Swimming in the Risk Pool
Eversole helps keep independent agents competitive
by Rosie Wolf Williams
Mary A. Eversole brought the benefit of a broad and diverse background when she was hired almost three years ago as executive director of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association in Montpelier.
Mary Eversole has a passion for genealogy, and recently took a DNA test to determine her ancestral origin. She expected the results would point to a European history, but was surprised to find she had some Greek ancestors. “My friend said, ‘Opa! We’re related!’”
Friends and family are never far from Eversole’s story, not only linking her to the past, but also, in many ways, guiding her career path. She is executive director of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association (VIAA).
When Eversole was in middle school, her single mother moved the family from their native Philadelphia to Seattle. She went on to graduate from Seattle University in 1988 with a bachelor of arts in political science.
She was offered a position on the staff of a U.S. senator for whom she had interned. It was tempting, she says, but she opted to continue in banking, where she had worked during college. “I liked it and liked the stability of it,” she says. “The late ’80s weren’t the best economic years.” She “dodged a bullet,” she adds, as the senator, Brock Adams, later had to resign “under ugly circumstances.”
In 1989, after visiting her sister in the United Kingdom, Eversole returned to Washington and worked as a waitress for a few months. A friend with Interpoint, a manufacturer of engineered industrial products, told her about a job opportunity there. She was hired.
“I became a buyer for parts that would do things like open airplane doors or power medical equipment like pacemakers. Later, I became the metals buyer and learned how things are plated with gold, and what a manual process that is. It was an interesting time.”
But in 1994, politics came knocking on Eversole’s door. “I became the executive director of the Washington State Democrats,” she says. After the elections, as a political consultant she worked on several campaigns until 1996, when a friend suggested she come to Houston to work for the city. She interviewed and was hired on the spot for a position as administrative manager for the purchasing department.
In 1998 she transferred to the mayor’s office, working on projects as varied as charitable efforts and counterterrorism. She loved the intrigue and political aspects of her work.
In 2000, a good friend in Seattle had become ill and Eversole decided it was time to move home. She interviewed for a public relations position at Safeco Insurance. “I thought it would be great fun — and because I thought I could get Seattle Mariners tickets any time I wanted them,” she says with a laugh, adding that Safeco is the naming-rights sponsor of the Mariners baseball stadium. She handled issues related to the Nisqually earthquake, credit scoring, and government affairs and consumer issues portfolios.
Another friend suggested that she consider a position at World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. “I didn’t even know what it was,” she admits.
The organization is based in Federal Way, Wash., and according to its website, is “dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”
It appealed to her. “We were with relief workers on the ground in the hardest-hit countries, particularly in Africa and Latin American countries,” Eversole says.
She started in 2002 as executive director, president’s council, working in major donor fundraising and producing events, including one that raised $1 million in a single night. She was a part of The One Campaign, a global effort in 2005 that addressed poverty issues. “I got to hang out with Bono. He is the real deal. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Eversole also focused on U.S. programs, especially the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But in 2007, United States programs were cut, and her position was eliminated. As always, she saw the silver lining in her circumstances. “Through my church I was involved in mission work in New Orleans for Katrina. I loved that beyond belief. I then did some consulting, fundraising, and public relations.”
Family members in Vermont were dealing with serious illnesses at the time, so she was able to spend time with them. “Unemployment gave me a lot of flexibility to be with the family, which was really special. It was kind of a gift.”
In 2008, Eversole landed a position at Washington Mutual (WaMu), a savings bank holding company. “I was excited because it was such an iconic company in Seattle, but then the recession and housing crisis happened. One day we were WaMu, and the next day Chase bought us, and 3,400 people lost their jobs.” Eversole was one of them — she was let go in 2009 immediately after the acquisition.
She returned to consulting. She volunteered for, and eventually began consulting with, the Chris Elliott Fund, a foundation that provides support to patients and families dealing with brain cancer. Having lost a family member to brain cancer made her work with the foundation personally rewarding.
In 2011, Eversole came back to Vermont to meet her newest baby cousin, and her uncle, John Bourland, asked her to come to work at his Colchester company, Professional Financial Associates. She jumped at the chance to be near family again. “I really enjoyed it. It is a small firm, so I did a bit of everything, but a lot of client administration and marketing.”
Less than eight months later, Bourland showed her a classified ad for the position at VIAA, saying, “Read this. It is everything you do.” It was: VIAA represents independent insurance agents, helping them to compete in the marketplace, advocating in the Legislature, and supporting their professional development goals.
VIAA has 150 agency members whose 900 employees all have member benefits.
“I think what was appealing was, this was a membership organization similar to grassroots,” says Eversole. “It was this perfect package of my skill set — everything that I needed to do. Advocacy was extremely appealing to me; communications, events, and the relational aspects of running a membership organization. It was serendipity.”
She then lived in Burlington and had never driven farther south than Exit 10 on I-89. When she arrived for her interview in Montpelier, she found a roomful of people waiting to speak to her. “I interviewed with 17 people at the same time! I left and sent my thank you letters, and then went to Seattle for Thanksgiving. I was there with my friends when I got the call extending the offer. I started right before Christmas 2011.”
John Hardy, vice president of Essex Agency Inc., a member and past president of VIAA, recalls that it was a unanimous decision to hire Eversole. “It was an exhausting search. We had had the same executive director for probably 18 years, and he had retired. The minute the board interviewed and subsequently met face-to-face with Mary, the search was over. She had all the qualifications and just won us over with her knowledge and personality. We all knew she was the right fit.”
The VIAA is located 299 feet from the Statehouse, at 47 Court St. in Montpelier. That was convenient for Eversole, because she was catapulted into the chaos of the Affordable Care Act and a potential loss of agent commissions across the board. “I was at the Statehouse quite a bit. I got us back in the market, and then Vermont Health Connect started. That was another round of broker contracts and fees and that kind of thing. That was the first two years of my work here, which was nothing about what they wanted me to do.”
She considers the negotiation of the broker fee one of the high points in her job. This year, the VIAA was able to help agents with owed commission from extended health care plans get paid — to the tune of approximately a half million dollars. With the help of a grant and funding from Vermont Mutual and Union Mutual, Eversole helped put together an ad campaign for independent agents, allowing the association to give something back to its members.
“Mary Eversole is a tremendous asset to the VIAA, and she brings great enthusiasm and energy to the organization,” says Montpelier’s Mayor John Hollar. “She has enhanced the role that agents play in the Vermont political arena.”
The association has a for-profit insurance agency that provides professional liability insurance to its members, which Eversole oversees. “We’re probably about a million dollars combined (fiscal 2013),” she says. “That is pretty steady; we build in about a 3 percent attrition rate.”
“What I love most about this job is that the members here are so imbedded in their community. A lot of them worked 18 hours a day during Hurricane Irene, and helped through fundraising or grabbing a shovel. I think it is very Vermont, but it is inherent in an independent agent. They are vested in the community where they live and work. You can’t get that from a direct writer.”
Eversole turns 50 this year. She’s following a game-style learning app called Molto Buono to learn Italian in preparation for a trip to Italy, “I hope next summer.”
She lives in Burlington’s New North End with Cara Jean, her 15-year-old smooth fox terrier. She studies her family history, and has penned a children’s storybook that was inspired by her young cousin Graham Henry Wilson. “His name sounds so presidential. We had a relative who worked for President Pierce. It’s in the cards!”