From CSR to Agency Owner: One AFTF Award Winner’s Journey

AFTF Awards, Agent Experts, Leadership, Personal Lines, Small Commercial Lines

This article is a repost of Rough Notes’ article about the winner of the 2021 Agent for the Future Award, Outstanding Female Agency Principal.

Surprised … grateful … proud … and determined to be worthy of the honor she achieved.

These words describe the emotions Kristin Garlow experienced upon learning that she had been selected the first-ever Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance Outstanding Female Agency Principal award winner.

“To receive-this honor made me feel overwhelmingly grateful,” she declares.

2021 Agent for the Future Award Winners 5

Click here to read more about the 2021 Agent for the Future Awards and the winners.

Garlow is owner and president of Hurricane, West Virginia-based Mountain State Agency Alliance, a master agency of the Strategic Insurance Agency Alliance (SIAA). In this role, she manages over $70 million in premium in just over 80 locations in West Virginia, western Virginia and eastern Ohio.

“My team and I provide access to all of our partner carriers through which we obtain overrides and profit sharing,” Garlow explains. “We negotiate commission levels, and we’re in charge of quality control for all of our agencies. We do business planning and marketing with them.

“In essence, these agencies operate autonomously, but all of the business goes through Mountain State Agency Alliance,” she notes. “We’re proud to work with these agencies because they’re the backbone of the independent agency system in our neck of the woods.”

Starting out

Garlow started her insurance career as a high school student through a co-op program. She worked part-time as a CSR. After graduating high school, she passed the property/casualty licensing exam and put herself through college by working full-time as a producer while taking college classes at night.

“Thanks to insurance, I graduated from college debt free and decided I was going to make this my career,” she says.

When she started at Mountain State Agency Alliance in 2005, she knew the opportunity was different.

“During my earlier years in insurance, I worked for agencies owned by men who had sons who were interested in ownership opportunities or who were considering acquisition by large agency buyers,” she says.

“At Mountain State, I worked with a female mentor, Mary Kerns, who had a beautiful vision for perpetuation,” Garlow continues. “She said, ‘This could be yours someday.’ We worked together to craft a strategy for me to someday own the agency.”

Kerns guided Garlow in learning every aspect of the business. After about eight years, they started putting the perpetuation into place. Garlow started purchasing stock in the agency and eventually purchased the agency in October 2020.

Helping the community

“I like the fact that insurance allows me to help the people in my community, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the total loss of a home because of a natural catastrophe,” Garlow says. “These are people I know, people I see at schools or the grocery store. It’s not about fixing problems but being able to provide financial stability to people who have experienced any kind of loss.

“That really makes me proud to be a part of this industry,” she asserts. “When I deliver that claim check to people, it changes their entire perspective toward rebuilding after a catastrophic event.

“From a personal standpoint, I love receiving residual income,” Garlow continues. “I work hard today and will receive the benefits of that income for years to come. That’s how I and our member agents are able to build a successful agency and also build the life they want for their family.”

In 2020, Garlow was elected president of the Safeco Insurance National Agent Advisory Council, where she became the first person from West Virginia to represent over 20,000 agents across the country. What’s more, she was part of the first all-female president/vice president pair Safeco had ever had on its national board.

Changes in attitudes

What were attitudes toward women like when Garlow started her insurance career? How might these attitudes have changed, especially toward women in leadership positions?

“I’ve worked for both male and female agency owners, and I learned a lot from both genders,” Garlow responds. “Regardless of gender, the most successful agencies I have ever worked for and currently work with are those whose owners have a passion for the industry.

“Sadly, even today over 90% of the support teams in agencies I work with are women,” she observes. “These people juggle dozens of different companies’ requirements, handle claims, and initiate communications. It’s overwhelming to see how much our agencies depend on the strength of women who serve in these roles.

“Since I began my career in 1999, I have felt that their work was appreciated by their employers. They always say, ‘We couldn’t do it without her.’

“Too many leadership positions, however, are held by men,” Garlow continues. “It hasn’t changed as much as I would like.

“I would love to see more women take chances, believe in themselves, and take the next step in their careers, because women in leadership positions have so much to contribute.”

“I’m excited when I see more women become agency owners,” she says. “Too many women, however, are in support roles when they have so much opportunity to do more. I’d love to see more women step forward and express interest in advancing to positions such as producers or agency owners.

“When women find strength to believe in themselves, they will always reach for more,” Garlow says. “The more we encourage women to take chances, the more we will see women move forward in our industry.”

What unique qualities does Garlow think women bring to leadership positions in the insurance business?

“One of the first qualities I have identified is that women are great at relationships,” she replies. “This makes all the difference in the long-term success of an agency. We always prioritize the human side of this business. We see what our clients are doing in their lives and value the opportunity to protect that.

“When it comes to prioritizing, women excel,” Garlow continues. “We’re always able to understand what needs immediate attention and what can be moved to another day. We are able to grasp the urgency of all our daily tasks: phone calls, emails, walk-in clients. The women in my life have taught me that prioritizing, putting first things first, is what creates success at the end of the day.”

Reprinted from the March 2022 issue of Rough Notes magazine with permission. Click here to read the original, unabridged version of the article. 

Elisabeth Boone

Freelance Journalist, Rough Notes

Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, is a freelance journalist based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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