Growing up in a “Caterpillar family,” Pete Coyle has lived in several states and on two continents. When he graduated from Eastern Illinois University, Pete was only sure of two things: that he would have no part of the insurance business, and that he would not live in Peoria. Despite these early notions, he has done both—rising to the top of the insurance industry and returning to his Peoria roots, where he lives with wife Katherine and daughters Katy and Maggie.
Today, he is President of Coyle Insurance—a local company built on the principles of providing superior customer service and quality insurance solutions for their customers. Having earned the Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) designation in 1987, he has been involved with that organization for over 20 years.
The Coyles are long-time supporters of many local charities, and Pete serves on the boards of the W.D. Boyce Council Boy Scouts of America and Country Club of Peoria, as well as several insurance company agent advisory boards. He has made presentations to business classes at Bradley University, helping students understand the insurance industry, and this month will be presenting to the “Certificate in Small Business Management” classes at Bradley, along with his partner, Bob Knapp. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, golf and spending time with friends and family.
Please tell our readers about your educational/career background and how you first became involved with Coyle Insurance.
We were a Caterpillar family growing up, so we moved fairly often. In 1972, when I was 12, we moved to Tokyo, Japan, where I attended St. Mary’s International School. While it was an English-speaking school, there were students from 53 different countries at St. Mary’s. This was a great experience, though quite a culture shock for a 12-year-old from St. Thomas in Peoria.
Two years later, while my parents remained in Tokyo, I entered high school at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana. When my parents moved back to Peoria before my junior year, I transferred to Bergan High School. After graduating from Bergan, I went to Eastern Illinois University, and received a business degree with a major in finance in 1982. The job market was pretty tight that year. My first job was as assistant manager of Coach House Gifts in the mall. After nearly a year there, I went to work for Ruppman Marketing Services in sales.
Dad was still with Caterpillar, though he had become interested in the insurance business through some involvement with my brother Mike’s agency, the R M Coyle Company in Rockford. Mike was very successful early in his career, and Dad thought that if Mike can do it, he could do it here in Peoria! Mike made it look easy, which, as we found out, it wasn’t.
Sometime in the fall of 1983, Dad decided to take early retirement from CAT, and start an insurance agency from scratch. His friends at CAT thought he was nuts, which in retrospect, he was to some degree! Were Dad to have analyzed the state of the local economy and the condition of the commercial insurance marketplace back then, his conclusion may have been to do something else. Luckily, he didn’t do that analysis! He retired from CAT on December 31, 1983, and the R M Coyle Company of Peoria, Inc. opened for business on January 1, 1984, which was also Dad’s 58th birthday!
As an aside, we just recently retrieved a bit of our history from those first days. Our original office was in suite 604 of the First National Bank Building in downtown Peoria. It was a small but nice office with a view of the building’s air conditioning units. Last October, I stopped by the bank on business and decided to go up and see the old floor and office. When the elevator doors opened on the 6th floor, I saw that the entire floor had been gutted for a new tenant. I walked back to where the old office used to be, and though the walls had just been torn out, the door to “604” was leaning against an exterior wall. With help from many people, including Kert Huber, the building’s owner, I did get the door restored to how it was back in 1984, and it is now a conference room door in our current office building.
What inspired or motivated you to follow in your father’s footsteps in the insurance business? Was that always your career intent?
The opportunity to work with my dad and to someday own a business is what attracted me to the insurance business. However, that was certainly not always my career intent. I recall a discussion I had with friends at Eastern just before graduation. My only job opportunity was to go to work for Mike’s agency in Rockford. I remember telling my friends that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was sure of two things. One, I would never get into the insurance business, and two, I would not live in Peoria. Fortunately I was only sure of two things back then!
After your father founded the R.M. Coyle Company in January 1984, was it planned that you would join the group only months later? How has Coyle Insurance evolved since its inception?
Dad kept me informed of his plans, and we did intend on my joining the agency. While I really liked my job at Ruppman Marketing, I took the pay cut and joined the agency in April 1984.
The agency has evolved over the 23 years we have been in business. Dad is now retired, though he still has an office and comes by several times a week. We now have 20 employees and see significant growth in the future.
The early years were especially challenging, as the commercial insurance market was in a very “hard” market cycle, and getting insurance company contracts was difficult. We were able to access some insurance companies through the R M Coyle Company in Rockford. Due to the hard market, we focused on personal insurance and sold home and auto coverage for the first few years. Another challenge was the condition of the local economy in the mid ‘80s. Our timing could have been better, but eventually everything worked out.
