Changing of the guard at Jefferson County insurance institution

Prior to his recent retirement, insurance agent Mike Price, center, former owner of Cate Insurance Company in Jefferson City, received the highest award bestowed by Erie Insurance Co., the Erie F.W. Hirt Quality Agency Award. Doug Smith, left, Erie executive vice president, and Timothy NeCastro, Erie president and CEO, recognized Price, a Morristown native, for being the No. 5 seller of Erie products in the nation.

Twenty-five years ago, Morristown native Mike Price wasn’t mulling a quarter-century career in the insurance industry. He knew the venerable Cate Insurance Agency in Jefferson City was for sale, but so were scads of other things he had no intention of buying.

Price was in a comfortable place. In the early 1990s he partnered with retired Jefferson City banker Bill Powell in a thriving investment business.

Price, who obtained his securities license in 1986, had the rubber-meets-the-road knowledge. Powell, a Carson-Newman college trustee and former chamber of commerce president had the contacts, and Powell was certainly no stranger to matters financial.

Winner. Winner.

As Cate Insurance remained on the market, Price says “a bell went off in his head.” All his investment clients owned homes and automobiles. Many owned businesses and boats. What the possessions had in common is that they had to be insured.

Cate Insurance had a formidable stable of existing clients, many of whom had disposable income that needed to be invested. Price says his attorney and accountant scoured the books and together concluded Cate Insurance was a well-oiled machine that would continue to run under competent leadership.

Price closed the deal in November 1994, but it wasn’t his just his second entrepreneurial venture. He and his wife, Sandy, met while they were working at Lear Siegler in Morristown. Price was a quality-control specialist. His wife worked in accounts payable.

After combing forces at the altar, they opened a women’s clothing store, Four Seasons, on Main Street in White Pine. Four Seasons sold fashionable women’s clothing until the mid-1980s until shopping malls made many mom-and-pop establishments endangered species.

Sandy later managed a dry-cleaning business, Lakeway Cleaners, they owned in Jefferson City. She was steady at the helm for about 10 years until someone made them a financial offer they could not refuse.

“She’s a big part of my success,” said Price, who added he and his wife will celebrate their 49th anniversary this year. “Without her, I couldn’t have accomplished any of these things in life.”

Moving on

For just the second time in 60 years, Cate Insurance Company has changed ownership, but not before the business was recognized for extraordinary sales and plans coalesced for the future, both for the insurance company and its former owner.

Cate Insurance is an independent insurer, which means agents can market policies from multiple companies, about 40.

For the quarter-century Price owned the business, he was particularly successful selling Erie Insurance Company products, and prior to October 2019 had been recognized for his contributions to the Pennsylvania-based business.

Four months ago, however, Erie bestowed its highest honor on Price, the F.W. Hirt Quality Agency Award, named after one of Erie’s cofounders. Out of more than 2,400 companies that market Erie policies, including 125 in Tennessee, Cate was the No. 5 seller.

“It’s a big deal to make it into the top 10,” Price said. “We made it into the top five ... I didn’t do that, we did that. I had a great staff, a great group of people.”

Price says the mix of business has changed dramatically since after he acquired Cate Insurance. When he bought the company, about 90 percent of the policies were personal policies – automobile and homeowner’s insurance. Now, it’s a 50-50 split between personal and business insurance.

His formula for success at the insurance company and the other businesses he owned is hardly novel.

“Put the customer first,” he said. “Always do the right thing. Treat your customer like you want to be treated. In service or sales, if you’re not putting the customer first, I don’t think you’ll be successful.”

The next step

Price’s successor at Cate Insurance is Chad Parker, another Morristown native. Parker says when he joined the Jefferson City insurance company nine years ago, he and Price had an agreement that if he met certain performance expectations, Price would sell him the company when he retired. That happened on Jan 1.

Parker says the No. 1 thing he wants Cate customers to know is that apart from Price’s stepping aside, nothing at the Jefferson City insurance company will change. The same staff that helped grow the company are staying on, although he plans to add one or two new employees to the one he’s already hired to grow the company further.

“A few people have come in and asked if we are moving or closing,” Parker said. “People wanted to make sure that we are keeping the exact same staff. We are not closing and we are not moving.”

Cate Insurance isn’t moving, but it’s expanding. Parker says he has concrete plans to open another insurance office in the Lakeway Area in the near future. For the time being, however, Parker is keeping the location of the new office a guarded secret.

As for Price’s short- and medium-term future, he’s planning rifle-less safaris. He was 23 years old in 1973 when he bought his first quality camera, a Nikon 35mm.

In the years that followed, Price’s interest and expertise in photography - particularly wildlife photography – has increased, along with the capabilities of his cameras.

On the front burners are his first trip photo safaris to Yellowstone National Park and a return to Alaska with his wife, two daughters, Laura Reece and Kristin Price, his son Justin Price and the grandchildren.

His top bucket-list camera safari would be photographing perhaps the most awesome animal spectacle on dry land - the annual migration of hundreds of thousands of animals across the Serengeti in east-central Africa. Next on the photographic wish list is photographing wildlife in the African country of Madagascar.

“A lot of people talk about doing these types of things and never do them,” Price said. “I’m looking forward to it.”