He’s Got You Covered

Joe Burkhard found insurance ... and then insurance found him

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

In the early 1980s, when Joe Burkhard, a life insurance salesman who transferred to Vermont, started getting questions about property and casualty coverage from customers, he decided to investigate that end of the business. His company, Winooski Insurance Agency Inc., opened in 1983.

Joe Burkhard got into the insurance business, not out of any particular affinity for the career, but because he needed a job. The affinity came later, after he had moved to Vermont and opened his own property and casualty shop, Winooski Insurance Agency Inc., in September 1983.

Since then, he has grown his business with a mix of luck and savvy: the luck of occasionally being in the right place at the right time; the savvy to seek out and implement value-added benefits that new and existing customers would find attractive.

Burkhard grew up in Albany, N.Y. In April of 1978, when he was a senior at Fredonia State University in Fredonia, N.Y., he met Lisa Boyarsky, a freshman at Buffalo State University and the woman he would follow west and eventually marry.

A math major with a minor in business administration, Burkhard book a job with Burroughs Corp. in Jamestown, N.Y., to be near Lisa.

“We didn’t really like that area, though,” he confesses. “Lisa had planned to go on a national exchange program at the University of Oregon in Eugene, so we moved there.”

Once in Eugene, Burkhard went job hunting. “We had to support ourselves,” he says, “and I found the life insurance business.”

Burkhard was hired by Fidelity Union Life Insurance Co. “I did very well in sales,” he says.” We knew it was only a one-year exchange, though, and at the end of the year, we came back to Albany to get married in August.”

Fidelity was not a New York-based company, so it had no opportunities for Burkhard in New York. After some research, the couple decided they would try Burlington, “primarily because of the lake, the mountains, the arts and the entertainment,” says Burkhard.

With their wedding money, the Burkhards bought an apartment house in Winooski within six months of their arrival in 1980. They lived in one apartment and rented out the other two.

Burkhard says he “did the life insurance thing, and did it very well for a couple of years.” “Very well” includes being named to the Million Dollar Roundtable, which only 5 percent of life agents make. He was promoted to sales manager, over six people. He was 24.

To find a way to help clients who were asking him about home, auto and business insurance, Burkhard began to research the property and casualty industry to see what he could do.

“I had a problem: no startup capital and no insurance companies to place business with,” he says.

Winooski Insurance has perfected a procedure that allows it to shop for lower rates for every customer every year. Karen Douglas (left), Robin Harvey and Michelle Southwell make up the commercial lines team.

He investigated the direct-writer market - companies such as Nationwide and State Farm - knowing those would require no startup capital. “Interestingly, a Nationwide agent encouraged me to seek an independent agency,” he says, “and State Farm was discouraged because of my life insurance background.

“State Farm had a belief that life insurance agents didn’t do well in property and casualty,” says Burkhard. “I called up 25 insurance companies to seek an appointment, and it was difficult. Companies just don’t appoint startup agencies.”

He was finally able to persuade some carriers to give him a chance, he says. That left only the obstacle of funding. He took his business plan to every bank in town, he says. “At the Chittenden, it was a banker named Al Whitten who took a chance and lent me $10,000 to start my business.”

Burkhard decided to locate his agency in Winooski. “We lived in Winooski, and I noticed there were no other property and casualty agencies there; so the question was, 'Should I go into Burlington and be one of many or look at Winooski and be just one?'” He also liked the idea of being north of Burlington, with the opportunity to grow into other communities to the north.

To prepare himself, Burkhard began reading - “a lot of books!” He enrolled in the Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) program, earning that designation in 1988. “It was a long process,” he says.

There was, however, one large challenge. “It had to do with not being from this area,” he says. “I didn’t go to college here, didn’t know a lot of people, so how was I going to build my business; to get customers? I was competing against a lot of established agencies, and I had to try to outperform them and do something different from these other folks.”

