Not Just Horsing Around

Independent in life as well as profession

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

affiliated_lead0915Stefanie Pigeon is president of Affiliated Associates in Essex, an independent insurance agency she launched in 2000 to better serve her clients. Rosco, a Havanese puppy, recently joined the office.

Stefanie Pigeon’s foray into the insurance industry happened on a lark. As a recent University of Vermont graduate informed by her mother that her eligibility for health insurance coverage would soon expire, Pigeon had scheduled a meeting with a couple of Mutual of Omaha representatives.

“These two guys came to my apartment in Waterbury, signed me up for health insurance, and part of the application said, ‘What are you doing for work?’ I laughed and said, ‘If you have a job for me, I’ll take it, because believe it or not, I just came from a vacuum cleaner sales interview I unknowingly agreed to.”

To her surprise, a company recruiter called, and she was hired.

Pigeon was thrilled to have the opportunity. It was 1995, and she had recently changed her mind about seeking employment in a warmer climate, deciding instead to stay in Vermont.

“I have my business degree in international management,” she says. “I wanted to be an interpreter, to see the world, but decided it would be better to have money for travel and not be stuck having to do it on a business trip.” Timing was bad, though. Digital Equipment Corp. had just laid off a lot of employees with advanced degrees “and I just had a bachelor’s degree.”

Pigeon grew up in Westford, an almost-native Vermonter. “My father is a Vermonter and my mother moved here when she was younger. She grew up in Texas, my dad went into flight school in Houston, and just outside of Houston, I was born. Three to four months later, we were back in Vermont.”

During Pigeon’s childhood, her parents were “along the lines of self-employed,” she says. Her father was in the Air National Guard; they had a beef cattle farm, and at one time a small dairy farm; ran a construction business for a while, and a restaurant later on. “My mother was also working at a small store in town — was a dogcatcher for a while.”

Her father eventually joined the Air Force full time and her mother worked full time at the post office. Says Pigeon, “She ended up working for me for about five years, and retired about two years ago.”

Making Vermont a strong draw was the fact that, after her parents separated during her sophomore year at Essex High School, Pigeon and her younger brother, Justin, had grown quite close. “Vermont also happened to have the love of my life — a horse,” she says.

That’s probably an understatement. The family owned six horses at the time, and Pigeon, who rode clinging to her mother’s back until age 4 when she received a pony of her own, was still very involved in 4-H (a connection she continues to this day).

“Stefanie was a member in my 4-H club at 12,” says Mary Fay, a longtime friend and volunteer 4-H leader for 45 years who also works at the UVM Extension 4-H office. “I gave her riding lessons and chaperoned her on various 4-H events. She’s wonderful.”

Pigeon has been secretary of the Vermont 4-H Foundation for over 10 years, and judging horse shows for about 20.

Her dedication to horses matches her dedication to insurance. “My family thought I was crazy,” she says, “but I am very thankful I ended up following through with my interviews with Mutual of Omaha.”

During the three years she was with Mutual of Omaha, she took part in the company’s “fantastic training. I worked with Gary Blake, one of the guys who came to my apartment. He’s still with the company.”

She earned her license for selling mutual funds and investment-like products, “but they had only one family fund at that time, and I thought I needed to expand the offerings.” After interviewing with several companies, she accepted a sales position with New York Life, which had multiple securities offerings.”

Pigeon was also working with independent agents on health and disability insurance plans for small businesses, which appealed to her. In May of 2000, she decided to become completely independent.

She chose the name Affiliated Advisors for her company, but had to deep-six the word “advisors” because SEC compliance restricts that word to investment activity. Affiliated Associates was born, and a peripatetic journey was launched.

Working from her home on Chapin Road in Essex, Pigeon (with the help of a part-time assistant) began to grow a mini agency. Involvement in group benefits and health care began to increase, along with the life and disability insurance business.

