Many agency owners end up choosing between the more volatile and potentially lucrative life and annuity business or the stable and renewal-heavy property/casualty side.
But Doug Wheeler is not your typical insurance man. And First Community Insurance and Annuity Center is not a typical insurance agency.
Wheeler wants it all, building a multifaceted, multiline agency that matches his outsized personality and relentless energy. That drive and work ethic built First Community into a thriving agency with dual lines of insurance that complement one another nicely.
“During these times of COVID-19 and times when my wife had an illness or I needed to be with my family, the great part of having the property and casualty company is the renewal business,” Wheeler explained. “The great part of the life and annuity business was that I could earn higher commissions to fund the advertising to grow my P/C business.
“I don’t know if I could have one without the other.”
From the day the doors opened in 1990, Wheeler pushed to grow First Community as a true community insurance agency in Bourbonnais, Ill. The agency is well known for its local event sponsorships, outreach and charitable activities. Wheeler is a social media showman, sharing photos of everything from singer-celebrities to his horses.
It’s a winning strategy that has helped both sides of the business thrive.
“People see me as kind of the neighborhood blue jeans guy who’s just the same as them,” Wheeler said. “I’m not living some gray pinstripe lifestyle to impress people. I’m just hanging out with the folks.”
Wheeler grew up living a small-town life and went to work alongside family members in a Western Auto store as soon as he was old enough.
“I got in the insurance and financial services business when I was 19,” Wheeler recalled. “I worked for a company called Pioneer Life of Illinois, selling Medicare supplements door to door. And that got old really fast.”
But Wheeler was learning the business and meeting people, and he was ambitious. After a three-year stint at MetLife, he was recruited by Mutual of Omaha and quickly became district sales manager there.
“At age 27, I walked out of corporate life with a bonus I received from them and formed what is now First Community Insurance and Annuity Center,” Wheeler said. “I started literally with a folding table and a folding chair.”
As a young entrepreneur, Wheeler was eager to try new things and learn from his mistakes. He was confronted with a big miscalculation right away.
“I thought all of my clients were going to follow me from Mutual of Omaha,” he recalled. “One did, and that was my wife. But even my mom is still a Mutual of Omaha orphan account, and my brother has Mutual of Omaha policies that we didn’t move over. So, it was a hard struggle.”
That’s when property/casualty became part of the business. The timing was fortunate because Illinois, after 17 years of opposition in the state General Assembly, finally passed a law requiring auto insurance on all vehicles.
The auto insurance business was booming, and Wheeler jumped all-in. That decision helped First Community to survive, but it was “a hard business,” he said. Due to fierce competition, his agency was left to write a lot of nonstandard auto policies, or high-risk coverage for those drivers other insurers passed on.
All the while, Wheeler kept working the phones in search of better business.
“I would call The Hartford literally every Thursday afternoon for about four or five months, until a marketing rep finally said, ‘Do you want to be part of an experiment?’” he recalled. “They were giving about 10 contracts out to scratch agencies. And I was one of those. At the end of the experiment, I was the only one still standing.”
Success At Last
Breaking through with The Hartford put First Community on the success track. Other major carriers soon signed on to work with the agency in the ensuing years. At the same time, Wheeler matured into a focused agency owner with a knack for marketing.
“We did a lot of what I call folding table events,” he explained. “We set up a folding table and we put a drawing box out to give away a $50 gas card. We’d clock people in with a card to sign up for the drawing. The card would say, ‘I would like more information about auto insurance, home insurance, life insurance, business insurance,’ and so forth. And kind of subconsciously, people would mark off those things.”
That kind of event marketing grew along with the agency. Today, First Community is well known as the main stage sponsor of the Bourbonnais Friendship Festival.
“I’m in front of probably 200,000 people over that weekend,” said Wheeler, who emcees the performances. “So instead of standing in a tent in the mud or in the humid sunshine, I’m having a lot of fun goofing around with rock-and-roll bands and country bands.”
First Community is very candid on its website that the agency “isn’t for everyone.” Bare-bones coverage that doesn’t really cover anything isn’t what Wheeler does.
“We choose to apologize now for the cost of coverage difference instead of apologizing later when your claim is denied because of lack of coverage,” the website states. “Our clients appreciate this candor and truthfulness when it comes to problem-solving. We won’t sugarcoat things just to obtain your business.”
The combination of the agency’s blue-collar sensibility and Midwestern candor is resonating with clients.
“In 2019, before COVID-19, a gentleman came up to me dressed in what I would call biker apparel,” Wheeler recollected. “He says, ‘Mr. Wheeler, I’m getting ready to retire. I have talked to three of those suits and I don’t like ’em. You are one of us. I’m coming to see you next week so you can take care of my retirement.’ Did I do anything special? I don’t know. Maybe I hired the right rock-and-roll band.”
Todd Reimers is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Assurity Life. He has worked with Wheeler’s agency for more than a decade. During that time, Wheeler has been a consistent top producer for Assurity.
“I’ve been to his hometown, and everybody knows him,” Reimers said. “You go out for breakfast, lunch or dinner and people know him. He’s just more of a well-rounded P/C agent than most. His quality of business with us has been excellent.”
The key to running a successful multiline agency is separation of the businesses, Wheeler said. At First Community, the P/C business is run by “fantastic” people, he added.
“Full disclosure here, I couldn’t figure your auto rate to save my life,” Wheeler said. “Because I’ve been away from that probably 14 or 15 years. So, by keeping that separated, I can focus on what I do really, really well. And that’s retirement income planning.”
Likewise, the idea that a full-service agency that does everything will lead to massive cross-selling possibilities is mostly a fallacy, Wheeler said.
“It’s really tough getting people from the property and casualty mindset of your services to the financial planning side of your services, and vice versa,” he explained. “Because your financial planning clients, they get their car insurance from the guy down the road. So, it’s hard. It’s a very difficult thing to do the cross-sell.”
Of total revenues, about 40% comes from the P/C business, and the rest from life and annuity sales, Wheeler said. While First Community has grown plenty in 30 years, it remains a small-town agency with six employees, including Wheeler and his wife, Chris.
Wheeler is aware that the future involves more technology and more “commoditizing” of insurance. He is frustrated with the slick ads that offer Medicare supplement insurance by calling a 1-800 number. The insurance world is changing, but there is only so much change in the destiny of First Community.
“I think it’s totally about the relationship with the person,” Wheeler said. “And in the agencies that don’t have high-touch relationships, they’re going to die. So, we’re going to continue to be in high-touch relationships so that we can continue until the day I decide to retire or sell.”