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Peter K. Thornton, CIC, winner of the first PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year award.

Encouraging young agents

Newly created PIA National/Rough Notes award spotlights outstanding young agents

By Phil Zinkewicz

“We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.”

—Luciano de Crescenzo
Actor, Photographer,
Writer, Philosopher

That telling observation reflects a phenomenon that has been taking place in the insurance industry in recent years, particularly with younger independent agents entering the business.

In recent years, agent associations have begun to realize two key facts: (1) if older agents are to perpetuate their businesses, they need to attract younger, talented people; and (2) if younger people in the business are to succeed, they must network with the more seasoned veterans. Most important, senior agents must recognize the talents that young agents already possess.

In that vein, earlier this year the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA National) and The Rough Notes Company (publisher of Rough Notes magazine) jointly created the PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year Award to recognize outstanding achievement by an individual under age 40.

Ray L. Peretti, President of PIA National, presents the first PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year Award to Peter Thornton.

“Encouraging young people to consider a career in the independent insurance agency system must be a top priority for all of us,” says PIA National President Ray L. Peretti, himself an agency owner. “We are particularly proud to partner with The Rough Notes Company in this important effort.”

Walter J. Gdowski, president and CEO of The Rough Notes Company, concurs: “We are pleased to join the PIA in recognizing the outstanding young insurance professionals who are making our industry their career choice.”

The inaugural PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year award was presented last month in conjunction with the 2006 PIA Federal Legislative Summit. The award went to Peter Thornton of the Thornton Agency in Parsippany, New Jersey.

In presenting the award to Thornton, Peretti said: “Encouraging young people to consider a career in the independent agency system must be a top priority for all of us. Perpetuation of our agencies and of our industry depends on attracting talented people and giving them the recognition they deserve.”

While this award was a joint effort on the part of PIA leaders, Lewis L. Wilson, former PIA national director, New York, was really the driving force behind its creation. In the September 2005 issue of the PIA publication PIAConnection, Wilson wrote: “In the agency system, there is one thing almost everyone believes: We need to do more to attract young people into our industry. Those of us who have spent many years as independent insurance agents might like to think that we will be around forever. But we know better. As business owners, we know that no enterprise can achieve long-term success without attracting a steady stream of new talent that will one day be in charge.”

Continued Wilson: “In 2002, this issue was discussed during a CEO Conference hosted by PIA of New York, the New York Insurance Association and the New York Young Insurance Professionals (NY-YIP). What came out of those discussions was that we, as an industry, have to attract college-aged men and women who want to learn about all that the industry has to offer. We must develop more insurance-based programs for these students to test the waters in order to ensure that their entrance into the industry will be long term, and not serve as a résumé builder. We need to reach out to young people before they make their career choices.”

Wilson noted that, in several states, PIA associations have sponsored organizations to encourage the young professionals who already work in the industry and attract others to join the industry. He mentioned in particular the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut Young Insurance Professionals associations, which, he said, are “thriving groups composed of dedicated young insurance people who gather to network, enable education, engage in charitable works and have fun.” He said there are similar YIP organizations, councils or committees in Virginia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and other PIA affiliates.

As strong as these associations are, however, Wilson’s dream was the establishment of a national award. “For years, I have been working hard to help our Young Insurance Professionals gain the recognition they deserve by our national association. That’s why I am pleased that our national association has inaugurated the PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year Award,” said Wilson.

Peter works with his father John Thornton, who founded the agency in 1976.

The criteria for the award are simple. The PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year must be nominated by a PIA member or a PIA state or regional affiliate association. To be eligible, the nominee must be an employee, owner or principal of a PIA member agency and must be under the age of 40. On the qualification form, questions are asked about the nominee’s professional experience, education, previous awards, insurance industry involvement and community involvement, among other things.

This year’s award recipient, Peter Thornton, fills the bill on all accounts. His credits include receiving the New Jersey Young Insurance Professional Director of the Year award in 2000 and YIP of the year in 2005. He has been vice president, president-elect and president of the New Jersey PIA. He has also been a board member of the New Jersey PIA since 1999. As president of the New Jersey PIA, Thornton oversaw many membership initiatives. During his term, 26 new members joined the association. Thornton has hosted NJYIP’s Leadership Development Series and was the initiator of the signature Viewpoints Education Sessions (interactive seminars). He has been active in public, charitable, business, civic, community and religious affairs. He has long been associated with community outreach efforts for causes such as Special Olympics New Jersey, and Fox Chase Cancer Center and Larry’s Legacy Fund, a new scholarship program for reformed juvenile probation candidates.

Thornton was born in Whippany, New Jersey, and he has lived most of his life in the Garden State. He attended Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1988. After graduation, he worked as a retail stockbroker and then on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He joined Sentry Insurance and then went to work for his father’s firm, The Thornton Agency, which John Thornton established in 1976. Thornton’s grandmother, Astrid Stonig, age 96, also works for the agency. “At the time I joined the agency, my only experience with insurance was paying for my auto policy,” says Thornton. “I learned the business on the job.”

Thornton says the agency writes exclusively property and casualty business, mostly on a package basis, with 60% of its volume in commercial lines. “Package business gives us the opportunity to show off our services. Our retention rate is very high,” he says.

Thornton’s hobbies include fishing, woodworking and “anything I can do with my kids.” He is also in the process of renovating his home.

Peter is assisted by Kathy Gregory and grandmother Astrid Stonig.

His pride in being the first recipient of the PIA National Young Insurance Professional of the Year award is matched by his admiration for the PIA National’s efforts to honor young people in the business. “I am 39 and I am still considered a young professional,” he muses. “I hope this award shines a spotlight on young people and the need for new talent in the business because there is definitely a shortage of young talent in the industry. I look forward to seeing how PIA can use this award to help attract young talent that is coming out of high schools and colleges, to help them to see that the insurance industry can be tremendously interesting as a career and also very lucrative. We should show them that insurance reaches into every other industry in the world. A young person can choose to specialize in any area like music, sports, aviation or anything that appeals to him or her.”

Thornton also believes that the independent agent is at the very heart of the property and casualty insurance business. “Insurance is not simple; it is a very complex legal contract. Most people don’t realize the value or importance of proper insurance. Independent agents try to share with their clients the importance of having enough of the right kinds of insurance. We spend time to examine the specific needs of our clients. Each one is unique, and so should be their insurance program.

“I don’t believe insurance should be purchased online. The broad strokes are somewhat easy and obvious, but most often the success or failure of a policy for a client lies in the details.

“I would also like to see the insurance industry establish a better relationship with the public. We need desperately to elevate our image. People read about claims that are not covered or the unscrupulous activities of a few that tarnish the image of agents as a whole. But, in New York the Freedom Tower is going up because insurance was there. New Orleans is being rebuilt, in large part due to insurance money.”

Concludes Thornton: “My participation in the New Jersey YIP set me on the track to receive this award. Support from the PIA has been great, and the results are contagious. I would like to see more people pick up that ball and participate in association activities. Whether they are 18 or 80, new people in the business can benefit greatly from the networking and leadership training that the association has to offer. It has helped to shape my career in ways I never expected but benefit from every day.” *