Independent insurance is perfect fit for Pine River
Three different owners shared the same, community centric vision
PINE RIVER — In a world full of big name insurance companies with seemingly endless advertising budgets, the city of Pine River is home to three independent brokers, one of whom thinks that's not by accident.
"In this type of community not everyone likes the big companies," said Pine River Insurance owner Tim Christianson. "They like to have options. When I bought this agency in 2006, we lost some customers, of course, but I still have a lot of customers from 2006, and then new business as well from Grandpa down to his grandson.
“You get to see all parts of some of the families and get to know them a bit, including what Grandpa does and what his grandsons and granddaughters do in school," he said.
Christianson thinks a small town like Pine River is the perfect atmosphere for independent firms to thrive.
"Being independent, we have a few more different options than a captive carrier like the big guys you see on the TV," Christianson said. "All I can say is, don't always believe what you see on TV or what you hear. It isn't always what it seems to be. With us having more than one option, hopefully we can find a fit for most people."
That's been the model since the first owners of Pine River Insurance, formerly Bean's Ameriguard Insurance. Robert Bean founded the business on the types of relationships only possible in a very personal, independent insurance company.
"My dad was a people person," said Richie Bean, Robert's son. "He did as much business out of the cafe and coffee shop, golf course or high school event as he did in his office. He was very much a small town type of operator."
Those relationships still allow agents to make the most personalized recommendations for their customers.
"Rates don't seem to be going down, so we love to have options and love to be able to help people save money, and if they do have a claim for fire or wind - and hail has been huge - being able to walk them through the claims process and help them on that end," Christianson said. "If you like people, it's a good industry to be in."
Robert Bean had many years of insurance experience, even before he and his family located to northern Minnesota, almost retiring from the industry at one point.
"My dad worked for MSI, Mutual Service Insurance, which is now Country Financial," Richie Bean said. "He worked for them for 20 years. He was a regional vice president of sales for the Upper Midwest. He did that for years before he had a heart attack and semi-retired. They decided to move up here I think in ‘81."
Robert Bean put in another four years under Dick Sessing in Walker and Bemidji before deciding to become his own boss. At first he ran the business from his home.
They later rented a space just south of the corner of Barclay and First avenues, between the Cenex and the former Family Dollar building in a building Richie Bean said is no longer standing.
Tragedy struck in 2000 with the death of Robert Bean. Wife Mona kept the business running while seeking a buyer. That's where Pat Smith, of Brainerd Insurance Company, stepped in.
"Pat came in and bought it and moved it to the current location and renamed it Pine River Insurance," Bean said.
In Brainerd, Smith was very active. He owned a mix of businesses and got involved in community matters when possible.
"He did a lot of things and had a lot of businesses in Brainerd," Christianson said. "He had a UPS store, a pizza place and the agency that I think had about eight employees when I worked there. He sold (Brainerd Insurance) some time around 2011 maybe."
Mona stayed on for a while under Smith.
Carol Windorski, an agent who has worked in the Pine River Insurance office since the Beans owned it, said Smith was a "crackerjack," referring to his skill in the industry.
"My employee, Carol, has been here for the owners before Pat and then worked for Pat," Christianson said. "I was fortunate to have her stick with me since the beginning of 2006. A lot of people know her more than me."
Windorski said the building was previously a Coast to Coast store. Smith split it in two, with one door to the right leading into a different business and the door on the left leading into Pine River Insurance.
While Smith owned the building, he made acquaintance with Christianson, the next future owner.
"My dad was a marketing rep for one of the insurance agencies we write insurance with," Christianson said. "He was good friends with Pat and I was able to work for Pat for a while. I would have liked to work with him a little longer."
Christianson and his family had migrated to Breezy Point because of his wife's ties to Longville.
Christianson wanted to make the same transition as Robert Bean, from employee to owner. On Nov. 1, 2006, he purchased Pine River Insurance from Smith.
The personality of the community was a big draw.
"When the option comes up for someone to own a business with the option of helping people and being an employer in the town of Pine River, it just made sense to me," Christianson said. "Timing wasn't perfect, but it is what it is. I'm super fortunate to have the employee I do. It worked out great.
"Pine River's a great community," he said. "I enjoy it a lot. The school is good here. They have lots of things going on in the summertime. Wintertime is a good time. There's a parade and Christmas season and people are friendly."
Throughout the years, insurance has had a lot of changes and many customers operate without having a personal agent in charge of their accounts. Bean and Christianson said there are some drawbacks inherent with doing business that way.
"Part of it is your agent will go to bat for you," Bean said. "Some bigger companies, if you get in an accident you're kind of on your own, especially in online ones where there is no agent involved. You kind of have to battle some of the insurance stuff on your own.
“With an agent, a good agent will stand with you and push back and work with you against the company and adjusters," he said.
The personal, face-to-face service of an independent insurance company remains a big part of what makes Pine River Insurance a good fit for the community. Pine River is host to three such agencies (Hanneken Insurance Agency, Cass Company Insurance and Pine River Insurance), which Christianson considers a positive thing.
"I think it's a better fit for a smaller town," Christianson said. "There are three independent agencies in Pine River. We aren't necessarily fighting for the same customers, but competition is good. It gives people more freedom and more options too. To make sure their agent is doing what's best for them."
Reflecting, Bean commended the three independent firms in town.
"It was one of those small town shops that have really kind of disappeared," Bean said. "I'm not taking anything away from the three there, they still do a very good job of that and hold onto that, but insurance has changed so much it's tough to do that.
“In my opinion they are doing a great job of staying connected to the community," he said.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.