Featuring: Kari Hefnider of American Family Insurance
Kari and I decided to meet up at a coffee shop known as “The Coffee Shop Northeast” which is on the corner of Johnson and 29th Street. Kari came in wearing a stylish leopard print pea coat accompanied by Angie (since they had a meeting across the street). The day was bright and fall was in full force. After the meet and greet occurred Kari decided to try an Italian soda made with lavender syrup and I since I already had my fill of coffee, decided to sip on a San Pellegrino blood orange soda. As Kari sat down she told me she ordered the lavender Italian soda because she loved trying something unique. It seemed completely fitting for her.
I started off the conversation by telling her even though I had only been to a couple of MetroNorth Sunrise Breakfast events, I could remember her commercial distinctly and felt that she really cared about her clients. She smiled and nodded. “I’ve always considered that being in this business, I don’t sell insurance. I don’t even say that sentence. I’m an educator of insurance and client focused. And in serving my clients, if there’s a need and my product fits, then great.”
I was interested in hearing more from Kari about her business model and asked her to take it from the beginning. “I was an auto glass professional for 18 years. After I had left the last company, somebody I had done business with prior reached out to me and told me to think about insurance.” I asked Kari what her reaction to that was. “Heck no!” she exclaimed. I laughed. “But as I started thinking about it, I thought about my background in customer care and I thought, ‘That’s how I can be different’.”
For Kari, being different meant not approaching family and friends about her new business, but letting them come to her instead. “I felt like that was important,” she said. I thought briefly about my Facebook feed and the constant barrage of notifications I get from acquaintances asking if I want to buy this product or that product. Kari’s the kind of person you want to do business with, I thought. Her family and friends probably wanted to recommend her more because of her consideration.
I learned that Kari started her business back in 2008 just after the market crashed. “Great time to be in business, right?” she said. I asked her to elaborate a bit more on how she went about building her business in a time when the economy had taken a turn for the worst. “It wasn’t easy. It was really hard. But, I’m the type of person who, if someone says, ‘you can’t do it’, responds by saying, ‘watch me.’” The first thing Kari did was join the chamber and really leaned into networking. “My clients are like my extended family. They really are. I’ve been told, ‘You care more about my insurance than I do.’” I laughed, and said that in some respects, that’s the way it should be.
“I don’t do health insurance so when people ask I refer them to a health insurance professional. There’s just a lot to know. Instead, I handle auto, home, toys, and business insurance. I really love business insurance because I get to watch people grow and be a part of thing they’re passionate about.” Kari paused for a moment and then I added, “I also do life insurance. That one is really important to me.”
For whatever reason, I hadn’t really expected that answer, so I was curious to know why life insurance mattered so much to Kari. “I’m always going to have clients who die. From a newborn baby to a 91-year-old. I’ve seen what life insurance can do for people’s loved ones and the pain when it’s absent.” Kari looked away briefly and then back at me. “Two weeks ago I lost a 34-year-old client. We talked about getting life insurance but he never pulled the trigger. I do follow ups with my clients, but I don’t like to be pushy. It’s a bit like Murphy’s Law. If you take care of life insurance, it will take care of you.”
Talking about her client who had passed made the conversation feel quite weighted. “It’s hard for people to talk about death,” Kari said. “It’s a dark subject and people don’t like it, but they’re always relieved when they take care of life insurance.” I thoughtfully nodded and asked Kari to tell me how she broaches the subject with clients. “I take the personal side out of it. It’s a financial plan so it’s smart. Maybe retirement is sexier, I don’t know. I try to bring life to it. If you can plan for things it becomes a little less devastating.”
Switching gears a bit, Kari and I started talking about her team, and what it’s like running that aspect of her business. “Jenny is my office manager and has been with me almost since the beginning. She worked for me part time until I needed her full-time. We don’t even have to talk to each other sometimes because we just know what the other is doing. Stephanie has been with me since January. She’s bubbly, friendly and has an infectious laugh. Clients just love her. And we just hired someone who is in their early 20s and I think she’s going to be a great fit.”
Kari told me that she tries to make her office feel very homey and comfortable so her employees want to come to work. I thought about how this tied back to how she makes her clients part of the family. It just seemed like her natural bent and how she views the world. Kari agreed. “Customer service is also a big deal for us. If one of our clients took something the wrong way, I feel sad. I don’t want anyone to feel that we didn’t give it our best. I understand that people leave us, but I’m always asking for feedback because I want those reasons to be out of my control.”
The idea of making the office feel homey got me wondering if Kari had ever worked from home. She shook her head. “I don’t’ think I could have ever worked from home. Too many distractions. I have two stepsons (both adults) but they lived with us. And,” she said with a smile, “My dog would just want to cuddle with me so I couldn’t get anything done.”
I immediately had to know more about Kari’s dog. I found out that his name is Cooper and he is a purebred Weimaraner they adopted from the shelter. She said her husband called Cooper “a good used dog.” Kari and I talked about how in the Twin Cities a lot of people choose dog adoption. She nodded. “I’ve done doggy adoption for a long time now. When I was younger, my mom, my sister and I adopted a little Yorkie from the Humane Society. She looked so awful in that cage and had an overbite. It was so sad. They said to us at the Humane Society, ‘Nobody wants her’. Well, that was it.”
Kari and I shared doggy adoption stories. I told her that I had been searching the internet and when I saw the picture of my current dog, I had this gut feeling he was the right dog for us. She nodded. “You’ve got to have that connection. I once drove three hours to see a dog, and I sat in the cage but it was missing that special something. However, that was the shelter that had Cooper. He just looked up at me with those eyes….” Kari smiled.
I asked Kari to tell me what else she enjoys doing outside of work. “I’ve been doing a Breast Cancer 3 Day walk for a few years. This year I’m going to San Diego to walk 20 miles a day. It’s something that I’m really passionate about.” Kari’s passion for raising money for breast cancer research started back in 2004 when someone who worked for her was diagnosed. She and her sister did a three-day event in the Twin Cities to raise awareness. “She lived for six more years, and it was because of the treatments from research. Recently, I lost a friend in April and she was 45 years old. Very aggressive type of breast cancer. Diagnosis to death was 18 months. I needed to keep that fight going. I promised her on her deathbed that I would do whatever I could.” Again, the conversation turned serious. But in the end, these are things that truly matter. Being there for a friend, rescuing a dog. I’ve heard so many business owners tell me they went into business for themselves so they could have the ability and flexibility to appreciate those moments in life.
“This Saturday I will be bagging groceries from 11 to 4,” Kari said. “I feel that it’s important to give back in whatever way you’re passionate. I try to spread the love around a little bit. And I’ve always said,” Kari continued with a smile, “If I ever won the lottery I would buy 1000 acres in Northern Minnesota, fence it out and rescue dogs. And I would volunteer my time. What better way to spend your life?” I heartily agreed.