The idea behind this space since mid-January has been sharing fewer opinions in favor of telling stories of regular people and what drove them into their careers and personal passions.
But when I asked Jake LaReaux to tell me his story, in part I was seeking to learn something about my own background. LaReaux’s name is on the window at the Streator American Family Insurance agency about a block south of City Park at the corner of East Bridge and South Vermillion streets.
In talking to LaReaux — who grew up in Chicago Ridge and Kankakee before moving to the country north of Ottawa — about how he felt called into this line of work, I was hoping to also learn a bit about my grandfather, Raymond Holland, who sold insurance for 30 years for Country Companies in Jo Daviess County.
Doc, as everyone called him, was one of eight children. He left school after eighth grade to work as a farmhand. But after he married my grandmother and moved into town, and after my dad was born in 1952, he got a white collar job and made a nice living. He retired in 1986, when I was about 7, and although he lived another 21 years, he and I never really talked about his professional life. What, I wondered, leads someone to a career selling insurance — then or now?
Applying for an agency with American Family, LaReaux said, “was less about wanting to be an insurance agent and more about wanting to work somewhere I felt appreciated and I could in turn show others they were appreciated,” he told me, explaining his previous jobs doing customer service in the health insurance field for two large providers.
“The further my career advanced, the less I saw that anyone in upper management truly cared about people who work on the front line,” he said. “They said they did, but their actions betrayed them.”
Now, as his own boss and directly working with customers, aligning words and actions isn’t optional.
“You need to be willing to humble yourself so that your clients know you will put their needs first,” he said. “I want to be proud of where I work. Being my own boss and setting my schedule are nice, but nothing compares to driving home with the knowledge that everyone I interacted with knows I care. That's not a tangible thing, but it's fulfilling.”
Still, there are some tangible skills needed to sell insurance — “a business degree and some accounting experience would be immensely helpful,” he said — but as LaReaux explained about coming to understand his own personality and how that correlates to his customers and colleagues, I thought of my grandfather, who never met a stranger and would happily make conversation with folks from all walks of life.
“If you can grasp a little psychology you can make people comfortable and they will open up to you,” he said. “It’s your job to understand them, and then adjust to meet them.”
LaReaux also credits his manager and office assistant as an essential support system, which reminds me of the role my college-educated grandmother played in making her husband a success for all those years. But whereas my grandfather retired before needing to deploy tools stouter than a pocket calculator or typewriter, LaReaux said he’s ever evolving.
“The insurance industry and the products and even the way we do business has changed drastically over the last few years as technology impacts our business, too,” he said. “I look at my comfort zone like a target and if I stay in the bullseye, I'm not growing. So I'm always just a little outside my comfort zone. By doing that, I continue to be open to new ideas and growth as a person. …
“Adaptability is probably more important than knowledge; it seems harder to learn to change than it is to learn a job skill.”
Selling insurance never interested me, but everyone has a story to tell.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” LaReaux said. “I love this career. I want my customers to be happy, and I take a lot of pride in being honest with them and taking care of them when they need my help.”
I like to think such an attitude is what helped my grandfather forge a career. LaReaux has many years ahead of him and the right attitude to succeed.
Who do you know with a story worth telling? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.