In 2003, she moved the office to a duplex on Pearl Street in Essex Junction she had bought as an investment. Two years later, accepting an offer of a working partnership with the Vermont Agency of National Life, she moved to the company’s Colchester office in Highpoint Center and, later, to Water Tower Hill. Until one day in 2009, says Pigeon, “when I looked at my office and said, ‘Who wants to move back to the house where you can open the windows?’”

The office and its eight employees returned to Chapin Road in March 2009, where they stayed until 2013 when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was on the horizon. “I thought, ‘We’d better get ourselves into a position where people can come and work with us.’”

Thus, the move to Carmichael Street in Essex, next door to Joyce’s Noodle House. “Joyce was wonderful — let me use her space. At one point, we had 30 business owners coming to learn.” Currently, the agency has six full-time employees and four subcontractors.

About eight years ago, Pigeon launched Healthy Dollars, a third-party administrator that handles accounts for health reimbursement, flexible savings, health savings, and dependent care.

“She lives and breathes this stuff,” says Jeff Williams, one of the owners and vice president of Spafford & Sons Water Wells in Jericho and Sudbury. “She helped us find a package we were looking for — we run a high-deductible plan, and she set us up with Healthy Dollars accounts to help defray some of the expenses. She also set us up with a whole company disability and life insurance program.”

“She and her crew know this stuff,” says attorney Joseph Obuchowski, a fellow Rotarian for 10 years and a client for about four. “I’m happy to sing her praises.”

Education is a key component of Pigeon’s business, as are partner relationships she’s developed with other independent agencies. “It allows me to pick and choose personalities,” she says. “For example, I have a gentleman working on workers’ comp for business owners this month, but if I think a personality might not jibe, I’ve got others that might work.”

She says someone once asked her, “‘What makes your agency different than if I go to work with a large insurance company?’ My response was, ‘The difference in working with our organization is you start, off the ground, by being independent; you aren’t held down by quotas or just one product line or one carrier.’”

The difficulty, she acknowledges, is that her pockets aren’t nearly as deep for funding the education part as those of a large corporation. “It was the education I had from Mutual of Omaha that really got me into this industry. But every Monday afternoon we have a real-life education of what’s going on in our industry. Some weeks a person in our office will give a presentation, so we’re always learning.”

It’s a good thing. Change has become a constant. Most applications are now transferred digitally, creating a lot more server-based support. “Finding a small brokerage database has been a huge stressor for us. I would love to create it and sell it. We’re in the market for that.”

Social media networking has created informed consumers who are much savvier nowadays. And compliance “is forever changing,” she says. Because of it, she’s still hesitant about obtaining her registered advisor license.

Then there’s the ACA, “a huge change for us. We are one of the only states in the nation that don’t allow you to shop directly with carriers,” she says. “My colleagues who work in Florida, their world hasn’t changed as much. They’re still selling medical insurance, but we can’t sell it as we used to. We have to bill for our service just as a lawyer or accountant would.

“All 2014,” she says, “we were getting phone calls for advice from navigators who were helping people get into the Vermont Exchange, but they weren’t licensed insurance people. At the end of the conversation, I would laugh and say, ‘Now may I send a bill to the governor?’

“I think the concept of exchanges is great,” she continues, “but wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could get on an exchange and really shop? What if I had a national exchange and could buy for my family? We’d probably have more insured people and there might be less need for subsidy.”

For stress relief, Pigeon has followed her yen for travel, from Brazil and Chile — where she took her mother on the condition that she could get all of the items she needed in a backpack for three weeks, “and she did it!” — to Australia and nearly every country in Europe. She’s considering a trip to Malaysia to see a cousin teaching music there.

A longtime member of Rotary, Pigeon is a past president and current foundation chair for Burlington Sunrise Rotary. And she is one of the founding members of Campaign for Vermont. She also enjoys gardening and loves to cook.

She’s never married — “I’m an extremely independent woman,” she says — but lives in Essex with “a gentleman I’ve been with for seven years.” He is a fellow horse-lover.

Horses still hold that special place in her heart. She’s looking forward to October, when her new Georgian Grande — a cross between a Friesian and an American Saddlebred — will be old enough to leave its mother. •