In 1987, we acquired our first agency, the Peter Gulatto Agency, and moved into their space in the Northwest Community Bank building near Northwoods Mall. In 1990 we relocated to 4700 N. Prospect Road in Peoria Heights.
1991 marked a major milestone as we acquired the property/casualty book of business from John P. Pearl & Associates. This acquisition tripled our size, and we were then known as The Coyle-Pearl Agency. We were able to add space at 4700 Prospect Road.
In 1996, another opportunity to grow came with the acquisition of the Hefner-Yates Agency book of business, adding Nick Yates to our team. That year we changed our name to Coyle Insurance Agency, our name today. In 1997, we built the building in the Glen Avenue Corporate Park in Peoria, our current location.
We saw the need to diversify into employee benefits to better serve our customers. In March of 2000, Bob Knapp joined the agency to develop an Employee Benefits department, focusing primarily on employer sponsored benefit plans, as well as individual and group retirement and financial plans. This has been a very successful venture, as that department now represents a significant and growing percentage of our agency’s revenue.
What was it like to work with your father?
It has been an incredible experience and one for which I am truly grateful. Dad had a very successful career at Caterpillar, and still has the “yellow blood” of the Caterpillar family. He was in marketing at Caterpillar, retiring as sales manager of General Offices (meaning worldwide sales manager). Dad had many incredible experiences working with CAT dealers all over the world. He frequently went to places like China, the Soviet Union, Iran and many other places that few Americans went to back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
As much as Dad liked Caterpillar and the people there, he always wanted to own his own business. The opportunity to start an insurance agency came along, and at the age of 58, he went from selling tractors one day to selling insurance the next. Seeing that transition was a real lesson in humility for me. He no longer had assistants taking care of him. Being an insurance agent isn’t as glamorous as it sounds! Dad was never above doing any job that needed to be done, and he had a great ability to do seemingly menial tasks with the same level of care as his more important roles as a salesperson and leader of a business.
As a family business in the insurance industry, what challenges have you faced?
We are fortunate that being a family business in the insurance industry has had more advantages than disadvantages. The first few years, my mom, Shirley Coyle, was our bookkeeper. That worked pretty well since we didn’t have any income and the price was right for her services!
Mom worked behind the scenes, too. She was—and is—a great ambassador for the agency. When she needed to sign on a personal guarantee to the bank so we could borrow money to grow, she did it. She never doubted Dad’s judgment or ability to make it work. She has been an important part of the agency’s success.
We are also fortunate to have my brother Mike’s agency, Coyle-Varland in Rockford, as an ally. While there is no common ownership between us, we help each other whenever we can, offering each other advice on what has worked and what hasn’t. We are the best of friends, and somewhat competitive with each other, though we don’t compete for business. Our agencies are very similar in size and lines of business.
What makes Coyle Insurance unique compared to other insurance agencies?
We have become a “one-stop shop” for a growing number of businesses that want to have their property/casualty, group medical, life and disability and retirement plan with one organization. We do all of these things very well.
We have a group of individuals who bring both technical expertise and a commitment to personal service to the job each day. We have four different areas of expertise at Coyle Insurance: personal lines (home, auto, life and long-term care), commercial lines, employee benefits and financial services. Our employees are focused in their area of expertise and regularly advise co-workers when clients’ needs require their assistance.
Whatever needs our customers have determines who is most qualified to help within the agency. We each recognize that we can’t do it all ourselves. We welcome the opportunity to bring in our in-house experts to assist customers in areas in which they need assistance.
How has the insurance business changed over the years?
There have been numerous changes. One change I have seen is in the sophistication of insurance buyers. Customers are much more aware of what is available today in the marketplace, and have greater expectations of their brokers than they did 20 years ago. We have some of the very best businesses, not-for-profits and public entities in the area as clients. We are proud of these relationships and work hard every day to earn our clients’ trust and exceed their expectations.
We are constantly exploring new ways to add value to relationships. We have partnered with loss control specialists, HR consultants and property appraisers to ensure our customers get the professional advice they need. We go the extra mile to help our clients prosper. We become more than an insurance agency—we become a trusted advisor and friend.
