Justin Heisler never misses an opportunity to help out a client. Call it a commitment to the family business.

The Farmers Union Insurance agent from West Fargo joined the company in 2018, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Darwin Peterson 56 years ago and his great grandfather Melvin “Mel or M.O.” Peterson 76 years ago, both of whom worked for Farmers Union Insurance.

It didn’t take long for Justin to get acclimated to the business. He won Farmers Union Insurance’s Rookie of the Year in 2019 and recently earned “Premier Agency” status, a coveted honor that recognizes the Justin Heisler Agency as being in the top 10 percent.

Not surprising to his grandpa Darwin, a former agent and district manager who lives in Devils Lake.

“Justin’s a likable guy – he’s a people pleaser, and that’s what it takes,” Darwin said. “People care about being able to trust the person they’re dealing with. Trust is a big issue. They don’t want to know everything about insurance. They want to hire someone who does know that they can trust.”

Though Justin has only been with the company less than two years, he said he understands why his grandpa spoke so highly of it.

“It’s a family company,” Justin said. “We’re all pretty close. Agents from other companies compete against each other, and they often don’t like each other. We’re a family. We want to see each other do well.”

Family

Darwin said Melvin Peterson started in 1944 with Farmers Union Insurance as one of only two full-time agents in the state, with Melvin handling the eastern half of the state. Part-time agents, or field agents, existed across the state and were aided by the two full-timers.

“He sold auto insurance, and when they started to add more agents and it got to the point when we had more agents than anyone else, he became a district manager,” Darwin said of his father, who was one of the four original district managers.

Darwin remembers his dad as being dedicated to his profession.

“They didn’t have the kind of snow removal they have now,” he said. “He would park on a section line and walk through snowbanks to get to a farmhouse. If a blizzard came, he’d stay in the farmhouse for two or three days, despite never meeting them before.

One time, he got stuck on a highway and ended up staying in a schoolhouse for two days with no food. At least he was warm.”

In 1964, Darwin interviewed and became the youngest agent in the field at the time. He was part of a group of agents who were the first to start selling life insurance full-time.

“I had actually interviewed with Firestone after college for their management, but they said they wanted their management to learn how to change tires,” he said. “I said, ‘I didn’t go to four years of college to change tires.’ Dad said I should take a look at Farmers Union Insurance. Once I was hired, I started in a pilot program where some of us just sold life insurance.”

Darwin said his father trained him on the nuances of being an agent.

“I made some joint calls with him, and he’d analyze what went right and what went wrong,” he said. “A lot of that is learned by experience. The big thing is developing personal relationships. Once they understand that you’re not primarily after a commission and that you want to solve a problem for them in the most economical way, people like that.”

Eventually, Darwin became a district manager for the final 16 years of his career, retiring in 2002.

“Farmers Union was very good to me,” Darwin said. “I have great friendships that have lasted over the years. Insurance really is a people business. That’s why I like it so much.”

Justin, born in Denver, eventually played football and basketball at West Fargo High School, and then basketball at the University of Jamestown. He moved on to Minnesota State-Moorhead, where he received his degree.

“One day my grandpa called me and said there was a job opening,” Justin said. “I had gone to a couple of Farmers Union conventions when they were in town, and they always advertised at our sporting events.”

Darwin said Justin had wanted to sell life insurance but convinced his grandson to consider a broader approach.

“I said, ‘If you want to sell insurance, (life alone) isn’t the field because there is a lot of it on the internet,’” Darwin said. “He’s done me proud.”

Said Justin, “It’s a commitment once you take this job that you’re going to stay here. It’s been great. I really like it here.”

Success

Justin points to availability, business relationships and social media as the secrets to his early success.

He said he provides as many quotes as he can, even receiving information via text message from customers who aren’t familiar with him but were recommended by someone they know.

“I carry my computer and a hotspot with me wherever I go, so I can do a quote,” he said.

That’s helped him build relationships with many businesses including car dealerships, which often need auto insurance for their customers.

“I’ll do the quote quick on a Saturday, and they can come in and sign it on Monday,” he said.

A far cry from Darwin’s early days when they were sitting at kitchen tables, writing quotes out in longhand.

“When we got a handheld calculator, my goodness, I thought we had died and gone to heaven,” Darwin said. “Then we got Polaroid cameras, and that was a big deal. I also remember when we first got bag (mobile) phones. That also changed things.”

Social media has made a big difference for Justin, using giveaways to increase his online presence, and in turn, gain more customers.

“You’ve got to find influencers,” said Justin, referring to not just social media influencers. “There are people who go with you and save money, and they go home. Then there are (influencers) who you saved $20 a month, and they go and tell 40 people. Word of mouth is still the biggest thing.”

Justin said he started out with door hangers on apartment doors, earning “30 to 40 people from that.” Now, he puts social media to use with contests that benefit not only his clients, but also any potential customers.

“I can put something on Instagram for (the metro area) and 1,400 people will see it,” he said.

Another key ingredient to his success has been right across the hall: longtime agent Shane Lebahn. The two share an office space along with two customer service representatives.

“Shane has probably been the most influential person – he’s helped me a lot,” Justin said. “Instead of throwing me to the wolves, he let me sit with him on multiple meetings, and he’s taught me a lot. Both Shane and my grandpa have really helped me.”

Each month, Darwin still gets the Flickertail, a monthly magazine designed for the agents that reports not only numbers but also what’s happening within the company. It allows Darwin to keep track of Justin’s progress.

“I know if I have a good month, I’ll be looking forward to a call from him,” Justin said.

Said Darwin: “This business is still about people. And Justin has a lot of inherent ability. He must get that from his parents or other grandpa.”

— Chris Aarhus, NDFU Editor