Taking Action: How an Award-Winning Agent Embraced Change and Learned to Lead

AFTF Awards, Agent Experts, Leadership, Personal Lines, Technology

This article is a repost of Rough Notes’ article about the winner of the 2021 Agent for the Future Emerging Leader Award.

What happens when a health-only agency decides to branch out into the world of P-C, with the assistance of the agency owner’s son who has a background in banking? You get the humble beginnings of the insurance career of James Castell, owner and director of sales and marketing at Castell Insurance in Sequim, Washington.

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

“Growing up, my dad was a self-employed long-term care agent, selling door to door—like the traditional five appointments a day at people’s coffee tables,” says Castell, a self-professed Insurance Jedi, according to his LinkedIn profile. “In the early- to mid-2000s, he started branching into Medicare as that product line really expanded. He and my uncle built up a good Medicare, health-only agency, but when they transitioned from a small home office to a Main Street office, they started having a lot of walk-ins for home and auto. That’s when he reached out to me.”

Castell, who studied economics at the University of Washington, had recently been appointed a Seattle-area branch manager with Bank of America. He and his new wife decided it was a good time for a career transition.

“We decided to forge into the property and casualty realm with absolutely no experience, and I quit my job at the end of 2011,” Castell recalls.

Learning to lead

Castell’s transition to the insurance world flowed smoothly, thanks to the guidance and example of a few friends and mentors. Castell mentions his father, Phil Castell along with Gabe Oh, principal of Western Pacific Insurance Group in Mill, Creek, Washington; and Claudia McClain, president of McClain Insurance Services in Everett, Washington, as being pivotal in helping him learn about the industry and about how to lead an agency.

“When you’re a producer, it’s about the relationship with your customers, but when you go into agency ownership, it’s about the relationship with your team members—taking stock of what’s going on with their lives and valuing them,” he continues. “I think Claudia was a trendsetter in that.

“That’s what employees want now more than anything: a leader who inspires trust and believes in them. It’s not pounding numbers and pencil pushing; it’s developing careers with people.”

With mentors inspiring him along the way, what advice does Castell have for new industry professionals?

“Relationships matter; take the time to talk to and get to know your clients; I always joke that we’re not quote monkeys,” he says.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day. I had a lot of experience with financial products and banking, but it took me maybe five years to really feel proficient in insurance. Did I know stuff in year one? Yeah. But the confidence to really talk with clients, that took a while to build. I think that far too often people beat themselves up over not being good immediately. Be patient.”

Family life

While Castell’s agency is involved with its local Big “I” chapter, the firm’s remote location on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington hinders its participation with industry-related events.

Trying to stick to virtual events during the pandemic is important to Castell, because nothing’s more important to him than his family—his wife, Sarah, and two boys, ages seven and eight.

“We are both working and juggling the kids between school, packing lunches, and sports; it’s a busy, fun, robust life with lots of activity and two high-energy kids,” he says.

Outside of work, the family loves camping. Last summer, they took advantage of remote work during the pandemic to embark on a two-month road trip in a renovated motorhome.

“I have a great team,” Castell says. “They took a lot off my plate; I think it was them giving back to me what I try to give them on a daily basis—flexibility. I was very fortunate to have anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours of work a day, some days basically none. It was amazing.”

Castell filmed lots of video during his trip and is planning to make a five-to-10-minute video for each stop his family made on their journey. His usage of videos for work, he believes, is one of the key areas that came to the attention of Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance, which led to his being named the 2021 Agent for the Future Emerging Leader award winner.

Award winner

Castell was in “total shock” after receiving the news, especially after winning one of the competition’s regional awards in 2020.

“When I won the award, it was shocking, humbling, and really cool for my team,” Castell says. “As much as leaders come up with the ideas, it’s really about having a team that adopts the vision. As much as it says my name, to me it’s an agency team award; I know how hard my team worked when I was away.”

Being a remote agency, the transition to becoming an “agency for the future” began at Castell Insurance about three years prior.

“We had a snowstorm that kept us out of our office for about a week,” Castell says. “We couldn’t check voicemails and most people couldn’t check their email. We had digital technology, but we were rendered useless.

That experience prompted the agency to update their technology to be able to work remotely. Adopting more technology helped grow the agency by about 20%, it also helped the agency win a 2020 Agent for the Future regional award.

“We’re a small family-run agency that sees good ideas and tries them,” Castell says.

“I think a lot of people go to conferences and write stuff in notebooks, but they never actually take action; they’re fearful to hit launch and to fail. I think we’ve just never been scared to fail.

The agency now does a lot of video marketing, but Castell says it took years of practice to get to where they are now.

“You got to start from the ground up,” he says. But by starting at ground level, there’s plenty of opportunity to be looking upward. “Keep watching the skies.”

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

Rough Notes Christopher W. Cook

Christopher W. Cook

Editor/Writer, Rough Notes

Christopher Cook is an editor and writer for Rough Notes magazine.

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