Planning around life’s unknowns can be difficult to explain and do and, often, even to think about. But a single life event such as an accident, storm, disability, or death can suddenly change the direction of an individual’s, family’s, or company’s path.
Father-and-son team Henry B. Cantrell, CLU and John F. Cantrell, CIC, CEO and president, respectively, and co-owners of H. B. Cantrell & Co., spend much of their time helping people protect themselves, their loved ones, and/or their businesses and property against the unexpected.
“There’s no problem until there’s a problem,” says Henry. “We help potential clients understand the damage they may sustain if a certain occurrence takes place with life, property or business. When there is a problem, we want to make sure the solutions are there.”
“We take a complicated subject and make it easier for people to understand,” continues John. “While clients may not want to talk about such things, we can help them contemplate unforeseen circumstances and navigate through what is needed, presenting solutions that make sense—making it more palatable.”
On the other side of an incident causing loss or damage, Cantrell is there to help clients through a bad situation and make it less burdensome by the protections that were put in place. “Our product for over 35 years, now, is peace of mind,” says John.
Cantrell Insurance is regarded as an “all lines insurance broker,” which means that they work with a broad range of insurance products in the areas of auto, home, business, life and disability. Each partner is fully licensed for both life and property/casualty insurances.
“Our philosophy is to find the best product for the client and then service that client for the long term,” says John. One of the ways they do that is by working with a large and varied list of reputable insurance carriers that consistently offer competitive rates and excellent claims response.
“The selection of insurance carrier is very important,” comments Henry. “Everyone wants the most competitive price and everyone, after the fact, wants the best possible outcome. We want to provide the personal aspect to the client while dealing with the carrier. I am available personally 24/7 with the exception of when I am asleep,” laughs Henry. “I want to know if there are problems.”
Henry balks at the idea of “selling” insurance. “We do not sell—I am not a salesman,” he states emphatically.
“I want to evaluate and show you where you’re at and see if I can be of assistance. I always come away feeling good if I’ve made you aware and educated you to the risks and the available protection.”
Most clients have a need for more than one type of insurance, according to Henry. “I work to build a relationship so that when a client thinks about insurance, they think about us.”
Sixty-five to 70 percent of the company’s book of business is in property/casualty. Commercial versus personal business is about 50/50. “This diversification is intentional and is what helped us through the economic downturn,” says Henry.
The company is not normally involved in group medical and employee benefit plans. “For my first 10 years, 30 percent of my income came from medical,” continues Henry, “but then the market changed and the customer was not happy with what was occurring. I can’t be dealing with a product where the customer is not happy, so I redirected into other areas. I didn’t want to be the communicator that gets killed.”
Cantrell focuses on the Charlotte and surrounding area, but handles business as their clients’ needs demand in other areas. “Working with our clients is more about relationships than geography,” explains John. “If clients have business in other areas, we will follow that.”
The business started out in the South Park area of Charlotte and then was moved to East Seventh Street just a few doors away from where they are now. The purchase of an insurance company named Bowers changed the dynamics of the company and doubled it in size. Outgrowing their space, the company moved into its current offices in 1998.
Assessing Risk Carefully
Consulting over the unknown can be risky business. And in an industry where competitive pricing is strongly demanded, it is all the more challenging to manage risks effectively.
“It is important to evaluate risk carefully,” says Henry. “In any situation, we look at the history of claims, accidents, behavior, activities and habits.”
“We are taking great latitude with the carriers,” explains John. “Carriers look at loss ratios. They look at agents based on the business they write and whether or not these agents help them to become profitable. We can write a contract that can cost them a million dollars tomorrow, so they evaluate us based on our ability.”
Cantrell helps their clients identify, measure and reduce risks for their business, their personal property and their lives. In today’s busy world, people don’t necessarily stop and think about things and the risk they may be exposing themselves to.
John explains, “At a recent business insurance review, we discovered that the client had purchased another business and forgotten to call us. It’s important to think about how what you do might impact your level of risk.”
The process for evaluating a person’s or company’s level of risk is called front-end underwriting. The agent attempts to evaluate the situation in areas that the carriers cannot see. This process is largely responsible for the management of risk and the ultimate success of the insurance industry in terms of financial stability and profitability, according to the Cantrells.
Henry and John express frustration over some companies that tend to operate on the back end, totally on price. These companies, they say, sell a lot of low-priced policies to high-risk customers, who often come away underinsured.
