As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Leavitt.
The award-winning Nancy Leavitt Agency, LLC, a woman-owned business through American Family Insurance in Bellingham, WA, has provided auto, home, business, life and other insurance in the Pacific Northwest for almost twelve years. In that time, she’s developed thousands of policies, serviced hundreds of claims, and touched the lives of thousands of residents in her community.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up surrounded by a big extended family in a small town two hours north of Seattle, called Lynden, WA. I think I was always destined for a profession in sales. When I was ten years old I had a paper route. I went door to door selling newspapers and was also responsible for collecting payments. I learned early on how to connect and communicate with customers. Boy times have changed.
Surrounded by an entrepreneurial family, my father, Mike, was an ideas guy. He was constantly coming up with his own creative business ideas and sharing them with our family. I admired his confidence and creativity and learned a lot along the way. He owned several small businesses over the years. Only a few of them panned out, so he failed often, but that never seemed to stop him. He would just learn from each experience and move on to his next sure fire idea. Watching him go after his dreams and bounce back when things didn’t work out made me realize I could too.
I was also influenced by my mother’s impressive work ethic. While my dad was working in his business ventures, my mom raised the six of us while also working. I saw how hard she worked and I just assumed that that’s how everyone was supposed to work.
After high school I started college but didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career. I ended up transferring from the small private Seattle Pacific University to the larger public Western Washington University but still felt a little lost. I married my husband, Nathan, who was also young entrepreneur. He had a couple of small businesses and I helped him with the books of his house- and dog-sitting business. So by the age of 21, from my parents and my husband, I had already learned what it takes to start and own a small business.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
While in college I got an entry-level job as a Customer Service Representative at a local insurance office. That’s where I was introduced to the insurance industry and discovered that I actually enjoyed this work of helping people build security and solve problems. I was driven. I worked late and went the extra mile every single day. I was thriving at work but not really feeling my classes.
My employers noticed my efforts and soon offered me the opportunity to get my license and become a full-time agent. It was a tough decision, but I took a break from school to follow this opportunity and then never looked back.
In my early days as an agent, corporate office mentors met with and trained me in sales and policies. I ate it up. I’m still great friends with my mentors today. That’s where I discovered that I am one of the few people who is passionate about all the tiny details of the insurance business. I actually delight in reading and writing policies and I also love using my business to help people protect their homes, families and businesses.
From my family and those early mentors that expressed confidence in me and my work, I learned not to be afraid to take risks because I saw that people bounced back from failures and developed creative solutions to the road blocks they faced. I developed an attitude that failure wasn’t an option or an end because you just keep going.
When I had learned enough and gained enough experience to open my own agency, I jumped in with both feet.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my earliest days as an insurance agent, I got a referral for a client that was struggling to find homeowner’s coverage due to the number of homeowner’s claims she had. I was able to successfully place her with a pretty high-premium, low-coverage carrier with the promise that if she kept her record clear, I could rewrite her to my insurance carrier with a much more favorable premium and coverage.
I set a reminder for 18 months and then proactively reached out to her saying I could help her get a better policy. She was so happy! I then rewrote her to my company only to find out immediately after that we had changed our guidelines and she didn’t actually qualify. I had to put her back with the high- premium, low-coverage carrier. With egg on my face, I felt horrible. All that work, all that hope, and nothing to show for it.
But I was determined. I set another reminder on her account and eventually successfully rewrote her back to my company. The lesson for me was that we all make mistakes. We are all human. I owned my error and presented her with solutions. I think its part of the reason she’s still my client today. I’ll never forget that, for the rest of my career. Through it all she showed me so much grace when she didn’t have to and I will always appreciate her for it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The person that hired me for my first insurance job, Rae Ann Hall, has been my mentor and friend for about 15 years. Way back when I was nearing my first anniversary working for her, I was struggling to juggle it all, and so I decided that I should hand in my notice so that I could focus on school. I met with her to quit, but she literally wouldn’t let me.
She saw more in me at that time than I saw in myself. She saw my value. She refused my resignation and instead asked me what I needed from her to help me succeed. And then she gave me what I asked for — a more flexible schedule, reduced hours and so much grace.
