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October 2008
Insuring Prosperity
By Janet Kropinak

     Watson Insurance Agency was built on a foundation of integrity, honesty and hard work, and for over 75 years has set a standard of vision, value and service.

     Since opening its doors in 1934, Watson Insurance has had a clear focus of building community and industry leadership that can only come with experience, professional skills, and superior services. Founder Thomas Craig Watson was a true believer in education, training and promoting from within and set up his business to reflect these ideals.

     The Watson Insurance story began in the era of the Great Depression when Watson moved to Gastonia from Morehead City to live with relatives. There he found work and opportunity and was fortunate to attend a year of business college before he began building what would eventually become his legacy, Watson Insurance Agency.

     When he first started, Watson would walk the streets and knock on doors looking for business and introducing himself to the community. Early on he gained a reputation for benefiting both his customers and the community with his knowledge and honest business practices.

     By the time Thomas “Tom” Craig Watson Jr. was in college, he had already decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

     “Insurance was all I knew,” says Tom with a laugh. “My dad would come home and tell stories about the insurance business over dinner.”

     While in college, Tom studied risk management and spent his summers shadowing his father, learning the business and the principles Watson Insurance was founded on.

     When asked what he learned from his father’s leadership, the responses flow quickly: “My dad was a hard worker; there were no free lunches with him. He was honest, often to the point of offending people, and he always tried to do what was right for the customer. He had great integrity.”

     Tom continues, “My father had great respect for his employees and always deflected any success the business had onto them.”

     In 1965, after finishing graduate school, Tom joined the agency as a full-time employee. Eventually he took over the business as president when his father retired. Since then, he has continued to grow the business and now has become a mentor to his own sons.

     Robert “Rob” Penn Watson joined his father in 1986, and Thomas “Craig” Watson III followed in 1987.

 

Selling sleep insurance

     Simplifying the insurance business, Tom Watson says their job is to help people transfer the risk of loss. “We are selling sleep insurance,” says Tom with a grin.

     Tom describes the company’s mission as providing the best possible combination of insurance, risk management techniques, and personalized service in the most efficient manner possible.

     “Our associates and staff are committed to the highest standards of excellence, integrity, and service,” continues Tom. “Collectively, we function as a customer service-oriented team.”

     Most of the company’s personal insurance clients are within a 30 mile radius of their office, but their business clients span a much larger area, giving Watson Insurance a strong presence up and down the eastern seaboard. “Today we are servicing businesses from Virginia down to Florida,” Tom explains.

     Over the years, Watson Insurance has had to adapt to the changes in the Southeastern region to grow its business. For years, the firm’s ‘book of business’ included many large textile and machine firms that were located close to the home office in the Southeast. However, a sweeping change began as the firms in those industries closed up or moved their business operations overseas.

     “When you are losing big clients like that, all you can do is work to find other ones to fill their place,” explains Tom’s son Craig. “Fortunately, we began to see shifts in interest from other areas, such as plastics manufacturing, service, trucking, and municipal.”

     His father chimes in, “You have to look at these downturns as incentive to unlock new opportunities.” And that is just what Watson Insurance proceeded to do.

     Today, their diverse client base includes multi-national companies, corporations, small businesses, associations, municipalities, and school systems, and they have a large division targeted to personal lines coverage.

     In addition to adapting to economic changes, Watson Insurance has had to adapt its approach to insurance itself, from being sales driven to having a more consultative approach. This new approach allowed Watson Insurance to position itself with clients as not only their insurance representative, but also a trusted advisor. The approach has also necessitated heightened responsibility on the part of the agent.

     “Our job, first and foremost, is to listen to our clients,” Tom Watson states. “We are  looking to learn about their needs and their business and find them the most complete and comprehensive coverage available.”

     Watson Insurance draws upon an abundance of options to assess and meet the needs of its clients that are available to them as an independent insurance agency. Where other firms can be prohibited from offering services through more than one provider, Watson Insurance contracts with over 30 insurance agencies and has affiliations with over 100 others, including some of the biggest names in insurance along with lesser known companies.

     Tom affirms, “We are able to offer tailored packages to each of our clients, ensuring that we are getting them the best deals. Once we find out what it is they need, we have a world of options to choose from, and that is what helps set us apart from other agencies.”

