Making the transition from Columbus High School to Union University in Jackson, Tenn., nearly two decades ago, Jonathan Smart's "dream job" was to become a sports agent.
After all, he pitched on three state championship baseball teams in the mid-1990s in high school, the team's closer in his senior year. And, of course, the Tom Cruise movie, "Jerry Maguire," only fueled his aspiration.
Then, after talking it over with some friends, he realized that a law degree and three more years of college probably would be best if he truly wanted to be successful. And he wasn't ready for that commitment.
So, Smart took a detour and headed to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which recruited him out of college. He would quickly become a branch manager in Tifton, Ga., and in Albany, Ga., before returning to Columbus to help open the airport branch.
It was during that time that an Allstate manager asked him to consider becoming a catastrophe claims adjuster. Smart's father, Jimmy, an Allstate agent in Columbus since 1980, agreed it was a good move and his son would be crazy not to take the offer.
That job as a claims adjuster took the Columbus native into the eye of the devastating and deadly storm known as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Smart joined a team of Allstate agents in New Orleans, helping policyholders file claims in the aftermath of the disaster.
Then, in 2010, his father approached Jonathan about joining his insurance company, with an eye toward the elder Smart's retirement.
"He knew I wanted to get home and get settled instead of traveling," said Smart, who is 36 today and married -- to a former Allstate manager, of course -- with two young sons.
"Allstate's been very, very good to our family for 30-plus years and it just kind of fit," he said.
It's also not a bad career choice, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects a 22 percent "faster than average" growth rate for insurance sales agents. The agency estimates there are now 411,500 agents in the U.S., with 90,200 more needed by the year 2020. Median pay is currently $46,770 per year.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked recently with Smart about his job, his experience during Katrina, and the most common claims filed by customers. This interview has been edited slightly.
For starters, what was it like to work as a catastrophe claims adjuster?
There were several memorable moments for me in that job. I think it really helped me going into the sales side of it and being an agent. I dealt with people having a major catastrophe, whether it be a hurricane, a tornado or maybe a big storm that blew through and tore their roof off.
The biggest joy I got out of it was showing up and knowing my main purpose was looking for a way to pay their claim. When I was able to leave their house and hand them a check and know that I was assisting them in putting their lives back together, that's where I got the biggest satisfaction.
What was your biggest moment in that job?
I was on my day off here in Columbus when we found out that Hurricane Katrina was headed toward New Orleans in 2005. I picked up my phone and called my boss because I knew that (Allstate agents) were doing a staging in Montgomery, Ala., to get ready to head to New Orleans. They wanted to arrive as the storm hit and be there on the ground and ready to go once it passed and get started helping people get things back together.
How did that experience go?
Allstate has these big RVs they call mobile claim centers, which are basically a mobile office ... I had never driven an RV in my entire life and they said: You're going to drive to Baton Rouge, La., and once the storm passes we're going to head on into New Orleans as soon as we can get in there.
We drove all the way to Baton Rouge as the storm was actually hitting. So we were having to take all kinds of detours and you can imagine driving a big RV down the road with the winds as bad as they were. It was a nightmare.
Then after the storm passed?
We got up the next morning and drove into New Orleans and staged up under the canopy at the Harrah's Casino downtown. My mobile claims center processed all (damage claims) of the first responders, which were the police and fire departments and EMS people. Those were the people we got to first because they needed to get out and help other people.
I was back and forth between here and New Orleans for about four months. I saw it all and saw more than I care to see. That was something I will never forget. It was something very surreal.
That had to be difficult to witness such destruction.
It was, because you would drive up to a house and have no idea what you were going to be looking at. I've driven up to a
house where there was absolutely nothing there, where I had to basically look at a map and guess which house I was going to because the homes were destroyed. And then I've been to houses where, from the outside, it looks like nothing happened to them. Then you go inside and it's just devastated on the inside from all of the water that got into it.
That had to be tough to deal with.
It was challenging at times. But it was very rewarding. I can't count how many times I handed somebody a settlement check and they just sat there with tears in their eyes because they were just so overcome with emotion. Here I am giving them a check to help them put their lives together.
Do you miss such an adrenaline rush a little bit or do you enjoy the relative peace and quiet you have now?
Being on the agent side of it now, to me, there's still pressure, because now my paycheck depends on people being satisfied with their claims and staying insured with me. I get calls everyday from folks saying: Hey, I've got this claim. This storm just came through and damaged my roof. What do I do?
I still kind of get that same satisfaction because I'm the person that they call and ask what to do. And I'm able to be there and guide them through the claims process.
Is roof damage a very common thing?
It is. Like a week or two ago, when we had all of that rain and a pretty good wind with that. Right now I'm getting a lot of roof claims from wind blowing the shingles off the roof.
In our area we get a lot of hail, so between hail and wind and an occasional tornado through here, those are the majority of property claims we deal with. Of course, auto accidents are the biggest thing claims-wise that we handle.
You kind of know what to expect when you're coming in each morning, based on the weather the day before.
What was it like taking over your dad's business?
