Insurance Pros in Politics: Insurance Good Training Ground for Political Leadership

Sep 11, 2013

When it comes to current or former occupations of state and federal lawmakers, that of insurance producer is not one of the most commonly listed, but perhaps it should be.

The variety of skills one necessarily develops during a successful career as an insurance producer are invaluable when it comes to politics, according to a group of elected officials from South Central states who were, or still are, involved in the insurance industry.

As an insurance agent, “you sit down with people at their kitchen table and have them explain everything that they’re trying to achieve -  their finances, their retirement, the company they work for – or you sit with someone who has a dream to start their own business, and then, as that business grows, you grow with them, you really understand people’s struggles,” said Kay Granger, a Republican Congresswoman from Fort Worth, Texas, and a former agency owner. “In Congress, it’s the same thing, particularly right now more than any other time, when we’ve gone through this really hard financial crisis.”

John Doak, who was elected as insurance commissioner in Oklahoma in 2010, has owned his own agency and also worked for brokerages such as Marsh & McLennan and Aon Risk Services.

“The skill sets I have learned in the insurance industry, I think, have really suited me well to handle the multifaceted conversations that you have in politics, and the ability to use all those executive skills to accomplish goals, I think, has served me very well in the short time that I’ve been in office,” Doak said.

Arkansas State Rep. Allen Kerr, a Republican from the Little Rock area, said his background as an insurance owner as well as running his family’s grocery store business before entering the insurance field has been “extremely valuable” during his time in public service.

“Being a business owner you learn about what businesses need, you learn about budgets, you learn about all kinds of things that are needed on the public level. And you take those skills to that public arena,” Kerr said.

No Political Intentions

Doak developed an interest in politics at a young age and in fact majored in political science at the University of Oklahoma. Granger, on the other hand, never intended to be a politician. Even after she was elected to the Fort Worth city council she planned to go back to her insurance business after her two-year term expired.

Circumstance thought otherwise.

After her first year on the city council, the then-mayor of Fort Worth announced his intention not to run for another term and urged Granger to run. She was elected and served three terms as mayor.

“Then about the same thing happened. The congressman from Fort Worth decided he wasn’t going to run again. He encouraged me and other people encouraged me to run for Congress. I ran and was elected and now serve in Congress,” she said.

That was 16 years ago.

A former school teacher, Granger became an insurance agent after taking a battery of tests that showed she had an aptitude for the job. She first worked for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, and then opened her own agency and expanded into property/casualty and health insurance sales. She owned her agency for 23 years before selling it to her son and daughter-in-law.

“What I was doing, in life insurance, I went after small business owners. I was really interested in that and how someone starts a business,” Granger said. “I worked with dentists, physicians, attorneys that were just going into business.”

Because so many of her life insurance clients also needed insurance for their businesses, Granger decided to go into the property/casualty side of the industry, as well.

“I loved it. What I enjoyed the most was working with people, because I started my own business in my living room,” she said. “I liked to work with entrepreneurs and help them start their business and then follow their progression from, say, dental school to opening up their own dentistry, and then following them as their career advanced. …

“I like people and like to help people, so it was something that I really enjoyed. I was always curious, particularly with small business owners, how they got started, what their ideas were, what their challenges were. I just always thought it was very interesting.”

Granger said she wishes there were more people in Congress “who had been entrepreneurs and had run a business and had to make payroll, because you really understand the struggle and how difficult it is.”

Most of her committee assignments when she first entered Congress were related to homeland security and defense, Granger said, largely because much of her focus as mayor of Fort Worth was on reducing crime.

At one point, however, Granger was on the healthcare committee at appropriations. At that point, her agency ceased selling health insurance “because I didn’t want there to be any kind of conflict in what I was doing through my agency and then serving on the healthcare committee,” she said.

Granger developed her own approach to controlling healthcare costs well before the advent of the Affordable Care Act.

“As healthcare, the cost of it, became so much more expensive, I introduced a healthcare act that changed the way we did business, the way that people bought insurance,” Granger said. “It never became a bill, but I introduced it … it was a prepaid tax credit that covered the purchase of health insurance. My approach to healthcare costs and how people could be insured wasn’t a federal program, but instead was individual programs that they could take with them as they changed business.”

Listen to a podcast interview with Congresswoman Kay Granger on IJTV here.

An Early Interest

Doak began his insurance career with Farmers Insurance straight out of college. After establishing his own Farmers agency, he eventually moved to the wholesale brokerage side, working for both Marsh and Aon, where he “had a tremendous career assisting people, from across the dinner table to across the boardroom.”

His political mentors included former Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon, who taught some of Doak’s political science classes at the University of Oklahoma, and former state Rep. Neal McCaleb. Both men, Doak said, are “fascinating individuals in Oklahoma history.”

Doak said he discovered after graduating from college that a letter he sent to then-President Ronald Reagan ended up being published in one of Reagan’s memoirs.

“When I started running for office, I was one of the few conservatives that could say I was actually published by Ronald Reagan. He had my letter, and I still have my original letter and the book,” Doak said.

He readily acknowledges the skills he learned as an agent and broker have served him well in his political career.

For instance, Doak said, at Farmers he developed the ability to communicate effectively with individuals one-on-one, understand the sales process, engage a wide variety of folks and building an agency from scratch, to name a few.

Both Marsh and Aon offered great corporate leadership, Doak said. “To be able to understand consultative selling process, to be able to understand complex risk management in multiple areas, but also the ability to connect and interact with the C-suite, from CEOs to board members, was something I think the insurance industry as a whole and many of their training programs does an excellent job,” he said.

