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State Farm Insurance turns 100

Agents talk history in Bedford

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 5/17/22

Walk into local State Farm agent Ralph Allen’s office on Lane Street and you’ll see two signed footballs—one by Eli Manning and one by Payton Manning.  

 They were …

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State Farm Insurance turns 100

Agents talk history in Bedford


Walk into local State Farm agent Ralph Allen’s office on Lane Street and you’ll see two signed footballs—one by Eli Manning and one by Payton Manning.  

 They were awards Allen received after writing 30 life insurance applications as part of the company competition. 

 But Allen says he doesn’t work.  

 “I’ve never worked a day in my life. It's a hobby. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy helping people,” Allen said. “You’re helping people in their worst possible hour.” 

 He remembers traveling with his dad. “I was four years old, but I saw my dad helping people—like when somebody died, house fires, car wrecks—and I thought that was really great.”  

 So, from 13 years old, he knew he wanted to be a State Farm agent. It was in his blood as his father was one as well as his great-uncle. In fact, they, along with Allen, are only three of the seven State Farm agents in the history of Bedford County.  

 National and local history 

 State Farm was started in 1922 by a German American farmer named George Mecherle in Illinois. Knowing farmers were better drivers, Mecherle sold policies at a lower price and thus spread his reptation, growing it to 19,000 agents today. 

 State Farm was brought to Bedford in 1945, when the insurance world was changing after World War II—for example, more and more people were driving.   

 The agent here was Allen’s great-uncle, Albert Moulder, the first “career agent” and who was hired by the founder himself. He stayed until 1959. Allen’s father Richard was working at Kroger at the time, making $10 a week, but he fulfilled his uncle’s role. 

 In 1961, Bobby Newell joined the team. Newell retired after 41 years but still visits his old office, now run by Deb Insell. Insell even uses the same number Newell used back in the 1960s. 

 In 1977, Allen became his own agent—the fourth one. They worked together until Allen’s father retired in 1995; then entered Shannon Canter, then Rob Gardner in 2001 and Insell in 2003, according to Allen.  

 Allen studied at Middle Tennesse State University, graduating with a degree in marketing. Though a four-year degree wasn't necessary for his line of work, Allen said he was encouraged by the regional vice president. After graduating, Allen recalls, “I walk into his office, he’s chewing on a cigar and says, ‘Well, I know what brings you here.’ Let me see your diploma.’”  

 Allen asked him why he even needed one? “And I’ll never forget what he said: ‘This tells me you’re capable of learning.’” 

 That was 1977, and he was getting $850 every month—while validating 60 percent of what was sold. “The rest is history and it’s been a wonderful journey. I’ve never woken up in the morning and dreaded going to work. Isn't that wonderful?” Allen said.  

 Now, 48 years later... “I’m insuring people that are great-great grandchildren,” Allen said. 

 Major changes 

 Payments have not only changed but so have policies. When starting out, there were four policies: auto, fire/homeowners, health, and life insurance. State Farm today sells 120 products.  

 “When you’re in sales, you’ve got to get a lot of no’s before you get a yes. So don’t let a no get you down,” Allen said. 

 It’s an important attitude for agents to have to get through the changes over time.  

 When Allen started out with his dad in the early 70s, the average homeowner premium in Bedford County was $100 per year with a $50 deductible. Today, a $1,000 deductible is $1500 per year. The average car premium was $60 for six months. Today, it’s $600 for six months.  

 “And when I started, everything was pen and pencil. And I did it all by hand,” Allen said. 

 Then, there’s the increase in housing prices. “What’s driven up the cost of houses in Bedford County is we have a tremendous amount of people coming from New York, California, and major cities,” Allen said. Essentially, $2 million in a major city in New York or California looks very different than $2 million in Bedford. 

 What’s also changed is how relationships are built. Agents have gone from door-to-door and in-person relationship building, to primarily having everything online. Insell calls them “invisible clients.”  

 “It’s our job, when they quote online, to help them understand what gaps they’ve had and what they quoted and be certain that they’re covering themselves like they need to be covered,” Insell said.  

 And a lot of that requires correspondence.  

 “You don’t see your customers like you used to,” Allen said, so he still does follow-ups and meets clients in-person. That, and understanding what they’re going through.  

 Understanding clients 

 In December of 1998, an ice storm hit Bedford County. The office, which Allen and his father had had since 1974, burned completely after a central heat and air unit malfunctioned. “That was really a hard thing to deal with because my dad was still living, and he saw all of his stuff was destroyed,” Allen said.  

 “That’s something I lived through, but it made me a better State Farm agent because I know what people have to go through.”  

 But Allen said his goal was to support the “wealth of America.” They’re not the richest of the rich, they’re the self-made men who have earned their living and saved wisely, he explained.  

 “The biggest thing about being an agent today is personality. If you love people and know how to relate to people—if you’re kind and they know you care—State Farm is going to sell itself.” And never underestimate remembering someone’s name, Allen emphasized.  

And it’s just a few reasons why companies like this last long in Bedford. As for Allen, who’s 67, he has no plans to retire soon. “Every day is my hobby...It gives me a place to go when I get up in the morning.”