Court-Side Lessons: Insurance Agency Management Tips Before Tip Off

Insurance agents might want to take notes during tonight’s NCAA championship game between Butler and Duke. While NCAA men’s basketball tournament referee and insurance agent Gary Maxwell won’t tell you his personal pick to win (it’s against NCAA rules to say anything that could be perceived as insider information), he can share what he’s learned on the court that can be applied to running an insurance agency.

Maxwell’s insurance agency, Gary Maxwell Insurance Agency is located in Cookeville, Tenn., a rural area between Knoxville and Nashville. The company operates with 15 employees working from four offices all about 20 miles from Cookeville. The agency writes a mix of 60 percent personal lines and 40 percent commercial lines, providing policies for homes, auto and small businesses, with some health and life. Major carriers represented are Erie Insurance Group, Grange Mutual, The Hanover, Harleysville, Kemper, Penn National, Progressive, State Auto, Travelers and Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

Maxwell said his career in the insurance industry began unexpectedly. He was always involved in business — his parents had operated a manufacturing business for years. But when he got close to graduating with his business management degree, his parents’ local insurance agent asked if he’d like to join the agency.

“I said what’s insurance? I didn’t have a clue,” Maxwell said.

Nevertheless it was a job, and Maxwell wound up working for this agency for five years, before moving on to another independent agency in Cookeville. Eventually, he saw the financial freedom and independence insurance agency owners could have, and Maxwell decided to start his own.

The flexible schedule that comes with operating an independent agency was compatible with Maxwell’s growing basketball career and family obligations. “I just felt like I needed to be my own boss and have the flexibility to do the things I wanted to do,” he said, noting he was traveling more to referee basketball games, and also wanted to attend his sons’ sports games.

Refereeing basketball was similarly happenstance. Maxwell said he had played in high school, and was from a small basketball town similar to town portrayed in the movie “Hoosiers.” The whole town — approximately 3,000 people — would turn out to watch high school games, which gave him a love for the game, he said. Although he attended college on a golf scholarship, he said during the winters when he wasn’t golfing, he got talked into officiating basketball games.

“I didn’t really want to. Nobody likes the referee, I didn’t want to do that,” Maxwell said.

But he said he took the job because it supplemented his income while in college. He began calling intramural games in college, which led to officiating elementary and middle school games, which led to high school games and a full high school schedule. Then in 1992, he was hired by the Ohio Valley Conference as an official, and then in 1995, he started working in the Southeastern Conference.

Officiating a basketball game is not like being a spectator, of course. But watching the game from that perspective — following the players and not just the ball — is just as rewarding, Maxwell said. After 11 years working for the NCAA tournament, he’s refereed games at the Sweet 16, and Elite Eight levels.

During this year’s March Madness, he worked the Villanova versus Robert Morris game that went into overtime when the No. 15 seed almost beat the No. 2 team. In the second round, he officiated the St. Mary’s versus Villanova game, and when St. Mary’s, ranked 75 beat Villanova, ranked 65, “it was the biggest upset for the weekend,” Maxwell said.

“It didn’t start out I was going to officiate college basketball, kind of like my insurance career, I didn’t think I’d have four offices and 15 employees, it just sort of snowballed,” he said.

What Maxwell has learned in both careers, however, is that running a successful agency — like officiating a basketball game — takes diplomacy and good communication skills.

“In basketball we have to communicate with each of our partners, and with the coaches and players, and even the media,” Maxwell said. For instance, he said if a referee can explain a situation or interpretation of a rule, that’s helpful when officiating. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll always agree, but still, being able to communicate is very helpful.”

Likewise when dealing with customers or clients in the insurance business, “it’s important to communicate with them and make them understand about the policy and coverages we feel like they need or that they desire. The clearer and more concise you can make things to them, the easier it’s going to be to interact with your customers,” he said.

Teamwork is also important to both basketball and running an agency. With basketball, he said there are three teams — the two teams playing each other, and the team of officials. “We have to work together to make sure the game goes the way it’s supposed to,” Maxwell said. “The same goes for the office.”

For instance, refereeing basketball games means one night Maxwell may be in Raleigh and the next night he might have to travel to Arkansas. “Technology makes it easier,” he said about continuing to run his agency business even when he’s away from the office. “But I have 15 wonderful employees that have a lot of experience, and they’ve made managing the business really easy. My family and employees are my biggest supporters and biggest fans.”

He added that partnerships with insurance companies also are part of the team that makes for a successful agency. “Our insurance companies have all been very understanding and really go the extra mile when things need to be done,” he said.

Above all, running a successful agency means putting the team goal above personal gain. “Everybody pulls and helps each other, and we’re not particularly hung up on who’s getting all the glory,” he said of his agency. “It’s all about getting the job done. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful with officiating and our insurance operation.”