“You have to have the ability to make a very solid point or case regarding your company or what they’re facing related to their risk management process, and be able to articulate that in a pretty short amount of words in a more executive style, which is something that I really enjoyed,” Doak said.

The importance of connecting with clients as an agent and broker “is something that I’ve taken from my background as an agent to the State of Oklahoma,” Doak said. “To that end, I’ve visited every county of Oklahoma every year that I’ve been in office and held town hall meetings and talked to agents and brokers and Oklahomans about the need to be ready for weather, to understand the issues that are facing them, and that is something that I’ve been very, very proud of that. … You really don’t know what’s going on if you’re not connected to the people and to your clients.”

Like Granger, Doak believes business experience is helpful to those in public office. Many people elected to public office, he said, “may have never owned a business. They may have never had employees. They may have never had to meet a payroll. I think those of them that have that’s a real plus.”

Government, Doak said, is a “complex process of give and take and negotiation.” With many varied interests at the table all the time it can be inefficient and frustrating.

Still, he said, “I think the government needs good, educated folks to come from the private sector that aren’t afraid to get involved.”

Listen to a podcast interview with Commissioner John Doak here

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

Rep. Kerr, like Congresswoman Granger, never intended to go into insurance. He was in his early twenties and running his family’s grocery operation after the death of his father when the decision was made to sell the business, so he started looking around for a new career.

Almost all the leads he followed pointed to the insurance business, Kerr said. While he had never considered insurance before, he turned to his own agent, who worked for Farmers Insurance, for advice on getting into the business.

He ended up being a Farmers agent for 31 years and running his own agency, Allen Kerr Insurance, along with his wife, Marliese.

“A couple of years ago I sold that book of business back to them and became an independent agent. The captive business was getting too narrow as far as the ability to take care of your customers and we needed more options to offer our clients and we got into the independent business,” Kerr said.

A multi-tasker and entrepreneur at heart, Kerr said he always has had “two or three jobs going on at once.” But politics was never a potential candidate for one of them.

Around 2004 or 2005, however, a politically active business associate approached him about getting into politics. “I’m thinking to myself, you’ve got to be nuts,” Kerr said.

“She came to me and said you need to go down to the Quorum Court, which is the county legislature, basically,” he said. She wanted him to go to a court meeting and tell him what he thought.

“So I took her up on it and before that meeting was over I thought my head was going to explode,” he said.

The county’s budget was in such bad shape that it “had actually shut down our county jail and started turning prisoners loose back into the community. And, of course, being in the insurance business, I’m thinking, oh my god, my loss ratios are going to go up; people are going to start breaking into houses. You’ve got all these career criminals that they’re turning loose because of a budget situation,” he said.

Kerr realized he had the skills to help the county turn its money woes around, so he ran for a seat on the Quorum Court and won by a landslide against a two-term incumbent.

“One of the first things I did when I took office was I sat down with the comptroller and had him put together a spreadsheet for income and expenses,” Kerr said. The other members of the court “had never seen a spreadsheet. They’d give them these great big old budget books for each department and of course these folks they’re not going to read that thing. So they were dependent on these department heads to tell them what was there.

“I had it put in a form where they could see it at a glance. Money in, money out,” he said.

Eventually, it was discovered that tens of thousands of dollars of the county’s money was missing. The county’s manager/comptroller had been taking money from the county, diverting it to another account and keeping a mistress on the side, Kerr said.

Kerr then ran for budget chairman on the court and was elected to that position even though he was one of three Republicans on the 15-member Quorum Court. “When I took that over, we were $5 million in the hole. When I left that office, just two years later, we were $15 million in the black.”

At that point he was encouraged to run for state representative to replace a member who was term limited.

“I ran as a Republican to show the state of Arkansas it could be done and we could win. From that point on we started building the Republican coalition. The year I won state representative, out of 100 positions, there were only about 21, 22 of us that were Republicans. This term, this last election, we took the majority, in both the Senate and the House.”

Kerr is term limited – his term ends in 2014 and he plans on sitting out the next election cycle. “I don’t like primaries you’ve got to say something terrible about your friends that are running against you. And they’ve got to say something terrible about you. Something about that, my character, I don’t really like that.”

Kerr said his father, a veteran who served in World War II, told him that “everybody needs to give back whether it’s serving in the military or serving your country or state in some way. This was my way. This was kind of my service,” Kerr said.

At the same time, he said, his time in public office has been valuable for his business. “We’ve reaped quite a bit of, quite a few rewards out of me being in politics,” Kerr said.

When you’re in public service, “people know more about you,” he said. “They know they can trust you if you’ve got a good record. They know how you vote on public matters. And like minded people like to do business with people who think like they do. So we’ve had a lot of folks just walk in off the street and say ‘hey I heard you on the radio. I like your politics; I’d like to look at my insurance.’”

Kerr said there haven’t been any issues so far in his political career that he perceived as conflicting with his business interests. “Had I run across that I certainly would have recused myself. … Anything that would have affected me financially I would have recused myself, whether it be insurance or not.”

There have been several highlights during his time in public office, Kerr said. One of them is “winning an election that no one expects you to win.”

But one of the biggest rewards of service is just to be able to be part of something larger than one’s self, Kerr said.

“Every time a session starts and you walk into that chamber and you see your name light up on that board, that is just a feeling that I wish everyone could experience once because it is awesome,” he said. “Once your name lights up on that board, you are part of history. Your name is going to be in all of those history books, in all of those bills that you worked on, that’s you. And that’s a permanent record and can’t nobody take it away from you.”

Listen to a podcast interview with Arkansas state Rep. Allen Kerr on IJTV here.