To keep it personal, family business Fogle Insurance started small, and stays small with a purpose.
When it comes to the insurance business, times sure have changed.
There was a day when your agent was likely your neighbor — someone you saw regularly at church or in the grocery store, someone who knew the names of your kids and the family pets.
There was a day when your agent visited you at your home, discussing your family’s shifting insurance needs over sweet tea at the kitchen table as jobs changed, incomes changed and kids wandered off to college or points beyond the sheltering confines of home.
Yep, there was a day. Times sure have changed.
Or have they?
At Fogle Insurance Group in Huntersville, that day was likely, well, yesterday.
And if you ask his daughter, it’s the legacy of George Fogle’s approach to the business of selling insurance and supporting his clients that has kept it that way.
Shawn Fogle Principi is one of five family members who keep the family business humming. Working side-by-side with siblings Doug and Michele and her nephew Zach, she’s been a mainstay at Fogle Insurance Group since 1986.
But she credits her father, George, for creating the agency’s reputation for personalized service, wherever and whenever the client needs it.
“We are one of the few agencies who, if clients want us to come see them, we will come to their house or their business and see them,” she says. “We have done that from the day we opened our doors. That’s how Dad started out. He loves that. He’s 71 and he still puts in at least 40 hours a week most weeks, and is usually the first one in the door. He just thrives on it.”
Next year will mark George’s 50th year of selling insurance, which began at John Hancock. In the early 1960s, he branched out on his own, working entirely out of his home in the Mint Hill area with his wife, Judy, tending to the business’ paperwork. It wasn’t until 1983 that he opened an actual office, setting up shop on Independence Boulevard near Matthews.
Shawn arrived at the agency not much later, in 1986, followed by brother Doug in 1987 and sister Michele in 1993.
But as their spot on Independence Boulevard and the communities surrounding it began to morph from that small town, suburban feel to a bursting-at-the-seams, big city pace, the Fogles looked north to the fringes of Mecklenburg County for their agency’s refuge.
“We just kind of wanted to get out of the city and get up into the Lake Norman area,” Shawn says, and they quickly settled on Huntersville.
That was in 2000, when they bought the single-story building they currently occupy in the Rosedale area off Gilead Road. The agency takes up half of it, and rents the other half out as key-man suites.
“Back then, (Rosedale) was very small,” she says. “We were the first building here.”
As the business migrated north out of Charlotte, so did the Fogle family, with most of them ultimately settling in Huntersville. After living for a few years in Davidson’s River Run community, the elder Fogles are now on the water in Mooresville.
But as a testament to their business style, Shawn says the move never really cost them in their south Charlotte and east Charlotte client base. Many are still with them, and George often spends several hours a week on the road calling on them personally, just as he has for decades.
Shawn describes Fogle Insurance Group as “rather small,” with about $3 million in premiums annually. But she says the company’s size is intentional and not a matter of difficulty growing their books.
“We decided a long time ago that we wanted to build a solid business,” she says. “So we’ve kept ourselves smaller than most agencies who wanted to just hire a ton of employees and put in voicemail systems without a live voice on the first ring. We’ve limited ourselves a little bit because we’ve refused to be that big, mass-marketing agency. That’s just not our personality.”
With the help of a small, tight-knit staff of non-family members — locals Donna Yost, Robin Whicker, Pam Shupe and Cindy Holland — the Fogle family has gained a following of small businesses in the area. Shawn says she and the other agents relish their relationships with local small businesses and describes them as intensely loyal clients.
But what Fogle Insurance Group sees as a vital client sector may have also been a significant vulnerability in the recent recession.
“A lot of our business is small contractors, and that’s where we were hurt the most,” Shawn says. “We did suffer drastically, we probably went down about 30 percent. A lot of them went out of business and a lot took payroll cuts down to 50 percent. … We had a real struggle.”
She says as soon as the agency began to see those particular clients fall off the books, they immediately began cutting costs everywhere they could with a single goal in mind — not one staff member would lose their job.
She says everyone — family and staff — worked harder than they probably ever had in their professional lives, servicing the clients they still had while digging deep for any spending cuts they could find.
“And we didn’t lay anyone off,” says Shawn. “I was so thrilled about that, because it looked grim for awhile.”
She says this year is a different story, however, and that she could tell from the earliest months of the 2012 calendar that things were picking up. She took over bookkeeping duties from her mom about three years ago, and she says this is the first time that the traditionally slow months of January and February were showing signs of life.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is refreshing. We’re not in the negative,'” she says. “I hated to get my hopes up, but honestly, we have had a fantastic year.”
And things appear to just keep getting better.
Fogle Insurance Group was recently licensed to offer the Blue Cross Blue Shield Medicare Advantage plans that are zero-premium products for seniors. Shawn says it required extensive training and numerous tests, but she expects it will be worth the agency’s investment as there is a large retirement-age demographic in the Lake Norman area and her agency is one of only a few locally who are qualified to offer it.
They are also one of a select group of agencies that can now offer the AARP auto insurance program from The Hartford, a discount program for seniors.
As 2012 winds down and the Fogle family looks to the future, Shawn says the agency plans to keep its steady-as-she-goes approach, its focus on supporting local small businesses and, especially, its Huntersville roots.
“We always want to maintain just one office, that’s very important to us,” she says. “We’d love to grow a little bit each year, but we’re not looking to expand so we have two or three offices and have to suddenly hire 15 employees. Our only hope is that maybe one day we can expand into the rest of this building.
“We’re not moving anywhere, this is home for us.”