All in the Family

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

photoHelping to maintain a solid community is where it’s at for Jon Jamieson

Jon Jamieson, the owner and principal of Jamieson Insurance Agency in Waitsfield, stands in the perennial garden he planted at the front of his company’s headquarters on Vermont 100. An avid sportsman — he skis, fishes, hikes and bikes — he has passed on to his daughter the love for gardening he learned from his mother.

Jon Jamieson’s roots run deep in the Mad River Valley — as deep as 1798, when his ancestors settled the town of Waitsfield.

That’s not the only reason, though, that residents of central Vermont have little difficulty recognizing the name of his company, Jamieson Insurance. For almost 15 years, a series of laugh-out-loud funny, even award-winning radio and television commercials airing on WDEV radio and on cable television, have kept the name of “Little Dickie Jamieson” in the public eye.

“Jamieson Insurance as an entity was created in 1977,” says Jamieson, “but we have records going back to 1865 of family members in the insurance business.”

The founder of the property and casualty agency, Jamieson’s father, Dick, aka “Little Dickie,” retired in 2004, having sold the business to his son in 2003; but the Jamieson banner — and the funny commercials — continue to keep that high awareness in people’s minds, although nowadays, with newer generations.

photoAccording to Jon Jamieson, Cindy Carlson, operations manager and a personal lines agent with 30 years’ experience in the business, is the agency’s key person who “keeps me out of trouble.”

Jamieson laughs as he is asked if he ever considered other careers. “I don’t think anybody says that! It’s a wonderful career that allows me to live in an absolutely gorgeous place that many, many people would just dream about. I get to work with a lot of super people, get to be a real solid part of the community. It’s a great living.”

Jamieson did not leap into the family business right out of school, however. After high school, he attended the University of Colorado expecting to study biology, but eventually switching to history. “I graduated in 1990,” he says, “which was in the midst of a pretty nasty recession, if you remember, and I was really not sure what I wanted to do.”

Definitely not wanting to teach, which, he says, is the “automatic thought with a history degree,” Jamieson, an avid outdoorsman, headed to the West Coast, where he found work in sales with manufacturers of sea kayaking equipment, “just about the time when sea kayaking was getting big,” he says.

He spent a year in Portland, Ore., another year in Seattle, and in 1992, moved back to Vermont to help his father with a branch office of the agency in Richmond. He jumped in with both feet.

Dick had opened the Richmond office about six months before his son returned, hiring a man with experience in the life insurance business who wanted to switch over to property and casualty. “That’s a very, very tough switch,” says Jamieson, “because the two industries are very different — very little in common in sales methods or anything else. He lasted about six months, and that’s when I came in.”

Jamieson studied, he says, sat for his license examination, “and then Dad threw the phone book at me and said, ‘Start calling people.’”

photoAnn Eardensohn (left), senior commercial account specialist, is a 20-year veteran and the company’s longest employee; Kristie Wimble, a commercial account specialist, is the newest staffer.

He ran the Richmond office until 2000, when he left the firm to work for Progressive Insurance Co. as a territory sales manager. For three years, he was in charge of 363 agencies and their sales.

“I enjoyed it and learned an immense amount about both the company and agency side of insurance,” he says. “It was a little like getting an MBA in agency management, because I was pretty tight with the owners of the agencies and learned a lot from those people. It was a great way to segue into owning an agency.”

When Jamieson took over the agency, it was running quite well. Some staffing changes and reassigned duties have been made, he says, including some servicing protocols, which have strengthened the staff. As CEO and principal person, he is a bit more involved in the day-to-day affairs of the office than his father was, “which is only to be expected. He was in the business 30 years and doing things the way he thought best.”

While some change has occurred inside the office, customers saw little to complain about. Peter Mumford, the owner of Perfection Motor Sports and Trailer Sales in Richmond, became a customer in 1998, when he started his business. He and Jamieson have become friends.

