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The Changing Face of the Independent Agent

Climb every mountain

Starting an agency in a rural county of 25,000 takes spirit and determination

By Elaine Tolen

Most insurance agents are a short distance from driving on an easy, albeit monotonous, interstate to their state association offices. Even in larger states, a brief commuter flight bridges the mileage gap. Jodi Reynolds, principal of Southwest Virginia Professional Insurance Agency, wouldn’t know what either of those scenarios is like.

While some of her 362-mile, six-hour one-way trip to the Professional Insurance Agents of Virginia and the District of Columbia (PIA of VA & DC) is on interstates (while still winding and curving through southern Virginia), being active in the association requires a big time commitment—in travel and involvement.

“You can’t get there from here” is more than a cute quip in rural southwest Virginia’s beautiful, high, rugged topography, where the Appalachian Plateau and Tennessee Valley overlap. The agency is located in “The Heart of Appalachia” in a county of 25,000 that borders Kentucky and West Virginia. “You’re a good hour from an interstate and most of the roads are two- or four-lane with lots of switchbacks,” Jodi explains.

Go around those roadblocks

Jodi is quite used to curvy roads—literally and figuratively—she has traveled many since starting Southwest Virginia Professional Insurance Agency from scratch in 1996.

Her insurance career began 12 years ago, when she graduated from West Virginia University with a teaching degree and quickly concluded that teaching wasn’t for her. She landed a job at Prudential Preferred Financial Services in Johnson City, Tennessee, earning her Series 6 and Series 63 licenses so she could sell variable annuities, life and health. When that branch closed and Jodi was going to have to move farther away from her hometown of Grundy, Virginia, she began to consider other career choices.

“My dad—who isn’t an insurance agent—said to me, ‘Why don’t you start an insurance agency?’ and I said, ‘Okay,’” she laughs.

“One of the first things I did was contact the PIA of VA & DC. I got to know Elsie Reamey [now retired PIA of VA & DC executive vice president], who put me in touch with Frances Foy-Vance, another rural agent in Southwest Virginia, both of whom were tremendously helpful. I couldn’t have done it without them,” Jodi says. “They must have thought, ‘She is crazy,’ to be starting an agency with no experience, but they were extremely helpful and supportive in offering advise and direction.”

You have to have money to make money

One of the first tasks for the new owner was to obtain E&O insurance, “which turned out to be harder than I anticipated, because I was a start-up with no agency experience,” Jodi remembers. “But Elsie put me in touch with a broker who was able to place my E&O with a standard carrier.”

Another challenge was getting a standard carrier, “which you have to have but can’t get when just starting out, yet you need one to get one,” she muses. Undaunted, Jodi ordered a list from the Virginia Bureau of Insurance of all insurance carriers licensed to do business in Virginia. “It was in a three-ring binder and was about four inches thick,” she remembers. Jodi started with the “A’s”, cold-calling until she found a carrier that would work with her.

Now to find a location for the new agency. Jodi’s dad owned some property with a 1,100-square foot building in Vansant—“a suburb of Grundy”—which he offered for her use, so “office” was quickly checked off the “to do” list.

“Have P-C license” was something Jodi couldn’t check off the list in July 1996 when she hung out her shingle, so she hired someone who did and was in business. Six months later she received that license.

Open to the public

After the agency was set up, the next challenge was getting business through the doors. “I grew up in the area. My dad has been involved in local politics for a long time and my mom is a retired school teacher,” explains Jodi, “so we know a lot of people around Grundy and Vansant. But we still needed more promotion than word-of-mouth. We decided to hold a pig roast in the agency’s parking lot and invite the whole county,” she continues. “We sent invitations to Chamber of Commerce members, had a bluegrass band, balloons, prizes. You could smell the pig roasting all over town. People were curious to see what was going on.”

The event was such a success that it has become an annual tradition. “We still invite the entire county—anyone and everyone is welcomed,” Jodi says. “It’s another way to say ‘Here we are and how can we help?’”

Just a year later, in 1997, Jodi was named Rookie of the Year by the Insurance Women of Southwest Virginia. Now 10 years after that first pig roast, Southwest Virginia Professional Insurance Agency has a $2 million book of business (50% personal, 50% commercial) with five employees, including Jodi. One of the other employees is Jodi’s husband, Jordan Reynolds, who is now a principal alongside her. With a background in sales and marketing, he joined the agency in 2000 and they married in 2002.

The agency just moved into a new building which more than doubles their old space. “Moving into a larger space has promoted growth because we don’t have to jump over piles and each other,” Jodi observes.

Rough terrain

While the mountains and valleys of southwest Virginia create a beautiful landscape, they pose challenges for the area. “One of our biggest challenges is the local economy,” Jodi says. “Ten to 15 years ago, the coal mines, which were the core of the economy here, started to wind down. At one time, more coal came out of Buchanan County than anywhere else in Virginia. This area was called the ‘million-dollar coal fields.’ When the mining jobs went away, so did the peripheral jobs such as trucking, mining equipment sales, education, repair shops, etc.

