Joseph Cullen Root founded WoodmenLife over 127 years ago in Omaha, Nebraska. The name of the insurance company was a tribute to Root’s vision of caring for those in need. The early pioneers cleared the forests to provide shelter and protection for their families; Root offered “…protection through life insurance.” The name remains a powerful metaphor for the values the company embraces today.
WoodmenLife has been in the North Country since the early 1970s, when Calvin Castine helped to found the area’s first chapter. Almost 50 years later the chapter has grown its membership base and has taken up residence in the old Yankee Medical building on Boynton Avenue right in the city, where it is enjoying settling into its new home.
History at Home
Tim Gonyo, the current manager, succeeded his cousin, Dayle Gonyo. Tim had risen through the ranks of Duty Free America and in 2004 was managing the branch in Jackman, Maine, when his father passed away in Plattsburgh. He found himself back in the North Country, looking for a career at the same time his cousin was considering retirement. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Mooers, NY, the younger Gonyo knew the meaning of hard work. Today he thanks his upbringing for the work ethic and discipline he brings to his position as recruiting sales manager at WoodmenLife. He proudly explained for Strictly Business the founding principles that set WoodmenLife apart from other agencies.
First, as a nonprofit, the insurance provider is responsible to its members rather than a board or an assembly of investors. It gives back to the communities the chapters are a part of in the form of benefits and charitable donations. Second, it defines itself as a fraternity not the popular definition with Greek letters, found on college campuses. Rather, in the truest sense of the word, WoodmenLife thinks of its members as family, and takes care of that family and the communities in which they live. The final founding principle is volunteerism. Going back for more than a century, Root believed that WoodmenLife should be an “…active volunteer force within local communities, helping those in need.” Today they are that and so much more.
When Gonyo talked about his organization and the two local chapters in Chazy and Plattsburgh, he couldn’t help but talk about how his value for the chapters and his community has evolved. While there was the initial appeal of the positive correlation between effort and success that most commission-based positions offer, Gonyo’s time at WoodmenLife has allowed him to “…protect families and help people reach their financial goals,” he said.
WoodmenLife tries to insure the future of its communities quite literally. In whatever variable you might want to consider, WoodmenLife has made an investment—in its people, in its products and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down. The company demonstrates its values to its members by investing in their communities and that’s how it grows its business. It does so by offering a level of transparency that benefits its members, and by embracing each community with gratitude. It offers the standard products one would expect from an insurance agency, such as whole, universal and term life insurance and annuities. The company is respected within its industry and has received an A+ Superior rating from A.M. Best, an independent rating company nationally recognized among industry professionals. Those findings are supported by both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Gonyo pointed out that WoodmenLife has been standing strong for generations because of the people the company stands with. The company makes sure its members understand that.
Valuing the Community
There are a variety of ways that WoodmenLife benefits its members apart from its products. Proud of its communities and proud of this country, chapter personnel are often known as the “flag people” because the company is the largest distributor of American flags with the exception of the federal government. It provides flags to nonprofit groups including local police and fire departments, churches and schools. The company not only values but also sponsors patriotism wherever it can in the community—and not just among its members.
In addition to U.S. and state flag donations, it also offers scholarship opportunities, a wide and extensive array of benefits, community improvement funds, and family activities and events open to the entire community—not just its members. New York chapters have excursions to Parc Safari, Boston for whale watching, and Lake Monster games. Chapters offer the events at no or reduced cost.
The company’s community values aren’t just something it pays lip service to; it puts its back into the work it does and has an established history of giving back to the communities of which it is a part. For the past two years WoodmenLife has had a National Community Focus (NCF) on Hunger. That focus has resulted in collection of close to a half million pounds of food and upwards of three quarters of a million dollars in monetary donations since January 2015. And the action isn’t just on the national level. New York chapters and members have donated almost 10,000 pounds of food and close to $5,000 in monetary donations. The NCF isn’t the only way WoodmenLife gives back to its communities. Because it operates as a nonprofit, it takes its earnings and puts them back into perks and benefits for members.
Five years ago, WoodmenLife also created a program called Red Basket, which took its longstanding demonstration of community service into the digital age. In true WoodmenLife fashion, it carved out its own definition of crowd funding. The free fundraising site, www.redbasket.org, allows individuals to share their stories, recruit volunteers and raise money for personal emergencies and community improvement projects. WoodmenLife doesn’t take any of the monies raised on Red Basket. It’s a 501c3 organization and therefore all donations are tax deductible and the asker keeps all the monies raised, regardless of whether the goal is met.
Power of the People
Gonyo is proud of the team he has assembled and graciously gives credit where credit is due. The sales representatives who support the local chapters come from all different career paths and bring varied and valuable skill sets to the table. But they all have one thing in common—they love what they do and who they do it for—and that continues to inspire other sales reps.
One of the local representatives is a formally trained tax preparer who worked next door to WoodmenLife’s office before he joined the WoodmenLife team. He realized the importance of insurance one day when a customer came to his office and wanted to file her taxes. It was well ahead of the deadline and she was going to get a refund a seemingly routine transaction. Sadly, she needed the refund to pay for funeral services for her father. He had passed suddenly without provision made to lay him to rest. The representative realized then that the importance of taking care of finances isn’t just about filing taxes, but also about ensuring that when loved ones pass, members aren’t plagued with worry over how to cover funeral costs.
Other associates at WoodmenLife have similar stories, but the largest common denominator among the team members at Boynton Avenue is their desire to help people navigate their way through the products WoodmenLife offers to insure their financial health and well-being for now and for generations. WoodmenLife gives them the products to offer, but the company’s corporate culture gets them excited about doing it. If you believe that attitude is a reflection of leadership, then leadership at WoodmenLife is inspirational; inspired to support the community and its members.