“I was looking for an insurance carrier for my business, and I dealt with Jon’s father first, and then Jon,” Mumford says. “Between my business and my rental properties, my home and my car, these guys do it all. They do such a good job taking care of me as a customer, there’s no hassles on my side. I wish there were more people in business that would make it as easy as they do.”

Jamieson says competitors and friends in the business often raise their eyebrows at how many people he has on the payroll, “but I believe it’s very important to have somebody on the other end of the phone when somebody calls.”

photoWithout exception, every employee of Jamieson Insurance is a licensed agent. Marta Richardson works in the Richmond office.

The agency has 10 employees including Jamieson — three in Richmond and seven in Waitsfield. Without exception, every employee is a licensed agent, even the woman at the front desk. “That way, they can all answer questions and give advice without having to put people on hold,” says Jamieson.

More than once, he mentions Cindy Carlson, a personal lines agent and operations manager, who has 30 years’ experience in the business. “Cindy is just my right-hand person,” says Jamieson. “It’s very difficult to put a label on her. She does all my in-house accounting, staff management — she manages me — just does a great job.”

Carlson was hired by Dick when Jamieson was with Progressive, says Jamieson, who adds, “My father and I do have different styles, and she’s made a wonderful transition.”

Jamieson laughs when asked to describe a typical day. “Well, that’s one of the neatest things about the job,” he says. “You never know.

“We are an agency that caters to mostly personal insurance and small business insurance, so we typically deal with people adding or deleting vehicles, buying and selling homes, adding new drivers, deleting them when they’re grown up. We see divorces and marriages; we see people going into businesses and getting out of businesses; we see people starting businesses — that’s my specialty.”

He uses the analogy of a three-legged stool to describe what a business needs for support. “I think of us right along with the CPA and the lawyer — insurance is the third leg of that stool, and I try to play that advisory role for people in different life situations or business changes.”

The agency has two specialties: nonprofits and specialty food processors. “We got into both by mistake,” he says, only half kidding. He is helping the nonprofits through a program run out of California by a risk-retention group, “meaning in reality the nonprofits are banding together and self-insuring. As for food processing, we have a company that happens to like them, and we are members of the Vermont Specialty Food Association. We got into it through a client that moved to Vermont and started salsa companies and salad dressing companies and cereal companies.”

Besides these two areas, Jamieson continues, the agency has encountered some “very bizarre risks. We insured a nuclear pharmacy at one time, and we’ve insured companies that did so much work for the government they couldn’t tell us what they did.”

The agency’s expansion years ago to Richmond paid off in a personal way for Jamieson. It’s where he met Amy Dwire, the daughter of a couple who shared a driveway with his office/apartment there. They married and now have two daughters, Isabel, 7, and Anna, 4.

Jamieson spends as much time as possible with his family. “I’m the only insurance agent in America that doesn’t play golf,” he says with a laugh. “I fill that up with biking and fishing and hiking and doing stuff with my kids. I also have a little sailboat out of North Hero, where my parents have a place.”

He’s an avid skier — “downhill, cross-country, backcountry, snowboard, anything on snow. My mom was a ski instructor for 15 years at Mad River.”

Amy is no slouch when it comes to sports. Next month, he says proudly, she will be inducted into the University of Vermont Athletic Hall of Fame for her performance in track, for which she still holds a record, and field hockey.

The commitment to the family tradition of silly commercials continues; Jamieson and 7-year-old Isabel have made a recent one for the radio with the folks at Shadow Productions in Burlington.

He also continues to stay committed to his community. “I have some pretty strong ties from a historical perspective,” he says, “but also on a school board, as member of a local church, Rotary Club member, the Board of Civil Authority, I belong to the Chamber of Commerce in Waitsfield and the Richmond Business Association, I’m on the board of corporators of Northfield Savings Bank, and on a committee of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association. “We put five figures in cash donations alone back into the community,” he says, “and that doesn’t count person-hours.”

“I was destined to live in a small town,” he says. “I tried living in cities, and they’re great, but I’m a small-town person, and insurance is a wonderful career for someone who gets small towns, and it’s the best place in the country to raise your kids.” •