Melanie Johnson Brings True ‘Grit’ To Her Insurance Agent Career

By Tony Adams Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Melanie Johnson about her job, the career route she took, and what it's like to be her own boss as an independent State Farm insurance agent.

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.

As most people understand, life is about transitions, often one after another and then another. And no transition in life can be as critical as the search for an enjoyable, meaningful and well-paying career.

Melanie Johnson can attest to that, having graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, then going to work for Regions Bank in positions that included sales and business development. Then, as life would have it about a decade ago, the housing crisis and subsequent Great Recession happened.

Johnson's career path ventured into the healthcare field, working with an acute-cure health services company, followed by a home health and hospice organization, where she once again excelled. Then, seemingly out of the blue, State Farm came calling, and the outspoken marketing major decided the insurance business just might be for her.

Now, Johnson, 32, has landed in Phenix City with the goal of using the career skills accumulated in her prior jobs to make her entrepreneurial choice as an insurance agent a success.

Nearly two months into it, and with a hurricane named Irma greeting her, Johnson is working her way into the community with plans to be selling policies and other financial peace of mind to customers for years to come.

The Ledger-Enquirer talked with the Birmingham, Ala., native recently about her job, the career route she took, and what it's like to be her own boss as an independent State Farm agent. This interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q. So how did you decide that Phenix City is where you wanted to be?

A. Well, once you become approved in the State Farm pool of candidates, you can go anywhere you want in the United States. But I have strong roots in Birmingham, Alabama. I also am a mom to two sweet little girls who are attached to their grandma, and we wanted to come to a place that was still within good driving distance, so this is about two-and-a-half hours away. And it also allowed me to acquire a retiring agent's book of business.

Q. That would be longtime agent Ken Currie?

A. It was Ken Currie, correct. I could have stayed in Birmingham, but the only opportunity that was available in my hometown was to start from scratch, and at State Farm we call that a new-market agent in which you build your book of business from zero clients.

Q. That's a tougher go of it?

A. Yes. I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to succeed, because this is my first real entrepreneur endeavor. So that is why I chose to come here.

Q. Some people think of agents as State Farm employees, but that's not how it works?

A. You are absolutely independent. State Farm pretty much lends you their customers, but the agency operating costs, your employees, everything to do with your agency, is independent. State Farm does not employ me. I'm actually an independent contractor. I sell the State Farm brand.

Q. Does entering the be-your-own-boss ranks create any nervousness or other such thoughts?

A. My faith is very strong and I was raised to believe that I could do anything. So I'm really not afraid to take risks. This was an opportunity for me and it fit with my core values as a person. However, you have to think about my background. It has always been in business development and sales. So having that type of background, I was always paid for how hard I worked. I'm kind of molded to work hard because my earnings have always depended on that. This opportunity is no different.

Q. Regions Bank was your first job?

A. It was my first position out of college when I got the marketing degree. I did loans, vehicle loans, personal loans, home equity lines of credit, annuity sales, life insurance sales. I also was in charge of our deposit growth for my particular branch. The name of that program was 'Regions at Work,' and I would go out into the community and speak with business owners about attracting them as customers, and also their employees.

Q. Then you went the healthcare route with Northport Health Services?

A. Yes. My decision to leave banking happened around 2007 when we had the huge housing bubble burst. Regions was always strong, always a solid bank. They never had any issues and didn't have to take any of the government funding to come out of that situation. However, I just felt like I wanted to be in a different industry, but still be in sales ... I was at Northport for almost seven years.

Q. Then you moved to Kendrick at Home?

A. Yes. It was a wonderful time. I made really good relationships with the community and with the families of the patients who were in my facility. I'm all about people and helping others, so that healthcare opportunity is a unique one because you get to be there for people in their time of need.

Q. What did you do there?

A. The job title was hospice specialist. But what I did is went into the one of the major hospitals in Birmingham, UAB, which is also my alma mater. That hospital has about 1,100 patients at any given time. My job there was to go speak with the physicians and educate them about hospice as an option for their patients, because they do have a palliative care unit at UAB, so a lot of times I found myself helping the doctors weigh whether palliative care (quality of life care for life-threatening illness) or the hospice home environment was the best option for their patients ... That's how I built that market at UAB for my company ... It was everyday, getting to know people, relationship building, and they saw the benefit of hospice by the time I left and were using the company non-stop.

Q. Each of these career stops prepared you for this new phase of your life?

A. Yes, it did.

Q. It seems the common thread in these jobs was meeting people and simply letting them know how their lives or situations could be improved?

A. Absolutely. Needs-based selling is what I say is the common denominator. My job has always been to meet with customers or clients or patients and find out what their needs are and show them what their options were, and be a resource to them and help them through the process. That was in banking or skilled nursing or home health and hospice. That's always what I've done. It's always been about being there for people in the time of their need. Q. Which dovetails nicely into your current endeavor?

A. That's what I do now with State Farm, is give people their options. You can be with any insurance company, but when you come to State Farm you get that personal touch. You get an agent that's going to sit down and talk to you and it's not a 1-800 number (or online) ... And you get a person that's not just going to take your order, but is going to go the extra mile and talk to you about the things you may not have considered. For example, if you're a young mother and have children, let's talk about life insurance. Let's talk about your plan for what happens if you don't come home from work this evening. It's just helping people to be prepared and finding out what their needs are, whether they know it or not.

Q. There are things that can help people, but they may not know that and it could save them some grief or financial hardship later on?

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