The best insurance policy: honesty

Carol and Ross Thornburgh mark 25 years selling insurance to islanders. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Carol and Ross Thornburgh mark 25 years selling insurance to islanders.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

Ross and Carol Thornburgh mark a quarter-century as independent agents.

Ross Thornburgh makes it his business to give people bad news well.

As an insurance agent, Thornburgh might have to tell his customer that the premium is high, the claim won’t be filled or the policy won’t be renewed.

“No one likes to give bad news, but bad news should travel fast – it doesn’t improve with age,” Thornburgh said. “The action of not giving it is worse.”

Being straight with his customers and providing advice in plain English is what has kept Thornburgh Insurance Agency growing for 25 years on Bainbridge Island.

Retaining over 90 percent of customers is no small feat in a business where the profits don’t come until a customer renews a policy.

Thornburgh works for about half a dozen insurance companies, selling their policies, primarily for property and casualty, but he says his edge as an agent is in providing service, “being there,” being human and telling people what the facts are.

“I still give top priority to their (customers’) interests without burning the (insurance) company,” Thornburgh said. “If somebody asks a question, I give them honest advice. I like to be the go-to place.”

Part of the job’s challenge is overcoming a potential customer’s inherent defensiveness.

“Buying professional services is difficult whether (dealing with) a banker or insurance agent,” Thornburgh said. “Very few people understand insurance, so people who come in are suspicious of you and have no way of judging.”

He describes the customer’s reluctance as “the salesman gives it to you, and the fine print takes it way.” So Thornburgh likes to educate clients until they feel comfortable about making a decision.

And, he won’t go to any length to sell a policy.

“My belief is anytime a salesman is aware of pressure (to sell) in a sales interview, there’s something wrong with the situation,” Thornburgh said. “He would be too hungry and willing to sell snow to an Eskimo.”

There were plenty of reasons to feel pressured when Thornburgh struck out on his own at age 50, having never run a business.

Until he started his own agency, Thornburgh had worked in large insurance and brokerage firms for many years.

He and his wife Carol settled on the island in 1975, and were active in the community; Ross was a scoutmaster, and belonged to the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, and was treasurer during the capital campaign that built the Playhouse. Carol is still on the board of Helpline House and the Marge Williams Center.

Ross’ company wanted to transfer him to the Midwest, but Carol refused to trade Bainbridge Island for St. Louis.

So after a short stint as a real estate agent, when interest rates rose to 15-17 percent and sales were tough, Ross returned to insurance and opened his own agency on April 1, 1980 without a file in the office.

His first commission check – for $81 – didn’t arrived until June.

He, Carol and their two children “lived off their fat” for three years. Carol was better at keeping books, and also came on to handle commercial policies that Ross wasn’t “in tune with.”

The couple set goals for 36 months and checked them off the list one at a time.His contacts with real estate agents and escrow officers, he said, helped him get a leg up on the competition. While 10 sales contacts typically reap one sale, three referrals from another professional can bring an average of two sales.

The insurance industry has changed in the last five years; however, agents have less discretion on deciding who to insure. Ross recalls being able to call up and talk to insurance company underwriters when he felt that despite a black mark on a person’s record, he or she was still a good risk.

Today, much of the decision-making on who is a good risk is out of the hands of agents. But Ross sees a little discretion coming back for agents like himself who have a good “loss ratio.” With an assigned underwriter instead of a faceless operator, he can have more influence again on who gets insured.

Looking back on the last 25 years, Thornburgh still finds satisfaction.

“I like giving advice and counseling people,” he said.

When parents come to him to add their son to their car insurance, he asks to have “junior” call and make an appointment.

The young driver must know he has “an obligation to me, to be responsible to the insurance company, and to follow the law, but he also has an obligation to his parents and a social contract.

“I don’t know if it makes a difference in that kind of talk,” Thornburgh said, “but I feel it’s worth the effort.”

For 10 years, he visited every driver’s education class at the high school to talk with students about the impact of driving on the parents’ insurance premiums and why junior’s rates would be three times that of his father’s.

“What I owe you is to tell you the way things are,” Thornburgh said, “not how they ought to be.”

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