By Stephen Smoot
Under a perfect August sky last Wednesday in Franklin, Jim and Sheila Brown thanked their friends for their patronage as all celebrated the State Farm agency’s century of service.
“I’m just blessed,” Jim said as he tended a gas grill loaded with hot dogs for his guests. He went on to say that “These aren’t just customers. They are friends. I want them to know I really appreciate their business.”
His family has worked in and run the agency for generations, starting with his grandfather’s employment in 1937. Jim took over the agency in 1978, bringing along a key partner in his wife Sheila, whom he calls his “right hand.”
Before making insurance a family affair, Jim studied broadcast journalism at West Virginia University, leading to a radio job in Morgantown. As Jim remembered, “a beautiful young lady called one night.” Soon after, the couple married and a year later Jim returned to Franklin. He first worked for a construction company in Bath County, Virginia, before settling in at the State Farm Agency in Franklin.
Jim’s favorite memory from his years in business comes from providing vital customer service to one of those who needed it the most. He recalled that one of his customers “had a disability policy when he moved here and the thing ran out. We did some investigating. He was hurt in Maryland, and since then he got cancer.”
Jim went on to say that “State Farm said that the cancer was a new condition and he did not lose his benefits.” He remembered that the happy resolution was a “very emotional time.”
He also remembered times of providing personal service. At times, State Farm customers from out of town would get into accidents in the area. For years, there were no rentals available. When needed, Jim would personally drive customers home, sometimes to as far away as Richmond, Virginia.
“Lots of changes have taken place,” Jim remembered, “We went from using microfiche and microfilm to now when everything is computerized. You can run this whole office from an iPhone now.”
Regardless of changes in technology, society, or anything else, Sheila says that the “main thing is good relationships with policyholders, treating them like family.”
The approach described by Sheila does not only go one way. As Jim grilled hot dogs and Sheila hosted, customers greeted the Browns and each other as if at a family barbeque.
“My husband and I moved here from Idaho and transferred insurance here in 1997,” remembers Darlene Bokelman, “All of the girls and Jim are very nice. When we have a question, they’ll look it up and get back. They are very professional and polite.”
Linda Beachler agrees, saying that “We’ve always been with him and we’ve always had good service.”
Dedication to customers does not stop with the work of the owners. Susan Nelson “has been with me since I started,” and Deborah Gillespie since January of 1981. For them, service does not stop at the office door. Jim recalls that they “answer questions at the grocery store, the beautician,” and elsewhere.
Even the building that houses the agency stands as a testament to community and tradition. It was built in 1907. Jim remembers his grandfather renting it in the 1950s. In 2001, the agency made the historic house its home.
“This is special to me,” Jim explains, “There are three types of workers. The first has a job and he hates it. The second has a job and kind of likes it. The third kind understand that the Lord put them in a special job right for them and they know it.”