Irma award winner makes a career of caring
LaWanda Watt recognized at Florida Association of Insurance Agents convention
By Alice Ashby Roettger
For some years now, Tom Cotton, president and CEO of Orlando, Florida's, Hugh Cotton Insurance, Inc., has followed a custom of visiting agencies throughout the state, ostensibly to update them individually on the activities of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents (FAIA). This year was no exception as he arranged a visit to long-time business friend The Hagar Group in Inverness, Florida.
In reality he had an ulterior motive.
Unbeknownst to 22-year employee LaWanda Watt, who was asked by her boss, Senior Vice President Greg Hagar, to lead the preparations for the visit and "get a lunch together," the real reason for Cotton's visit was to announce that Watt was to receive the Irma Platt Lifetime Achievement Award at the June FAIA convention in Orlando.
The Irma Platt Lifetime Achievement Award is presented by Rough Notes magazine and the Florida Association of Insurance Agents to honor an individual who, like Irma Platt, demonstrates the qualities of commitment, dedication and loyalty to agency principals, producers and clients, thus contributing to the ultimate success of the agency.
The connection with The Hagar Group was particularly meaningful to all involved this year. Irma Platt, for whom the award was named, is a more-than-40-year employee of Cotton's own agency. To this day, she continues to turn up at the Cotton agency office by 6:30 a.m. Back in the days when employees typed up individual policies, she sometimes did so for the Hagar agency—thus the long-time relationship between the two firms and the mutual respect for a dedicated employee.
During the meeting that LaWanda had arranged, Tom Cotton spoke of the Irma Award, ending with, "This year's recipient is LaWanda Watt!"
"I was so shocked," LaWanda remembers. "I had no idea that Greg had nominated me." In fact, having known about Tom Cotton and the award he created in 2001, LaWanda had quipped to Greg, "What about the Irma award?"
"I probably didn't have the best reaction, "she says ruefully, and still wonders if she didn't express enough appreciation at first. Having witnessed The Hagar Group's respect for the award because of its own relationship with Irma Platt, LaWanda appreciates even being considered. To be placed in the same league with Irma truly humbles her, she says.
Like many long-time members of the insurance industry, LaWanda entered through the side door. Born in Jacksonville, she lived for some time in Texas and ultimately returned to Florida. After graduating from Citrus High in Inverness, she took some college courses, worked in the banking industry and married Brad Watt. Together they started their family, which consists of sons Cody and Garrett.
When Cody was two years old, and while attending an exercise class, LaWanda mentioned to a fellow class member that she was ready to return to work. "That's how I got into the insurance industry; it was a fluke," she quips.
The friend mentioned that The Hagar Group needed someone who could cover for an employee who would be on maternity leave for six weeks. And that's how it all started.
From the first, LaWanda's work ethic made her a "wanted person." When the six-week stint ended, she was asked to stay and eventually worked her way through various positions—receptionist, CSR—earned her agents 220 license as well as her life and health license, and became a personal lines manager. When she considered moving into the commercial area, LaWanda's boss persuaded her to stay with him in personal lines.
She now serves as the personal lines manager for both Hagar offices (Inverness and Crystal River), acts as the operations manager, is the Inverness office manager, and sells life and health insurance to the P&C client base. Like Irma, LaWanda can gracefully carry out a multitude of responsibilities and is acknowledged as "the glue that holds a lot of things together." As Greg Hagar says, whatever the challenge, "LaWanda can do it."
And like so many members of the insurance industry, LaWanda, along with husband Brad, who runs the family monument company with LaWanda's mother, tries to serve her community. In the early years of their marriage, most of their activities centered around their boys and sports. Near to their hearts also has been Project Graduation. Parents plan an all-night entertainment for high school seniors to keep them safe after graduation ceremonies. Year-long fund-raising events generate the wherewithal to take the graduates to camp, provide entertainment, feed them and award prizes.
In addition, "We all love to do family things together," she says. "Most of our off time is spent fishing or following the Gators!" The boys recently helped their parents celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
As her sons began to grow up, LaWanda became involved in the local Chamber of Commerce, several insurance company advisory boards, and the Applied Systems User Group in Florida. She also has been involved with their church.
A preacher's daughter, LaWanda credits her mother with instilling in her a work ethic that requires her to "do the best you can, honestly." As a result, she is very protective of the agency and takes a proprietary interest in all that it does. "People say, 'You don't have ownership in the firm, but you act as if you do. If I had employees like that…'" That's just the way LaWanda is. She works hard for and with her employer and fellow employees.
In concert with those observations, Greg Hagar, who is the son of The Hagar Group's CEO and founder, Tom Hagar, says of LaWanda: "It is not easy today to find people who will start at the bottom and work their way up through the ranks, but LaWanda was willing to and had the patience that many people today do not have. She is one of the last people out of the door many nights; she cares about the agency and the customers. These qualities of loyalty, patience, a great work ethic and her caring nature have helped her lead by example in our agency, and she is a big part of our success."
Recognizing, but remaining undaunted by, recent conditions in the insurance industry, LaWanda remains optimistic. "The industry is much more challenging than it used to be, and I guess you could say not quite as much fun. But I have enjoyed working for the Hagars for all these years."
Members of the insurance industry throughout the United States can nominate persons whom they deem to be worthy of eligibility for the annual Irma Award. Candidates need not be employees of Florida agencies.
For more information or to receive nomination forms, contact FAIA's Tom Cotton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Ashby Roettger is a freelance writer who is based in Indianapolis, Indiana. She also serves as an assistant editor for Rough Notes magazine.