I was and am so grateful for her confidence in me, her mentoring and support over the years. We still keep in touch today and I listen to her inspiring podcast, The Optimistic Choice with Rae Ann Hall.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I started my own agency, I was a “scratch” business with zero customers on day one. I was literally starting with nothing but my experience and drive. The first three years were some of the most challenging times of my life. Like most new businesses, it’s a numbers game. Can you “outlast” the numbers — can you show up today and make up for what happened yesterday.
Little did I know when I went off on my own in late 2007 that just around the corner would be the 2008 recession. Everything was crashing down around me. My husband’s construction business had no work. Then I got pregnant and became a first time mother. That first two years are still a bit of a blur. No one wanted to spend money or do anything new because of the uncertainty. I am one of the few agents that started in that period that are still in business today. It was very much like what we’re experiencing today.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I got through it by just committing to show up, every single day. I focused on what was right in front of me. I made sure that everything I set out to do, I did it. Every day. That became every month and then every year. I just kept going.
It was during that time that I developed my own mantra for business and life — one that has stuck with me over the past 15 years: “Make a decision and make it right.”
Fear keeps us from making decisions because we’re scared that we will make the wrong choice. But the “make it right” part means we can make the “wrong” choice but then still correct it with follow up effort and action. Knowing that I can make it right gives me the freedom to take risks and recover from any failure — big or small. My mother’s work ethic and that mantra have kept my business thriving — through big and small obstacles, recessions and even this pandemic.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
As you may know, the insurance industry has changed a lot in recent years. Online insurance sales and advancing technology have and continue to change the face of the industry. Someday, people won’t get their insurance from a person. My business continues to thrive because my staff and I continue to evolve and adapt to our changing future while also focusing on our added value: keeping our business personal and ensuring that we provide exceptional customer service from real human beings. It’s not that my business won’t be here in 20 years. It will just look different than it looks today.
Although the pandemic has added a number of challenges, like not being face-to-face with customers and colleagues, my business has been able to thrive because we embrace change. Although it was a tough decision, we recently let go of our brick and mortar location of more than seven years. My staff and I have gone fully virtual and although the learning curve was steep at times, we were determined to get there. When technology tools are offered, we’re the first to get on board, and in some cases, we’ve already been using them for a while.
During the pandemic, my business logged the second highest secure texting usage in our state. Our customers are adapting very well to connecting virtually. We continue to provide the same service and quality, just from our home offices. We did so well in 2020 that we were recently honored with the prestigious Life Diamond Designation for outstanding sales from American Family Life Insurance, the company’s highest production level.
Because of that success, in 2021, my business was chosen to partner with American Family Corporate to explore an innovative business model in other locations across Washington State and in the other states in which I’m licensed. I’m excited to share what has worked for me with other agents to serve more communities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our customers tell us that they value our knowledge of the industry and the personal service we provide on the back end. I may not ever be the cheapest option, but I am okay with that. Cheap insurance and anonymous service isn’t what will help you when you’re in a crisis down the road. I help people stay informed so they can advocate for themselves, be a more robust insurance consumer and stay engaged in the process. I believe that’s why our customers choose us and stay with us year after year.
That personal service investment also pays off down the road. More than half of our new business comes from referrals from satisfied businesses and policy holders. Those referrals are the greatest compliment we can receive.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Both in insurance and in other fields, competitiveness sometimes keeps us from working together. I would like to see that change. I believe there is real value in networking with our competitors and seeing them instead as powerful partners in the industry. We should speak candidly with one another about our industry, bounce ideas off one another and lift each other up. I am friends with agents from many other companies in my area. It can be done without losing business or your edge in the field.
I also believe finding the right work/life balance right now is more important than ever. Working from a home office — some of us with children doing virtual learning — it can be a challenge to get going, be efficient and stay focused.
But I’ve found that having structure to my day, so my family knows my “home work hours” has been so helpful. I have been fortunate to have help from extended family as well. I’m very protective of family time as well. When my work day is done, I don’t check my work emails or texts until the next day. My family deserves to have my full attention when I’m off duty. And I love being fully present with my three daughters, my husband and my mother at the end of each work day.
