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Originally published in Business People-Vermont in 2003.

He's Got You Covered

Leon Bessette left the security of big business in 1980 to help others find security

by Rosalyn Graham

For most of us, the world of insurance is a maze through which we tread cautiously, grasping the hand of a person who knows the way. For Leon Bessette, the world of insurance is a continuously exciting and challenging territory to be explored, conquered and translated on behalf of the people who come to him for advice. After 35 years in the business, he remains so excited about what he does that he nearly jumps out of his chair as he demystifies the casualty insurance business that is the focus of his company, Bessette Insurance Services Inc.

In 1980, Leon Bessette (right) left John Hancock Insurance Co. to return to his native Vermont and start his own insurance agency "from scratch: no debt, no money, no job." Now he and his son, Chris, run Bessette Insurance Services from their Essex Towne Marketplace offices in Essex Junction.

"There are three parts to the insurance business," Bessette says, "the insurance company, us and the client. It's a partnership: We make sure you get to the right company that's going to take care of you in the way that's best for you, you pay your premium, and the insurance company takes care of you."

Like any three-legged stool, the partnership depends on each part to make it stand up. "If the client lies to us and the company, it's not a good partnership," Bessette says.

"If they look at us as if we are an adversary, if we're not looked on as a partner to help you to protect your belongings, you should go to somebody you trust. If we take care of the insurance company, protect them from the fraud, then the honest people will pay very low premiums." It is a philosophy Bessette had in mind back in 1980 when he set up his own company and included "service" in his company name: Bessette Insurance Service. "I believed that was what really counted," he says. Bessette describes helping people and saving them money as his favorite part of the business. He tells a story of a recent experience with a woman who came into his Essex Marketplace office. She had had a cancer operation, and her insurance agency had put her in what is called "substandard insurance" with high rates for people who are a poor risk. "She had a disability of sorts," Bessette says, "but I put her with a standard carrier, a preferred-risk carrier, and dropped her rates in half." "I love to kid people, so when they come in here and tell me what they are paying, I say, 'There, that'll teach you. You should have been dealing with us in the first place.'" We may save them major money and we can say Merry Christmas right in July. That's fun. That's what I really enjoy doing."

Bessette's son, Chris, who was heading for a career as a schoolteacher when he saw the light and joined his father in the insurance business right out of college, says his favorite part of the business is similar, but with a twist. "I like helping people and using the companies we carry and our knowledge to beat another agent who didn't do their job. It drives me nuts. It's my competitive nature." Bessette and Chris get a thrill out of finding answers to the more obscure insurance questions that are posed, such as a client's recent request for health insurance for her dogs. "It's refreshing after you do a lot of homes, autos, businesses," Chris says. "It's nice to handle something a little different." They found pet health insurance available through the dogs' vet.

Shirley Priest has been with Bessette Insurance Services seven years, longer than anyone else in the five-person office. As an agent, she handles her own portion of the agency's $4.4 million book of business.

Helping can take other forms, too. Shane Semprebon, CFO of Homebound Mortgage, remembers that when Homebound started five years ago, it moved into the office next to Bessette Insurance Services. "We were a first-time business and we ran into lots of first-time problems," he recalls. "They were such helpful neighbors. They let us use their tools, their resources. They really went out of their way."

When Homebound moved away after two years, it lost the neighbor ties, but the feelings of respect remained, and when Homebound's original insurance coverage was due for renewal, Semprebon called the Bessettes for a quote. "Not only do they have great service, but the price was right, and they were very competent in handling our very complicated insurance," Semprebon says. Sometimes, to clients and potential clients, they must deliver hard messages, Bessette says. "I like straight-shooters and I am a straighter shooter. People never have to guess where I'm coming from."

Insurance companies are getting tougher on people who increase their riskiness by owning dogs that bite, or having a trampoline in the back yard or an oil tank buried under the lawn. "Companies feel everybody shouldn't pick up the tab for the few, so we have to tell them 'You're going to have a problem and you're going to lose your insurance.'" Father and son share more than a love of the insurance business, early golf games at Vermont National (close to Bessette's new condo) and casual clothes in the office (based on Bessette's early years in the world of three-piece suits and a belief that such garb intimidates clients). They also share a belief that doing a good turn for a competing insurance agency can be part of the good business philosophy, benefiting the client and the industry.

"We know that Co-op, for example, is extremely good with horses and gentleman farms, so when we have a potential customer with the need for that kind of insurance, I'll pick up the phone and call Allen Ashe at Co-op, because he'll be able to do a better job for the client. That company is designed to take care of those people," Bessette says. "When I first did that, he [Chris] thought I was nuts, but you do what's best for the customer." It works the other way, too. Competitors might say to a client, "You've gone beyond our capabilities to help you. I'm going to refer you to Chris Bessette at Bessette Insurance." Chris says, "It's a very nice compliment. We must be doing something right."

