Insurance was a great training ground for now State Sen. Bill Ketron, who has been a member of the Tennessee Senate since 2002 while also serving as president of his own independent agency founded by his late father.
Ketron credits his insurance career and his involvement with his state agents’ associations with preparing him for politics.
Of course his Bachelor’s degree in political science from Middle Tennessee State University didn’t hurt.
“I always had an interest in giving back to the community from the time that I was an Eagle Scout. I’ve always had an interest in the community. In 1989, I went through a local program that called Leadership Rutherford, which allowed me to see the backstage of local government. I always had a yearning to get involved. That inspired me, that year of going through that program.”
He first ran for mayor in 1990 but lost. He picked himself up after that defeat and ran for the Rutherford County Commission. He won, serving from 1990 to 1998.
While on the county commission, he chaired the health and education committee, becoming very involved working with the school districts. “Our community was one of the fastest growing and still is one of the fastest growing communities in the country,” he says.
He was first elected to the state Senate in 2002, then re-elected in 2006 and again in 2010.
Even while immersing himself in state politics, he has remained active in production and sales as president of Universal International Insurance in Murfreesboro, the agency his father started in 1968 and he joined in 1975.
He says his insurance career helped prepare him for legislative work by requiring him to know something about his clients and his community.
“[I]n the insurance business, you have to know a little bit of something about every type of business there is, especially in the general insurance business, from environment, from landfills, to construction, to education,” he says.
He was active in the Professional Insurance Agents of Tennessee, serving as president of the agents’ group from 1992 to 1993. He was also a member of the other trade group, the Insurors of Tennessee, which in 2008 named him Independent Agent of the Year.
There is no doubt in Ketron’s mind that involvement in his agent associations helped him politically, familiarizing him with issues, giving him experience speaking before audiences, and teaching him how to run meetings. The associations allowed him to get his feet wet in politics.
“The associations are very political. They usually have a day on the hill at the Legislature. They’ll go to the state capital and then they’ll go to the U.S. Capitol in Washington and do the same thing and talk about the issues that are confronting our industry.”
Tort reform is one issue that was discussed a lot when he was leading PIA and that experience factored into his work when the Senate took up and passed damages cap years later.
He takes pride in recent legislation he came up with that solves a problem in workers’ compensation involving general or artisan contractors being sued because subcontractors they hired did not have insurance. Ketron worked with the secretary of state to design an online system where subcontractors can obtain certificates of exemption. The purpose is to shield the contractor from suits by subcontractors who choose to go without coverage.
“There’s a box on there [on secretary of state’s website] where you attest that you [subcontractor] do not want the coverage. That sends a very clear message to the courts that you rejected the insurance, and you can’t go back against whoever hired you,” says Ketron.
Contractors now ask subcontractors for their certificate of insurance, or their certificate of exemptions, before hiring them.
Being both an agent and an elected representative requires juggling of tasks—and a flexible schedule.
The Tennessee legislative session is supposed to run 90 days starting in February, although it’s not unusual for it to run longer, as much as 120 days.
Ketron says he is fortunate in that he lives within 30 miles of the capital, unlike some other lawmakers who have lengthy commutes. So even on a day when the Legislature is in session, he can be in the agency for a few hours in the morning on Monday before heading off to the capital.
The lawmakers are in committees during the day and the session opens at 5 p.m. on Monday night. They are tied up with legislative work Tuesdays and Wednesdays all day and until about 11 a.m. on Thursday.
“I’m back in the office Thursday afternoon and then all day Friday. I get about two days in the agency,” he says of his time in the agency when the Legislature is in session.
But politics takes more than just showing up for committees and votes. Lawmakers have to work in their districts also. Ketron says there is “always events at night, from spaghetti dinners, catfish dinners, barbeques, fundraisers for the local fire departments, pancake breakfasts in the morning I have to go to.”
He says making an appearance at these events, while it helps him politically in the district, can also help his business. “We run into people and they go, “Hey, could you quote so and so for me? I bought a new car.’ Or, ‘I’m getting ready to start a new business.’ It just helps to network; they kind of go hand in hand.”
Has Ketron ever worried that being in politics could hurt the business?
“Oh sure, sometimes it has,” he says. But it’s rare. He says there may have been only “four or five people” over the cycle of his 12 years in the Senate who took their business elsewhere because of his politics.
“Usually, if they trust you enough to vote for you, then they’re going to trust you to protect them with insurance,” he says.
He says he can be active politically and be away from the agency because he has a good agency staff, which may not be the situation for all agents.
“You’ve got to surround yourself with good people, so if you have a good staff, and they’re there to cover for you when you’ve got the political hat on, then you’re OK, but if you’re a one-man shop or something, it makes it very tough.”
Ketron considered running for Congress last year but decided against it in part because of the gridlock in Washington. Also, he prefers being number three in state Senate leadership to being at the bottom of a House of 435 where it could take 10 years or more to rise to a position of influence.
“I don’t want to serve unless I can make a difference,” he says.
Like Father, Like Daughter?
Ketron’s daughter, Kelsey, a recent college graduate, is now learning the insurance agency business. She has been with the agency about 18 months.
“She made a promise to my father right before he passed that she would continue on his legacy and come into the business,” he says.
But politics, like insurance, appears to be in her blood, too. Kelsey trained her dad’s previous campaign chairmen.
“Her mother had a campaign sign rested on her belly when she was pregnant. It went through her navel and implanted the political side in her genes,” says the proud father.
“She’s already gotten into the insurance business. We’ll wait until she gets a little seasoned before she gets into politics,” he says.
More articles in the Insurance Pros in Politics series from Insurance Journal:
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