Perhaps the biggest burn-out buster of the pandemic has been learning to let go of perfection. When I try to do it all perfectly, I do none of it well. So I’ve been trying to work hard on the things that really matter while also giving myself and others a lot of grace. While we will always strive to do our best, we’re also accepting that enough is often enough and tomorrow is a new day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Several years ago I started a monthly charitable giving campaign called Quotes for Community. For every insurance quote requested throughout the month, we donate a dollar to a local charity. Those donations are matched, dollar for dollar, by American Family Corporate offices.
I let my staff choose the local charities that mean the most to them. We donate to a different nonprofit every month. It’s been wonderful for me and my staff to know that the hard work we do is helping our community in a deeper way. We’ve been able to make donations to organizations like the Alzheimer’s Society of Washington, Hospice House and Guide Dogs for the Blind in our county. In December 2020, we donated to Whatcom Dreams, a small nonprofit doing such important work right now to help people rise above poverty through financial literacy education. Quotes for Community keeps my staff motivated and we love being able to give back every month to our community.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Take care of your team. As I learned from my earliest mentors, business leaders should care for their employee’s success and future. Help them work toward their dreams, even if those dreams don’t ultimately include working for your company. Your success is also my success.
- You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Learn from other people’s successes and how they got there. Give them credit, spot good ideas and use them to create your own path. My Quotes for Community campaign is a result building relationships with other business owners and recognizing how I could use my business to give back to community in a new way. Now I am constantly encouraging other businesses to do more for their community in their own unique ways.
- Don’t lose yourself in the standard business guidance. When you’re new to insurance, you get a giant manual on how it’s done. You might think that the path to success is in those pages. But when you follow every suggestion to the letter, you end up losing what makes you special — what makes you different. Instead, use the guidelines as your base. From my experience, successes came when I followed my gut and used my own creativity.
- Accept change with open arms. As I mentioned earlier, when new technology tools come along, I am usually an early adopter. When it gets hard, it may seem easier to give up and stick with what you’ve always been doing. But if you can hang on and push through those hurdles, you end up saving so much time. Then you spend that extra time saved on what’s more important.
- Separate home and work — even in a pandemic. Ten years ago, I was running myself ragged responding to work emails at 10 PM. It was then that I made the commitment to myself to set boundaries on my time. I removed my work email and calendar from my phone so that I can’t see or respond to them until I’m “on the clock.” Setting these limits has preserved my sanity and helped me keep from getting burned out. Part of my long-term success is due to not having my work be part of my life 100% of the time. It’s ok to take a break. I still work plenty of hours and when I’m “at work” I can give it my full attention and energy.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
The world has changed and the way that people interact is very different. The common courtesy that I appreciated as a young customer service rep is just not there now the way it once was. People are in a hurry, they’re angry or frustrated and that comes through over the phone and in person. And yet, my staff comes in day after day with a smile.
I appreciate my staff today more than I ever have before. Even the way that I thank my staff today is different than in the past. I’m excited to be part of their success. They don’t have to share with me their hopes and dreams, but if I can help them, I will do whatever is within my power. As my mentor did for me, I will change their schedule, be flexible and do whatever they need to feel successful in their personal life so they can do their best work for me. They usually end up trusting me and sharing their goals. Then I can do my best to help them through my business. For me today, I want to be mutually respectfully involved with their success, whatever that means to them. I try to be more gracious and grateful than ever before.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
My own mistakes have been the source of my biggest lessons. When those mistakes cost you money or are embarrassing or stressful, you never forget what led you there and you internalize how you’ll avoid repeating them in the future. I also try to be fully present and listen hard when others are brave enough to share their own mistakes and failures so that I can learn some lessons the easy way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A few years ago I came across the quote by an unknown author, “Be strong. You never know who you’re inspiring.” I love it. It rings true for me. I talk with so many different walks of life each and every day and it’s easy to get lost in it all. If I were to start a movement it would be to remind people of their own goodness and how we all can have a more positive impact on each other. I’d start in our education system with all of our children. I think we can all agree that there’s still something missing. I don’t have all the answers but our kids will be our future leaders and I really feel that we can all do more to show kids their own strength. Let us all inspire each other every day.
How can our readers further follow your work online?