Another ongoing challenge is in changes to the policy forms themselves. Insurance policies are different from one insurance company to another, and case law coming out this year could cause a change in a policy form next year. We have to be constantly aware of these changes and educate our customers about them.
Like all businesses, we have to find new ways to meet and exceed customer expectations. This will become more difficult for agencies to do, and therefore, we will see further consolidation of agencies. I would expect to see quite a bit of merger and acquisition activity among agencies in central Illinois in the near future; some has already started. We will continue to grow by mergers and acquisitions when it makes sense, and it makes sense if it helps meet the needs of our customers.
With all of these changes, the insurance business is still about providing financial security and protection at a fair price, anticipating customer needs and being there when the customer needs you. The basics of delivering on our promises will never change.
What has been your most rewarding experience?
Watching my two daughters grow and develop is the most rewarding personal experience I have had.
Business-wise, being there for a client after a fire or major injury and providing the financial ability to recover makes this business rewarding every day. Secondly, seeing our employees develop into professionals is also very rewarding. They are the ones who deliver the final product to our customers and we are dependent upon them to take the initiative and do what they believe is right for each customer.
We have many long-term relationships with customers because of the quality work our employees do day in and day out for them.
How did your company get involved with Project Springboard at Bradley University?
Alexis Khazzam had the idea for Project Springboard and thought that having insurance consultants would really help a new upstart company. He asked if we would be interested in participating, and I immediately said yes! This involvement gave me a new appreciation for Bradley University as well.
Bradley really encourages their business students to think about being entrepreneurs—you can even choose to major in entrepreneurship! The way Bradley recognizes the value of Khazzam’s Project Springboard shows that they are open to new ideas which help their students and the community. The Khazzams are very committed to the Peoria area, and Project Springboard is one way in which they help keep new businesses here in Peoria.
Why do you feel it is important for local businesses to give back to the community?
I feel very fortunate to be where we are today as a business, and I want to give back to the community. The business community in Peoria has to be among the most generous of any city anywhere. There are so many good charities that one business can’t help them all. However, the community as a whole supports them all very well.
This is important because local businesses don’t operate in a vacuum. We are all impacted by our community’s ability to deal with its difficulties. It becomes a quality-of-life issue for all of us in central Illinois.
Having lived in central Illinois for some time, how has business changed in the last decade?
I think the local economy today is the best it has been since we started our business in 1984. Caterpillar is having record year after record year, and the medical community continues to grow. There are large and small construction projects both on the drawing board and underway in the area. Even home building still seems strong. We are pretty fortunate here in Peoria right now!
What do you feel is the key to a successful future for the Peoria area?
We need to keep Caterpillar here. There will be opportunities down the road to help Caterpillar decide whether to continue or expand their operations here. We have to be proactive about this because the political/business climate in Illinois does not make it easy for CAT to choose to grow in Peoria. Diversification of the types of business here is important too, but only if we keep our base strong, and the base is Caterpillar. This is the key to a successful future for Peoria.
What do you see is the future for employer-sponsored health plans? What are your thoughts on the current direction of the healthcare debate in this country?
As the healthcare debates continue, we feel that employers will continue to sponsor health plans. However, with the cost of health insurance continuing to increase, we see employers being forced to pass along a higher percentage of the cost to their employees as well as revising coverage designs to be more affordable.
More and more employers are taking a proactive approach to slowing down the rising cost of health insurance by implementing wellness programs. Many are offering incentives for lifestyle choices that will improve utilization needs and help maintain the affordability of health insurance coverage. Employers and insurance agents need to do a better job of informing employees of the true cost of coverage and proper utilization.
While increased government intervention is most likely for the uninsured population, we think health insurance will continue to be obtained for the majority of the workforce through the employer-sponsored channels.
Anything else you would like our readers to know?
One of the biggest challenges our industry has is attracting the best young people to consider insurance as a career. Whether someone is interested in the technical, underwriting area, safety, loss control or claims management, or the sales and marketing side of the business, insurance companies and agencies are looking to hire the best.
Being an “insurance salesman” wasn’t very appealing to me when I was in college, and it is still that way for college students today. However, this has been and still is a very challenging and rewarding career for me. The need for talented young people has never been greater; nor have the opportunities ever been better. I highly recommend this business to anyone who is ambitious and likes working with people.
If you know some young people who are deciding on a career path, suggest that they look into the insurance business. They may be pleasantly surprised! IBI