It was a proud moment knowing that he trusted me to take over what he worked for 32 years building. I did have to buy it from him. I took pride in it. I also take pride in it now when I have a client who comes in and was with dad from day one, and now they're showing the trust in me that they showed with him all of those years. It just makes me feel good.
Having a major brand behind you has to help rather than starting from scratch and without such branding.
Allstate has one of, if not the most, recognizable brands of anything out there. People see the 'good hands' logo and they know exactly what that is, and that's Allstate. Having that behind you, without a doubt, helps tremendously, along with coming in with an existing book of business.
Starting from scratch in a business like this, not just with this, but with anything, would be a major hurdle, one that I don't think I would want to tackle.
What's a typical day like for you?
I usually get into the office between 8 and 8:30 and go through my emails and phone calls we've gotten over the night with any claims that might have come in. I follow up with those.
I've got a wonderful staff here that works with me. My office manager Rachel Goss and our customer service rep Amy Harris do a fantastic job and really take the load off of me to allow me to spend the rest of my day with clients.
I try to do at least one customer protection review per year for each of my clients, sitting down with them and going over their policies and making sure they haven't had any major changes in their house, their cars or whatever. I do that so, in the unfortunate situation they might have a claim, that we're up to date on everything and they're properly covered and insured.
The rest of my day is spent trying to get out and pound the pavement and get new business in the door.
What's the biggest challenge you face?
I would say it's two-fold. Number one is if somebody thinks that they have a claim, they file it, and then it might end up not being covered or there not being enough damage to where it exceeds their deductible. Then they're upset with me and call and question why it isn't covered. So I have to kind of put them at ease and get them to really read the policy and understand.
The other part that is a challenge is that insurance, just like anything else -- just like gas, bread, milk -- rates or prices go up. It's just the nature of the game. Anytime a renewal comes out, whether it's a dollar increase or a $100 increase, they're calling me and saying: 'I've paid all of these years and never had a claim. Why has my premium gone up?' That's a tough one to explain and get them to understand.
There are all kinds of factors that go into a premium. When we have these major tornadoes like we've had the last several years in the Southeast, it's costing insurance companies money. And we have to pay to put things back together. Then it comes to the point where we have to raise premiums to make sure that we've got the money to pay for these claims, whether you've had a claim or not. That's just the nature of the business.
I have found (a way to ease the tension). Let's say I get a notice that Mrs. Jones is going to have a premium increase. I try to pick up the phone before she gets that notice and say: 'Hey, Mrs. Jones, I'm just letting you know your renewal is coming up. We did have a little bit of an increase, and here's why.'
Even though that's a tough call that I have to make, I've found that doing that really says a lot and they take it better and understand it better.
Finally, what is your long-term goal or ambition?
Really, I would love to see my agency grow. Nothing would make me happier than for one of my two sons one day to come to me and say: 'Hey, dad, I'm thinking about getting into the insurance business. Can I come work for you?'
That would be great to get them in here and kind of pass the torch on to one or both of them. Dad had it for 30 years. Hopefully, I can keep it going for 30 years, and they can keep it going for another 30.
Name: Jonathan Smart
Current Residence: Columbus
Education: Columbus High School graduate, 1995; Union University (Jackson, Tenn.), graduate, 2000, bachelor's of science degree with major in marketing and sports management
Previous jobs: Enterprise Rent-A-Car branch manager, 2000-2002; catastrophe claims adjuster with Allstate Insurance, 2003-2007; sales manager with the Jimmy Smart Allstate Agency, 2007-2010
Family: Wife, Natalie, and two sons, Coulter, 3, and Easton, 2
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with family and friends, as well as playing golf any chance he gets
Of note: Currently is the president-elect of the Kiwanis Club of Columbus; on the board of directors of The Brent Schoening Strike Out Leukemia Foundation, and is vice president of The Brent Schoening Memorial Scholarship Fund; advisory board member of the Georgia/Alabama chapter of Make-A-Wish Foundation
A SLICE OF HIS PERSONAL LIFE
Being an Allstate agent is Jonathan Smart's career, but his life has had its share of drama.
The Columbus man was adopted by Jimmy and Betty Smart 36 years ago when he was 3 days old. His birth mother -- who Smart has searched for in vain -- was young and unmarried and not ready for a child.
That led the Smarts to adopt Jonathan, whose brother is Northside High School baseball and softball coach David Smart.
"They're all I've ever known," Jonathan said of his adoptive parents and brother. "If God gave me the opportunity to pick a better family to be with, I don't think I could have done it. It was a huge blessing and I thank God everyday for it."
Another touching moment for Smart was the tragic loss of his Columbus High baseball teammate and close friend Brent Schoening, who died in 2009. Also a star at Auburn University, Schoening battled leukemia for a year before succumbing.
Smart and others set up The Brent Schoening Strike Out Leukemia Foundation, which raises money through an annual golf and tennis tournament, dinner gala and silent auction. The money goes to help find a cure for leukemia, while also assisting families of those suffering from the disease with various expenses during their ordeal.
"It's really turned out to be pretty cool thing," Smart said.