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.
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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?
A. Yes, it could. And just like in hospice and just like in skilled nursing, it’s being there for people during the worst time of their life or the worst day of their life. That’s the same thing I get to do as a State Farm agent because, if you’ve purchased a life insurance policy from my office and you do have a death in the family, you just come to me and let me be there for you and write you that check so you can go take care of what you need to take care of. You don’t have to wait for anything to be mailed. And if you can’t come to us to pick it up, we can bring it to you. That’s the difference in State Farm.
Q. Have you faced any difficult situations?
A. Well, Hurricane Irma (laughs). Two weeks into my appointment at this office, we had Hurricane Irma. I had to roll out a whole disaster management plan for the agency, because we’re in the storm business. Everybody else gets to go home and take cover, but we have to set up a plan for how we’re going to be there for our customers if they have to leave their homes. We had several customers with damage to their homes after that, and I had an opportunity to go out, view some damage, and help people get their information to claims.
Q. Is a fair amount of your typical day spent in the office?
A. Yes. My team and I round up every morning and come up with our plan for the day. We start out with returning phone calls and service issues from the day before and then we move into how can we help our current book of business. We may review customers’ accounts and see where we may need to invite them in for an insurance and financial review. That is what I’m currently doing, is moving through my whole book of business and trying to meet each customer face to face, because I want to give that personal service, and I want them to know me and I want to know them.
Q. But you stay prepared to drop everything at a moment’s notice should a storm or something else roll through the area?
A. Yes. Anything could change. If any type of natural disaster happens, we always have to jump on a conference call because things come down from corporate. We have to be prepared at a company level. They want every State Farm agent to be uniform in how we handle things. So if something happens, I’m going to be on a conference call, I’m going to be rolling things out to my team, and then we’re going to be boots on the ground.
Q. What about getting out into the community?
A. When it comes to my local community marketing, I kind of have free range about how I handle that. For example, I’ve decided to be partners in education with two schools in Phenix City, and that’ s Phenix City Intermediate School and Lakewood Primary School. So I volunteer when they have things. Our staff goes up and reads to the children. If they need an event sponsored, we help out with that. We just really want our face to be known as an agency that really gives back to the community.
Q. What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of the job, perhaps people complaining about rates and things like that?
A. I guess that would be the most challenging part is helping a customer to understand — maybe a customer who hasn’t had any claims, who hasn’t had anything to happen in their history — why did my rates go up? Well, it is as a country, more of us are texting and driving. There’s more accidents. And we have to spread that out among our policyholders. So it’s not you. It’s something that comes from the way we live today, and the risks are higher for people because sometimes we are more negligent. So that affects rates, that along with many, many other things. But helping a customer to understand why their rates went up, and they personally haven’t done anything, is difficult.
Q. Finally, for those who may be considering an insurance career, what skills come in handy?
A. You have to have a high grit score. I don’t know if anybody is familiar with Angela Duckworth and her ‘Grit Scale.’ It’s your ability to see things through to the end and to stick to a task and stay focused. You have to have a high amount of grit. That’s number one. You also have to have a high level of integrity because you’re dealing with State Farm’s premium dollars. You’re dealing with other peoples’ pay.
Then you also have to be a salesperson that not only can sell personally, but can teach others the magic of sales and relationship building. And you have to be competitive. You have to want to win, because you’re not only competing against other insurance companies — and there’s one on every corner — there’s also a State Farm agent on every corner. But you have to take that competitiveness and channel it into productivity and being responsible.
Melanie Drake Johnson
Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: 2003 graduate of Ramsay High School in Birmingham; earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007; earned master’s degree in public administration from Troy University in 2012
Previous jobs: Branch assistant with Regions Bank (loan products, annuity and life insurance sales, and business development); director of marketing and admissions with Northport Health Services (development and corporate marketing committee member); hospice specialist with Kindred at Home (business development)
Family: Husband, Damon Johnson, two daughters, Kelsey, 5, and Kori, 2, and a son, Kaden, 12
Leisure time: Enjoys watching movies with her husband, with the couple taking in all of the Oscar-nominated films at the theater, then debating between them which should be the winner on the night of the Academy Awards