Inc., include mirroring that progress by “continuing the slow, steady growth that the agency has experienced. This has always been a stable agency, with high retention.”

The city of Valdosta’s motto”Where Southern tradition meets State of the Art”-is exemplified by Valdosta Insurance. Trey says: “We already go beyond the call of duty with our customers. We will strive to continue offering the highquality products and customer service that we have throughout the years.”

Trey suggests that to thrive in the future, agencies must “be willing to share the power. Roberts [Ben Hill Roberts, Jr., founder of the agency] knew he had to keep bringing in new, young people. Perpetuation has never been a problem in this agency.”

Because of the legacy that Roberts and other principals have left, Trey says that “you won’t find a better place to work [than Valdosta Insurance Services]. It’s a fast-paced but friendly environment. We don’t want it to be a `time clock’ type of place. We believe: `if you take care of your people, they’ll take care of you.'”

As a producer, Trey is experiencing his first hard market, and the challenges are many. “I believe that if you have a strong work ethic and are honest, at the end of the day you’ll be able to say with confidence that you did the best you could,” he says. “Sometimes you even have to walk away from writing certain accounts when it’s the right thing to do. It’s important to `do the right thing.'”

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Feb 2003

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