By Caroline Brooks
What does it take to keep a small business operating for the past 40 years in an uneasy economy like Michigan’s? Dedication, tenacity, resourcefulness, and strong family ties. The first three qualities might not come as a surprise, but for the Chapman Agency of Lansing, Michigan, three generations of Broad College of Business graduates have gotten their insurance agency through the worst of economic times.
When David Chapman moved with his family to the United States from England at the age of 12 after World War II, they settled in Lansing. When time came for college, he enrolled at – and worked his way through – Michigan State. “It was close to home, so I was able to work my way through college in the university’s accounting department and at an insurance agency,” Dave said. Gifted with numbers, he majored in accounting and began working as a bookkeeper at an insurance agency right after graduating. Twenty-two years later, he began his own insurance agency with three people in the office. Today, just after celebrating the agency’s 40th anniversary, more than 50 employees fill the Chapman Agency‘s Lansing office – reflecting the firm’s four acquisitions in its years of operation.
One of those employees, David’s son Bob, followed in his father’s footsteps – both in terms of work ethic and career path. “I started working in the accounting department at the insurance agency in high school, splitting my days between school and working,” he said. Chapman hadn’t seriously thought about his career until he was offered an accounting role at the local Sears store, but turned it down to continue working at his father’s insurance agency while attending MSU. “Instead of accounting, I pursued risk and assurance. The program was very small within the business college, so we were tight-knit and even still remain connected. In fact, MSU’s risk management officer was a classmate of mine,” Bob remembers.
Over the years, the Chapmans’ agency – and the insurance industry at large – has undergone tremendous change. More than 170,000 small businesses didn’t survive the economic recession, and in the past decade, nearly 25 percent of the counties in the U.S. with the highest rates of business failure were in Michigan. What the Chapmans believe helped their company through these times are accessibility and flexibility. For example, many insurance agencies today are internet-based and, while convenient, aren’t what many consumers want. When dealing with the many complications that go along with insurance claims, people would rather speak to someone they know over the phone than fill out request forms online, Bob said. Beyond that, he explained “today, there are far more complications when it comes to insurance. We’re not selling insurance like agencies did decades ago. Today’s agents are more like trusted advisors that talk through the complexities of policies.”
After weathering the worst period of small business history, the Chapman Agency continues growing. Ryan Peterson (BA Finance ’14), grandson of David and nephew of Bob, joined the family’s tradition as the third Broad alumnus in the family business. With him comes a new generation of professional expertise. “There are new things we can bring into the business. With respect to the traditional way we do business, there are fresh perspectives a new family member can bring,” Peterson said.
Regardless of the family’s career tradition, one thing the three generations of Broad graduates share is a mutual respect for working together. All three recognize the strengths the others bring to the table, and as Bob said, putting the business before personal interests is what keeps the Chapman Agency a Lansing – and small business – success story.