So, one might ask, how does a shy girl become an insurance agent?
There’s no point in directing that question to Kim Ottinger, native of Newport, who has taken over the office of recently retired State Farm agent Jim Smith.
Personable, outright friendly in fact, and never at a loss for words, Ottinger was born in the Lincoln Park area of Michigan. Her father was from Marshall, N.C. and when she was nine, Ottinger’s family moved to East Tennessee, to be near family. She graduated from Cocke County High School, then attended Hamblen County School of Beauty and went on to work as a stylist at Diana’s Beauty Salon in Newport for 30 years.
She attended Walters State Community College and Tusculum College and worked in sales for Lincare in Knoxville. She was eventually approached by a State Farm recruiter and began the national company’s training program in 2005.
“Then my brother passed away and I began caring for my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s,” Ottinger said. “After mother passed away, I decided to try and reconnect with State Farm. I’ve been in the program for two years and interviewed for the Morristown office in April.”
After learning she had received the position, one of her first priorities was to talk to Smith.
“I wanted him to see who would be taking over,” Ottinger said. “I walked away from a 30-year business, and I take it very personally. I went to see him; I wanted to be respectful of him.”
The team at the office includes Mary Strope, account executive and office manager, who, according to Ottinger, is a lot like Madonna, in the fact that she is well-known in the community by one name. Strope has been with the office for 14 years.
Felicia Jenkins is an account representative — “She’s new to the table, but she’s a fireball,” Ottinger said.
Angie Strange is also an account representative and has 25 years of insurance experience, three years with State Farm, and is described by Ottinger as very knowledgeable. The team is rounded out by Danielle Wood, customer service agent, who has been with the office for nine months.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Ottinger said. “Everyone is sweet, professional and has a servant’s heart. When I look for an agent, I’m looking for a professional who cares about getting the job done, but cares for other people. That’s really big for me. They have to care about what’s going in the other person’s life. Yes, sell the heck out of it — but if you don’t care about the person across the counter, I’m not interested in working with you.”
Ottinger has been married to Truitt Ottinger for 30 years. He is a senior vice president with Tennessee State Bank and oversees the Newport branch. The couple has two sons: Luke, a graduate of the University of Tennessee and investment banker with SunTrust Bank in Atlanta, and Jake, a full-time student who works as legislative assistant in Nashville.
Talking with Ottinger reveals a pragmatic approach to a competitively-natured business.
“There was 17 weeks of very extensive training in Atlanta — it was like drinking from a fire hose,” Ottinger said. “After the first weekend, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s big fire hose.’ It doesn’t slow down, the pressure and stress of training. Many of the people within State Farm have a different opinion about how to approach building an office and recruiting agents. I was a bit of an odd bird out. My focus was big on what kind of heart do you have? It’s worked out wonderful for me. I have a great team. I hit the lottery with my team.”
Ottinger’s approach to building the business includes getting outside the walls of the offices. She has joined the Rotary Club of Morristown Noon Club and the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce. The office is currently hosting a collection drive for the Citizen Tribune Holiday Hope Fund.
“I’m looking forward to being very involved with the community,” she said.
The comparison between a beauty salon and an insurance agency will produce more similarities than differences, according to Ottinger.
“When I first went to Ohio in 2005, the training was different. The very first thing they said: ‘If you’re here to just make a good paycheck, we don’t want you. If you are going to take interest in the person across from you, then we want you.’ I just naturally feel that way already. I had worked for 30 years with the same girls in a shop. I have grown up in the area, since I was young. Everyone has servant’s hearts. If somebody needs you on Sunday, you go, that’s just what we do. With State Farm, I can do the same thing on a larger scale,” she said.
Ottinger recently worked with a gentleman, 80-years-old, who didn’t want to give up driving. He at least wanted to be able to drive his wife to her doctors’ appointments, a destination just two miles from their home. His children felt it was time for him to stop driving and told him that his car insurance was too high. So he called Ottinger.
“We made it to where his policy required low mileage,” Ottinger said. “I talked to his children, and they agreed. That helped me to open his world up a little bit bigger. That also saved one of his children having to take off work when mom needed to go to the doctor. Six months later, he’s still doing well. I was able to make a difference in someone’s life; it’s being able to help people protect what’s important and to be able to hold their hand when things aren’t going so well.”
Ottinger’s outright friendliness has been a lifelong trait.
“I love people, and I love to look out for them and take care of them,” she said. “Some people call that co-dependence. Seriously, though, I hope customers begin to think of me as family and we become a big family in the office.”
The office recently hosted a Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting, and despite a heavy downpour, the event was well attended.
Chamber Chairman Chris Horn couldn’t resist a pun during his welcome to Ottinger and her staff.
“State’s Farm has been a good neighbor in Morristown,” he said. “Insurance is such a vital product for our financial well-being. Christmas is a great time for celebration and it’s also kind of a stressful time. Insurance products are designed to take some of that stress away. You poll your money in and you hope something bad doesn’t happen. But if something does happen, the unexpected, you have the insurance coverage there to protect you. Life insurance is also a great product to generate wealth. An insurance company is vital to financial health and well-being, and State Farm has been a long-time part of Tennessee.
“Kim will take the hand-off from Jim Smith, who has built a great reputation for good service, and we’re delighted for Kim to take the next step and continue the good service and build on the book of business that you have.”
The office is located at 4601 W. Andrew Johnson Hwy. The phone number has changed to 423-581-1729.
Editor’s Note: The customer books of the State Farm Jim Smith agency were divided between two agent offices. See BIZ Bites for the ribbon cutting announcement for agent Jason Kraft.