     One conundrum the Watson agency faces is the battle over health insurance. “This is a constant struggle, and one without an easy fix,” acknowledges Tom Watson. “The best thing we can do is to continue to cultivate relationships in an effort to find the best solutions for our clients.”

 

Paying it forward

     A result of the changing business climate, and an unintended benefit as it has stood them well over the years, is the internship hiring program that the firm has adopted and cultivated.

     With the shift in their book of business, the management team realized that—in order for the firm to continue to grow and prosper—they had to target businesses differently, requiring new ideas from new employees and a different way to find them.

     Traditionally, Watson Insurance had hired new agents through classified ads, referrals and word of mouth. Although the agency itself was flourishing, it struggled a bit with getting the right employee fit.

     In 1992, Watson Insurance welcomed Paul Hendricks, a graduate of Appalachian State University’s (ASU) business school. He came with no experience in the industry, but he was teamed up with one of the agency’s most experienced agents, and thus began his training program.

     “After I got my license, I was taught and shown the Watson Insurance method of doing business. I was not only able to sit in on client meetings and sales presentations but actually participate,” says Hendricks. Soon Hendricks was making presentations himself with an experienced mentor at his side. This was the start of Watson Insurance’s innovative training model.

     A few years later Andy Westmoreland was brought into the firm from ASU and the student Paul became the teacher. Now, years later, they are both among Watson Insurance’s top agents.

     A few years later, as a result of these experiences, Watson Insurance began a mentoring program with UNC Charlotte and ASU that continues to be a huge success in recruiting appropriate hires for its company philosophy.

     The mentoring program is designed to give both the students and Watson Insurance more than just an interview and candidates for potential hires.

     “The interview process begins with having the student come in for a day to act as a ‘shadow’ for one of our agents,” says Rob Watson, vice president. “They spend the day observing and get a feel for the type of work this job entails.”

     The student shadows with greatest potential are asked back for a summer internship of listening and learning. Interns are often matched with agents with similar interests and often graduates of the same college, which helps build a good level of trust and a foundation to build from.

     Only upon an intern’s positive performance in the internship does the more traditional interviewing of the candidate take place.

     “All agencies are looking for experience in new hires. Our business model isn’t just about experience, rather; it’s about finding the right person who understands our ‘customer-first’ philosophy”, states Rob Watson. “One of the most satisfying aspects of the program is seeing the students come in as shadows, graduate to interns, and then come in as new hires and members of the Watson Insurance team.”

     In the 10 years since the program’s inception, Watson Insurance has welcomed eight employees through its program and all but one of Watson Insurance’s interns has joined the company upon internship completion. And Watson Insurance expects this trend to continue in the coming years.

 

Carrying on the legacy

     Watson Insurance’s management team is committed seeking, attracting and retaining the best employees, which in turn allows them to offer the best service to their clients.

     In addition to cultivating employees through its internship program, Watson Insurance believes strongly in carrying on its founders’ enthusiasm for continued education and training for all its employees.

     “The industry is always changing and evolving, and the only way to stay on top is to continue our training and the training of our employees,” says Tom Watson.

     In appreciation of its mentoring relationship with ASU, Watson Insurance recently endowed a scholarship to ASU in the name of its founder.

     “My father would approve. He always liked to see young faces arriving at work happy and ready to serve the customers,” says Tom Watson.

     With their internship program ensuring they will continue to attract new agents with new ideas to the company, the sky is the limit for growth. In addition to its Gastonia headquarters, Watson Insurance has strategically placed offices in Belmont, N.C., Lincolnton, N.C., and Lake Wylie, S.C.

     Moving forward, the Watson Insurance family and its growing staff continue to carry on the tradition that was started in 1934 of building and retaining long-term relationships with its clients.

     “My father would be so proud to see Craig and Rob involved in the company and positioned to take it over and continue its legacy,” Tom Watson proudly states.

     As for whether a fourth generation of leadership is in the cards is yet to be determined, but for now quality leadership is a third generation tradition you can count on.

     It is Watson Insurance’s vision that their customers and their communities be enhanced because of their association with the agency—that, given the benefit of their professional service, their customers thrive and prosper without undue exposure to their businesses, homes, and personal lives. In turn, with Watson Insurance’s support, they can be more secure and can freely operate to reach the goals of their businesses, families, and themselves.

     Considering their breadth of their offerings, Watson Insurance truly offers sleep insurance.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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