Wendell Fossum decided to make a career change in 1995.
After nearly 20 years teaching orchestra at Norfolk Public Schools, he exchanged his conducting baton for a license to sell insurance, a career he’s been following ever since.
The Wendell Fossum Agency of American Family Insurance will celebrate its 25th anniversary in Norfolk this year. An open house is being planned for late spring or early summer.
Fossum said his interest in pursuing a career in the insurance industry began after a good friend who worked for State Farm Insurance suggested he look into the field.
“We both had a good laugh, and that was the end of it,” Fossum said.
But in the mid-1990s, Fossum said he had reached a plateau in his career as an educator and felt it was time to pursue a line of work that would offer the ability for him to continue upward income mobility.
“I couldn’t get rid of the idea,” Fossum said of the idea of selling insurance. “It kept hanging on with me.”
He had taken out car and property policies with American Family in the past and was pleased with his experience with the company, so he reached out to his personal agent about the prospect of becoming an agent himself.
“He gave me the manager’s number,” Fossum said. “The manager ended up being born the same year I was, and he kept hiring people that were looking for a second career, who had proven themselves in one area and were looking for something else.”
Fossum started with a scratch agency. He established an office inside what is now known as Great Western Bank on the corner of Fourth Street and Braasch Avenue. Within about a year, he had hired his first part-time staff person.
Over the years, Fossum said he has seen many changes come to pass in the insurance industry. The greatest change, perhaps, has been the effect technology has had on the agency.
“The first six or seven months in agency, I didn’t have a computer. Everything was on paper,” Fossum said.
Fossum said everything that came from the company arrived in an envelope about once a week, and there was a phone number agents had to dial into daily.
The rise of online competition has created a difference, as well, he said. Fortunately, he added, most Northeast Nebraska residents still prefer to have an agent they can meet with face to face so a relationship can develop.
Fossum said he realized how important those relationships could be after seeing firsthand the destruction left by a tornado that struck St. Peter, Minnesota, in 1998.
“I thought, ‘When this happens to my people, they’re going to be calling you, Wendell. You better do this job right,’ ” he said. “That really impacted me then.”
Fossum has seen a number of memorable events that have affected his clients over the years, including the hail storm that struck the Norfolk area about two weeks before the Pilger tornado and created a frenzy of claims.
The timing of the event created a situation that left him as the only person in the office to field the phone calls from clients. Fossum said his manager from Omaha picked up a customer service representative from the Wisner office that had closed to help him handle the situation.
“They helped me field calls,” he said.
The customer service representative from Wisner, Jody Woldt, ended up staying on at the agency for a few years afterward.
The agency now includes Fossum, as well as licensed agents Lisa Gubbels and Amy Matthies and a part-time employee, and is located in the Holiday Plaza behind Jerry’s Sinclair.
Fossum said he sees a bright future for the agency; he enjoys the work and believes in the other agents in the office. He still makes time in his schedule for music, playing upright bass in a light jazz band called After Hours.
“I’m in no rush to retire,” he said. “I”m getting up there in years, but I enjoy what I’m doing.”