A Matter of Trust
- From The Confident SMB, May 2010 Issue (Download This Entire Issue in PDF)
No one could accuse Russell Phelps of disloyalty to his home region. “I have lived in eastern North Carolina all my life,” he tells me, “and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
The Inner Banks region around his hometown of Windsor features lush cypress marshes interspersed with idyllic farmland and small towns. The preferred barbecue is pulled pork, and the most popular leisure activity is boating—not surprising in an area that has more waterways than one could explore in a lifetime.
Russell and his wife Dianne enthusiastically partake of the region’s outdoor offerings. The property where their home sits also includes a large garage filled with watercraft, several acres of marshland, and a family of Canada geese that has taken up residence on the shoreline below their house.
The Phelps also own one of the town’s longest-running and most successful businesses—Cooper Insurance Agency, which has occupied the same location on Windsor’s main street for 66 years.
Building a Windsor institution
When Russell began working for Cooper Insurance Agency 28 years ago, it had already been in business for close to four decades. “I was managing a team of agents for a major life insurance company,” he recalls. “One afternoon, Mr. Cooper drove up my driveway and said, ‘Come to work for me, and I’ll pay you a salary with benefits and a company vehicle.’”
It was an offer Russell couldn’t refuse. “I was excited to broaden into several different lines of insurance,” he asserts, “and working with an independent agency meant that I could tailor policies more closely to my customers’ needs.”
Mr. Cooper made a very good hire, as it turned out, as Russell Phelps was instrumental in the rapid growth of the firm. His business relationships helped expand the company’s customer base geographically across eastern North Carolina, enabling it to thrive even as the U.S. rural economy was in decline. He also launched a new boat insurance practice that now provides one-third of the company’s revenues (see sidebar).
Over time, Russell assumed a growing ownership stake in the firm, and bought the agency in the early 1990s, following the passing of Mr. Cooper and his stepson.
Finding a technology partner
Dianne Phelps, who has worked for the agency for 12 years, has seen a technological transformation since she began with the company. “When I started, we had computers, but not the Internet,” she recalls. “We were just using them to keep up with accounts receivable, payroll, and other administrative tasks. But the insurance companies we work with made it known that agents needed to be moving to an online model of doing business with them.”
About that time, the agency engaged The SoundSide Group, a Symantec Silver Partner, to help them move their infrastructure to the next level. “We worked with them to understand the insurance software so that we could provide the best infrastructure to host it,” explains Jeremy Smith, technical services manager for The SoundSide Group. The SoundSide Group team deployed the Cooper Agency’s first server, a Dell server running a Microsoft SQL database and applications provided by various insurance carriers.
“As they began to do more and more of their business electronically, protecting that data became much more important,” Jeremy notes. “So as we set up their server and network, we also deployed Symantec Backup Exec to protect that data. And when they connected to the Internet, we deployed Symantec AntiVirus to protect their network from malware.”
The SoundSide Group installed a Dell PowerVault 100T tape drive to work with Backup Exec, and an employee takes the nightly backup tape offsite as a part of the company’s disaster recovery strategy.
Real-life disaster recovery
This proactive approach to data protection proved to be a good decision, as Windsor was inundated by floodwaters in 1999 following Hurricane Floyd, which made landfall on the coast just 100 miles to the east and brought torrential rains across the state. “Our office had four feet of water, and everything was ruined,” Dianne recalls. “In addition to assisting many of our customers with claims, we had to replace our infrastructure and move our operations to the local funeral home for six months.”
“One of the employees had the backup tapes from the night before,” Jeremy reports, “so we were able to restore everything quickly onto new hardware. Despite the problems with road closures and power outages, we had them up and running in a couple days.”
“I’m not sure what we would have done after that flood if we didn’t have our relationship with The SoundSide Group,” Dianne says. “The fact that we were able to recover so quickly really helped save our business.”
More robust protection for changing times
After the company moved back into its remodeled offices, Cooper Agency has continued to depend on Symantec and The SoundSide Group for its infrastructure needs. The SoundSide Group has helped Cooper Agency through several successful technology upgrades, including the deployment of an HP ProLiant ML150 server.
“Like many small businesses, one of their priorities is to get the longest lifespan possible out of their hardware,” Jeremy explains. “This makes data protection even more important, as a machine could go down at any time.”
At the same time, downtime has become less and less acceptable. “A few years ago, it was okay to be down for a few hours or even a day,” Dianne remembers. “But today, it really impacts our business if we’re down for more than 15 minutes.”
As a result, the Cooper Agency elected two years ago to add Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery to its data protection and disaster recovery strategy. “Now, in addition to file-level backups to tape, snapshots of the whole server and all the desktops are going to a Buffalo Linkstation Pro Duo networkattached storage (NAS) device,” Jeremy explains. “This enables much a quicker restore in the event of failure—one hour or less.”
The Backup Exec System Recovery software is now licensed as a part of Symantec Protection Suite Small Business Edition, a bundle which also includes Symantec Endpoint Protection Small Business Edition. “We upgraded the Cooper Agency to Symantec Endpoint Protection soon after it became available, and were glad to see the Small Business Edition launched, as it has a smaller footprint especially designed for businesses like the Cooper Agency.”
The SoundSide Group has kept the Cooper Agency on the latest versions of Symantec software over the years and will be deploying Backup Exec 2010 at the firm in the next two months. “The deduplication feature in the new version will reduce the backup window, which will be a big benefit to the Cooper Agency,” Jeremy notes.
It’s all about customer service
“Jeremy and the team have been great—not only in recommending the right technology and setting it up, but also in teaching us how to use it,” Dianne says. “They have a true ethic of caring about the customer, and it’s a comfort to know that any time there’s a problem, we can pick up the phone and call SoundSide.”
“The insurance business is all about customer service,” Russell adds. “It’s not very often that we actually transact business with customers in our office, because we feel it’s important for us to go to them. The SoundSide Group and Symantec have that same perspective, and I would recommend their products and services to anyone. Our experience after the flood convinced us that our data is safe with Symantec and The SoundSide Group.”
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Where There Is Water, There Are Boats To Insure
Just a couple years after beginning with Cooper Insurance Agency in the early 1980s, Russell Phelps began to run out of things to do. “I got caught up. I didn’t have a dozen places I needed to be. So one day, I told Mr. Cooper, ‘I’m going to the beach.’”
Russell didn’t have much idea what he would do when he arrived at the beach, but he wound up meeting a group of charter boat captains. “We became friends, and I quickly learned that they were having trouble finding insurance for their vessels,” Russell recalls. “To make a long story short, I was able to find insurance for them, and I’m still proud of that.”
This launched a new line of business for Cooper Agency—one that now comprises one-third of the company’s revenues. Once his reputation was established, Russell found no shortage of boat owners in need of coverage.
“We are blessed in eastern North Carolina to have a custom boat industry,” Russell explains. “People from all over the world purchase boats from the 28 boat makers in our area. Early on, I made it a point to try to insure those businesses and the vessels under construction.” This gives Cooper Agency an advantage in securing the insurance contract once the buyers take possession.
“I’m proud to say that we now insure a good number of these boat makers, and many of the boats they have built,” Russell reports. A map on the wall of his office marks the many places where his customers’ vessels are based.
In addition to helping build their business, the boat insurance practice has made many new friends for the Phelps. “We have fished all over Mexico and the Caribbean with customers who have become close friends of ours,” Russell says.
Mark L.S. Mullins is a managing editor of The Confident SMB and senior manager of Symantec’s Global Reference Program team.