“The extremely mountainous terrain, being so far from the interstate system, and the rough and winding roads, hinder other industries from coming in,” Jodi continues. “Coal has come back somewhat, but there has been a shift to marketing, telecommunications, and education-focused jobs. A law school and college of pharmacy are located here now. The area is still affected by young people moving out, though,” she reflects. “The county is aging.”

But Jodi has no plans to move out. “I see a lot of opportunities right here. Plus, we’re a part of the community.”

Industry support

In addition to her being part of the local community, Jodi credits the industry community, specifically the PIA of Virginia and DC, with helping her get the agency off the ground. Staff there advised her on the myriad details, such as obtaining E&O insurance and encouraging her to attend various PIA functions, annual conventions and conferences to meet marketing reps and other agents.

Her active involvement in the association began six years ago, as she got to know Elsie Reamey better. “I saw Elsie quite a bit in 2000 because I spent a good deal of time that year at PIA-sponsored CIC courses,” Jodi explains. This is because Jodi decided to get her CIC in one year, which meant attending five three-day classes throughout the state of Virginia, plus taking the exams. “I know that sounds crazy, but I wanted to get the classes over with and the designation earned.” Jodi successfully passed the exams and did earn her CIC in one year. Try doing that in your spare time.

During that year, Elsie asked Jodi to join the YPC (Young Professionals Council). “The group has really grown in the last few years,” Jodi observes. “It’s called the Young Professionals Council because company reps can join, not just agents. This sets us apart from many association groups.” For two years, Jodi chaired the YPC, as well as the association’s Fall Conference Committee. In 2003, she was named PIA of VA & DC Outstanding Young Professional of the Year.

Still a member of the YPC, Jodi has served on the association’s board since 2002. Next year, she is in line to be board president.

“A meeting [in Richmond] is an all-day affair for me,” Jodi says. “That is the hardest part of being involved [in the PIA of VA & DC]. It’s a challenge for any agent in the area.” She tries to stack up meetings in one day to make the most of the 12-hour round trip drive. Many times Jodi drives to Richmond and back in one day, leaving home around 4:00 a.m. and arriving back around 9:00 p.m. Mind you, that’s not driving to an airport, waiting around to board, taking a flight somewhere, returning in the same fashion. That’s 12 hours of solid driving, plus working on association business.

“I can’t quantify what a huge impact being involved in the PIA has had on my agency,” Jodi says. “I’ve met association people and other agents; I’ve gotten to know company reps by seeing them over and over at association meetings. And while most agencies are small in rural Southwest Virginia and staff can’t get away much, you just have to make a commitment to make it happen,” she says.

While Jodi does spend quite a bit of time away from the office, she is fortunate that Jordan is there to oversee operations. “He is so supportive,” she explains. “People ask us if it’s hard to work together and be married—I can’t imagine it any other way. We understand each other and the problems that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.”

In addition to handling operations while Jodi is out, as a principal, Jordan is a physical presence for customers. “It’s important for one of us to always be in the office,” Jodi continues, “because the agency has a lot of walk-in traffic and being available in person is important. Our clients like to come in to make a payment or make a change to their policy. We know our customers’ names … I have an incredible staff that creates a customer-oriented environment. I recently heard the receptionist tell a new customer: ‘I may not know your name today, but I will tomorrow!’ I absolutely would not be where I am today without the staff that I have; I owe them so very much.”

Serving the community

Besides running an insurance agency and making those day-long treks to Richmond for association business, Jodi also finds time to be involved in the local community. She is on the Chamber of Commerce board and is currently president of the Grundy Woman’s Club, which focuses on volunteerism in a variety of ways that benefit the community. The Grundy Woman’s Club is a Gold Sponsor for the Buchanan County Relay For Life and also awards several scholarships throughout the year to deserving students.

Recently Jodi was on a Relay for Life team. “I was up for 26 hours,” she laughs, “but it was an amazing event. Our team raised over $6,000 and the county raised over $160,000.”

Last year, she was asked to be on the local Workforce Investment Board, which carries out the Workforce Investment Act, a federally funded program to help displaced workers find jobs in different areas.

While the road to success has been rough at times, with its share of ups and downs, Jodi Reynolds emphasizes that she hasn’t driven those roads alone. Jodi sizes up “where I was 10 years ago and where I am now … I didn’t get here by myself. So many people helped me—Elsie, other PIA agents and colleagues. So many people continue to help me today—my family, Jordan, and my employees. We’re one big team.” *

Click on image for enlargement

Southwest Virginia Professional Insurance Agency is located in “The Heart of Appalachia,” where mining has a long and important history. Agency President and founder Jodi Street Reynolds meets with Jack May, whose mining company contracts with one of her insureds, the mine owner, Alma Energy, LLC.


Jodi’s staff (behind her) includes (standing from left) Jordan Reynolds, Kathy Viers, Amanda Thomas and (seated) Rachel Clifton.


Jodi meets with one of her insureds, her father, Joe G. Street who is co-owner of West River Conveyors & Machinery Company, which manufactures conveyor systems that are sold to various mining industries (i.e., coal, gold, rock).


In her time away from the office, Jodi enjoys being with her husband, Jordan, and their German Shepherd, Carlos.


In their spare time, the couple is renovating their 55-year-old home.