“Due to the widespread appeal of these types of companies and their advertising focused on price only, much of the public has begun to see insurance as a commodity rather than a service,” says John. “You can’t really commoditize it—you can’t take away the fact that people are emotionally tied to their homes and businesses. When something goes wrong, you want to sit down with someone you know and work through it,” says John. “There is still a place at the table for the local guy who maintains a relationship.”
“You’re not really giving them the lowest price by giving them the lowest coverage,” adds Henry. “Those limits are often not sufficient to cover them or another person injured (in the case of an automobile accident). We want to make sure that clients are sufficiently covered. We explain the limits so they can make an educated choice.”
Most of the Cantrells’ clientele are generated by referrals from other personal and commercial business. Proof of insurance is often required by financial lending institutions, state governments, and even discerning customers. Regulation is handled on a state-by-state basis.
The Cantrells are proud of the long-term status of their employees, and attributes longevity at the company to its philosophy, flexibility and family-friendly orientation. Most their employees have been with them for more than 10 years.
“Most of us spend more time at work than with our family,” says John. “We treat employees like family with flexible working hours and time to do things.”
The company also offers fitness programs and lunch-and-learn sessions on parenting, health, nutrition and other topics. Cantrell offers up an unusual order of priorities for its employees.
“We believe your faith is first; family takes priority over your job; then your job,” says Henry. “The reason is simple. We want employees to work in a moral manner and, for most people, this is guided by their faith, whatever that may be. When people see how you work, they see who you are.”
The company emphasizes teamwork, a concept that they had opportunity to test a number of years ago. “Dad had double bypass heart surgery,” remembers John. “But the business didn’t miss a beat, the company progressed and he was able to heal. The team effort carried things forward.”
Still, the biggest challenge is regarding staff, according to John. “It takes time to build and train staff. It’s a complex business and takes time to put the right people together.
Henry graduated from East Carolina University in 1965 with a degree in business. After working for a brief period of time with Pure Oil Company, he was drafted into military service where he attended Officer Candidate School and graduated as a distinguished cadet. He ended up serving in Germany as a company commander and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his service.
Returning to the company, now Union 76, he moved between Richmond, Raleigh and Charlotte. While in Raleigh, he realized that the corporate life was not a good fit.
He entered the insurance business in 1973 with Travelers Insurance Company. “It was basically a three-year salaried training program. They provided zero leads; everything I had was what I could come up, with but they gave me facilities and a cushion to get started.”
From there Henry started his own company. “I wanted to have a job that would allow me to be of service and allow me to be rewarded based on my ability to be of service to people. I’ve had a philosophy of customer service and being empathetic with whom you’re dealing with.”
In a deliberate move, Henry let go of the businesses in 1985, entering into a three-year employment contract with what was then First Union National Bank.
“I did that for two reasons. It gave me opportunity to receive a payment that would provide some security for the future and also to see how the big boys did it. What I came away is that they didn’t do it as good as I was already doing it. So after three years and two months I returned to being an independent broker.”
John joined his Dad in the business after graduating from East Carolina University in 1992 with a degree in finance.
Serious about their role in the community, the Cantrells have a long family history of civic involvement including Rotary Club and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. John, an Eagle Scout himself, is an assistant scout master at Troop 11 meeting at Providence United Methodist Church.
The pair are active at Covenant Presbyterian Church and offer support for breast and brain cancer research, Samaritan’s Feet, and the YMCA. John enjoys athletics and has completed several triathlons including an Ironman Triathalon. “Being a part of the community is an extension of who we are; what our business is,” says John.
Henry lives in Charlotte with his wife. His younger son is a 19-year veteran of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department. John lives with his wife, Ashley, who is a neo-natal intensive care nurse, and his three children, ages 15, 14, and 12.
Henry and John have an obvious bond and rapport—they enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to work together. “We get to see each other every day and talk whenever we can,” says Henry. “I don’t try to ‘big-dog’ and I don’t dictate. If you look on my card, you don’t see a title. That’s the way we manage the whole office.”
“I feel blessed,” says John. “I like that there is opportunity to provide a legacy to my children in that they could have a legitimate place to make a living. Plus, I get to go home every night. Lots of people have to get on an airplane and stay in a hotel to have a successful career in sales. I have been able to participate in my kids’ lives. It’s been good.”
Asked about potential for retirement, Henry states that he has begun to work fewer days and hours but is still quite active in the business. “I want to deal with those customers who want to deal with me for as long as I am able,” he says, his commitment and determination apparent.