The "something right" adds up to what is known in the insurance biz as a "book of business" of over $4 million shared among Bessette, Chris and Shirley Priest, the other agent in their office. Personal lines make up 75 percent of that total, and commercial is 25 percent. When Bessette started the business, he offered all the insurances and had a license to sell securities and mutual funds. When Chris was in high school, Bessette was running his business from a basement office, writing life and health and casualty insurance.

The business grew slowly. Bessette went into partnership with Ernie Ross in South Burlington, forming Bessette & Ross, and the partners worked together until 1987, when Bessette decided to focus on insurance as Ross became involved in other endeavors such as real estate. "I thought, 'I'm an insurance man,' and took my portion of the business and went to a new office at 11 Pearl St. in Essex Junction."

At that time the business was handling $400,000 in insurance each year. Within six years that total went to $4.4 million. Chris joined the business in 1989, and Bessette moved to Essex Towne Marketplace in 1996. For 12 years, Bessette's daughter, Kimberley, was also part of the family business. Bessette and Chris joke that Kimberley "got tired of people screaming at her," and moved to Park City, Utah, with her husband, Jack, and is now working in mortgages. "She's very talented," they agree, "but she got burned out."

Bessette says the reason he has never burned out is because he has found new directions to explore within the insurance business throughout his career. Most recently, "playing with computers" is adding to the fun for Bessette, who handles all the accounting, sets up all the loans and manages the money, as well as handling his own $1.5 million book of business. Until recently, Bessette came in Saturday and Sunday mornings at 5:30 to get in a few hours of work before weekend commitments intruded. Now, the magic of computer networking allows him to do the weekend work at home. Chris takes credit for making his father aware of the potential of networking. "I got him hooked," Chris says. "I was sick at home and I brought my work home, worked off my work station hooked up to my server, did all my work and had it ready for Dad to take them in to the office to be mailed out for me."

Not that Bessette has been a slouch about finding ways to integrate computers into the business. Faced with the complexity of the insurance business, with 34 types of insurance and thousands of clients and dozens of companies with whom they do business, Bessette designed a database format that he says answers 99.9 percent of the questions they need to ask. "We can use my data base to search 9,000 customers and it takes about half a second," he says.

His system compares favorably with systems designed by some of the biggest companies and gives the Bessettes up-to-the-minute information on accounting, monthly reports and what Bessette refers to as "stuff like that to know where we're at and where we're going."

Everyone in the five-person office plays an important role in the tightly knit company. Shirley Priest has been with the Bessettes the longest: seven years. She came from John Hancock when the company left Vermont. At first, she came in for three days a week doing the clerical work she had done at Hancock, then decided to earn her license and is now a successful agent with her own book of business. Office manager Jessica Terrien came to the agency from high school and handles many of the details of customer service such as handling claims and making changes to policies for vehicles and mortgages. Melissa Charron came to the company as the front desk person who also looked after filing. She began to learn about the insurance business and is studying for her license. "For a while, she will do both jobs," Bessette says, "and when the right time comes, I'll hire somebody to take over the office work and funnel accounts to her." That "learn the business from the beginning" philosophy fits with Bessette's own experience.

Bessette's French Canadian father died six weeks before he was born in St. Albans. When Bessette was 10, his mother, who was English Canadian, took the family to New Jersey to find work to support her children. After high school, Bessette joined the Air Force, where luck shone on him. "I requested Vietnam, but the military put me in nuclear weapons and there were no nuclear weapons in Vietnam." After two tours, Bessette left the service and went to visit his sister in Lancaster, Pa. "For some crazy reason, I stayed there and went to work for the Hamilton Watch Company," he remembers.

Five years later, Bessette was married, working two jobs and going to school. An insurance man who came to their home said to Bessette's wife, Pat, "I never see your husband." She explained, "He's working all the time." When the agent said, "You know, we're looking for agents," he really started something. Bessette put on his one suit and went for an interview, which, he says, he failed; but he persisted and eventually he was hired.

Personal lines make up 75 percent of Leon Bessette's business; commercial represents 25 percent. Melissa Charron (left) is a customer service representative studying for her license. Jessica Terrien is office manager.

After two years as an agent for John Hancock in Lancaster, he was made staff manager and promoted to Somerville, N.J., where he stayed until May 1974 when John Hancock consolidated from 300 agencies to 250, leaving a glut of management personnel. "I knew there was no reason sitting there beating myself to death," says Bessette, so I came back to Vermont."

They were here a while, then went to southern California, where, briefly, Bessette was a staff manager for John Hancock, followed by an equally brief period back in Lancaster, Pa., before deciding Vermont was where they truly wanted to be. As he recalls, "At age 37, I started my own business from scratch: no debt, no money, no job."

Hindsight's being 20/20, Bessette seems to have made a good decision. Besides the satisfaction of seeing his son following in his footsteps and having a comfortable and respected business, Bessette has had the recognition of A.M. Best Co., America's oldest and most widely recognized insurance rating and information source, which has ranked Bessette Insurance Services Inc in the top 30 of insurance agencies in the country.

Originally published in September 2003 Business People-Vermont

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