In 1974 Steve Epperly wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. After 40 years in the insurance and investment business, he seems to have it figured out.
Although it may not be glamorous, Epperly believes helping families prepare for retirement and protect themselves from the unexpected is vital.
“It really hits home about the importance of what you do when you help a family settle a life (insurance) claim,” Epperly said. “Nobody ever complains at that point that they had too much life insurance.”
A native of Milton in Southeast Iowa, Epperly attended the University of Northern Iowa before taking a job at North Mahaska as a biology teacher and boys basketball coach.
Despite enjoying some success, including an undefeated regular season, Epperly began to question his career path after seven years.
While at school he met with another Milton native who was working for Horace Mann Insurance, a national company specializing in providing personal insurance and investment products to educators.
“He said they were always looking for people,” Epperly recalled. “That’s how I ended up in Mason City. That’s the territory that was open at the time.”
Horace Mann offered a defined market and territory, which was beneficial for a beginning agent. The company was also well known in the educational community, meaning Epperly was welcomed at most area schools.
Still there were challenges. The Mason City territory had not had a Horace Mann agent for three years, so Epperly had few existing accounts.
He also had to learn the art of “benevolent persistence,” of being tenacious but not pushy while refining his approach to suit the understanding and temperament of each client.
Early on, Epperly didn’t always get it right.
“One guy carried my open briefcase and threw it out the front door,” Epperly said, chuckling. “”It wasn’t a bit funny at the time.
“I started to think maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
Setbacks notwithstanding, Epperly found the insurance business more lucrative than teaching.
“The first full year I made 50 percent more than I did in my last year teaching,” he said, “from just over $10,000 to over $16,000.”
After building his client base and his income with Horace Mann for 26 years, Epperly decided to venture out on his own.
“I lost my mind,” he said in explaining the choice.
Epperly was a “captive” agent, meaning he could sell only Horace Mann products. But the company’s offerings were limited at the time, and in some cases Epperly felt other providers offered better value.
He also hoped to get out of auto and home insurance — “they offer the least profit and require the most service,” Epperly explained — to concentrate on life insurance and investment products.
“Becoming an independent agent and forming my own business was the way to do that,” Epperly said.
Yet he knew the move was a gamble. Horace Mann provided good benefits and a stable base of clients Epperly had built up over the years.
“That was the biggest risk: not knowing how many clients would come over,” Epperly said.
Legal requirements dictated Epperly could not service his former Horace Mann clients unless they specifically requested it. And then he still had to convince them that doing so was in their best interest.
“It was very time-consuming,” Epperly said. “You had to show them what you could do versus what they had. There was lots of paperwork.”
Fortunately for Epperly, many of his customers made the change. Perhaps more than he bargained for.
“I couldn’t keep up with it,” Epperly said. “There weren’t enough hours in the day. I probably worked more hours than I’d worked in years.”
Epperly said the change turned out better than he’d expected for himself and for his customers.
While previously he offered only Horace Mann products, he now does significant business with six different companies.
“It’s nice to be able to have that kind of diversity to choose from to help your clients,” Epperly said.
In recent years many companies have recognized the benefit of this greater flexibility. Most are now receptive to allowing their agents to work with other insurers as well.
Epperly’s former employer is among them.
“If Horace Mann were run then like it is today I might not have left,” he said.
He also noted companies today offer more options for customer service and support, lightening the load for agents in the field.
“There was no 800 service to the home office (when I started),” Epperly said, “and no computers for most of the time. The agent had to do a lot more service work than they do now.”
These technologies also offer new sources of competition in the form of telephone solicitors from larger companies as well as online service providers. Yet Epperly said these challengers have made few inroads into his client base.
“Most people don’t want that,” he said. “They want an agent they have confidence in to do the right thing for them, and an agent they know personally.”
Those personal relationships keep Epperly engaged in the business even after 40 years.
“That’s what makes it hard to sell your business and leave,” he said. “Now I’m 69 and I don’t know if I’ll ever retire.”
Although not retired, Epperly said he doesn’t work as hard as he used to. He does little advertising, getting most of his business from existing clients and through referrals.
“I don’t have to fill up my appointment book every day,” Epperly said. “If I do make an appointment, it’s very likely I’ll do some business with them. Forty years ago I’d try to get an appointment with anyone for any reason.”
Epperly finds plenty to fill his extra time: public singing appearances (as Steverino Sings Sinatra), traveling with his wife B.J., landscaping around his home and visiting his seven grandchildren.
Being his own boss, Epperly said, has given him the flexibility to both continue his career and enjoy his leisure. He appreciates the opportunity.
“It’s a good life,” he said.