Burkhard began buying marketing lists with information about contacts and renewal dates for insurance. “I would meet with people at their homes and go over their coverage,” he says. “One of the biggest revelations was when I asked people for their feedback on what they were not getting from their agency or what they wanted from their agent. They told me they wanted their agent to shop their insurance among companies every year and offer them the best product and price they could get.”

He devised a procedure that would allow the agency to do comparison shopping for every client every year. If the agency could save $100 by switching coverage from one company to another, he said, “we would offer them that opportunity. That procedure has been the lifeblood of how we do business since we started.”

To help business clients, Burkhard set up a system whereby he would commit that 60 days before renewal, the agency would go over updated payroll changes and discuss any property changes or other operations the company had begun.

“The key part was that when we got together for renewal, we would comparison-shop and show all the companies we got quotes from. We also let them know what their costs were going to be for the next year before their policies renewed.”

Feedback from customers on what they wanted from their insurance agent was key, says Burkhard.

A major breakthrough came in 1992 when Winooski Insurance picked up Acadia Insurance, now the number one commercial insurer in Vermont. The company had decided to enter Vermont and had made up its mind to go with a larger agent. “I contacted them, and they said, ‘Sorry, Joe, we’re looking for bigger agencies.’ At the last minute, an agent cancelled their appointment with them, and they called me. I was able to convince them to appoint us.”

That same year, Burkhard approached Tom Coburn of Coburn Insurance about buying his book of business on personal customers in St. Albans. Coburn agreed, and Winooski Insurance opened an office there. “We currently have two outstanding agents up there who have made a major contribution: Pam Parah and Connie Reed,” says Burkhard.

For a few years, the agency also had an office in Rutland called Marble Valley, which was recently sold to one of the employees.

The company employs 10 at the two locations, working in two departments: personal and commercial. Each represents about 50 percent of the business. On the personal side are Christine Johnson, the personal lines manager; Linda Tetreault, administrative staffer; a personal lines agent; and Jory Delibac, a college student who works full time on breaks. On the commercial side are commercial lines agents Karen Douglas, Robin Harvey and Michelle Southwell; a salesman, David Clark; and Burkhard.

He and Lisa live near Winooski, in Colchester. They have two children, Kyle, 20, and Drew, 18. The family plays outdoors, boating and swimming, skiing, and biking. Burkhard works out at noon four days a week at Racquet’s Edge.

The challenge of finding consumers to approach continues, he says. “I’m competing against well-known people who grew up here. I think we have devised a unique system. We do well, especially in the area of workers’ comp and loss prevention programs. We help companies that may not have a company engineer. We can supply a lot of support for companies with 20 or fewer employees because of the way we’re set up.”

Rich Connolly of Connolly Mechanicals in Essex appreciates that support. “Joe has done my insurance for 10 to 15 years,” says Connolly. “For all the accounts that he has, when he gets to you, he seems to know all the details of your own company. It’s not a ‘get in and sign the papers and get out’ situation. It’s ‘I can try to save you money here; look at these things here that are driving you.’ He got us up on employee handbooks - gave us a lot of good information to form them - and saved us money.”

Workers compensation is of special concern for small businesses, says Burkhard. “In May of 2004, the state of Vermont changed the definition of what constitutes a subcontractor. The old law used to say that if you are a general contractor and you hired a sub, workers’ comp was optional if you are a sole proprietor.

The company employs 10 in two locations: Winooski and St. Albans. Business is divided about equally between commercial and personal lines. The personal lines team members include Christine Johnson (left) and Linda Tetreault.

"Now there are six criteria you must fall under in that case, if the sub is doing the same work as a general contractor. That means if a contractor does carpentry and hires a carpenter, that will fall out of the subcontractor definition. Otherwise a written subcontract agreement must be in place.”

Another major challenge faced by employers is workers’ comp and the aging of America or the aging of the worker, he says. “We’ve implemented prescreening tools employers can use to evaluate if a prospective employee is able to meet the demands of the job. A lot of agencies my size do not have that infrastructure.”

Spoken like the dedicated insurance agent he is.

Originally published in November 2005 Business People-Vermont