Insurance firm assures employees a fun workplace

101 One Hundred & Central Coast Best Places to Work | April 21-27, 2017

By Tony Biasotti
Special to the Business Times

Kelly Lagomarsino sells insurance. She knows it isn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but it’s one that she loves. And just as importantly, she can tell that her coworkers at Tolman & Wiker Insurance Services in Ventura love it, too.

“Every day is fascinating to me. Every day is something different,” she said. “I think loving what you do makes for a healthy workplace, and I can kind of feel it radiating around me. People love their jobs here and you can just tell.”

Tolman & Wiker is the region’s biggest independent insurance agency, with 165 employees and offices in Ventura, Santa Maria, Bakersfield and Westlake Village. It is also one of the region’s oldest; Carey Tolman founded the business in 1923 and it’s been headquartered in downtown Ventura ever since.

In surveys and interviews, many of the firm’s employees echoed Lagomarsino’s comments about her love for her job. Others praised the company for its commitment to family, its competitive wages and excellent benefits, its concern for employees’ health and work-life balance, and its nearly century-long history of community involvement.

Tolman started the company selling disability insurance to oil field workers, said Greg Van Ness, the firm’s CEO and one of its 21 partners. It now provides all types of insurance to all types of businesses, with a focus on mid-sized and larger companies based in the region, as well as individual customers.

“Our clients tend to be attracted to us because of our strong local client service, our real depth of expertise, and our focus on relationships,” Van Ness said. “If you’re buying insurance over the internet, that’s not much of a relationship, and that’s not us.”

Relationships are also crucial to making Tolman & Wiker a good place to work. The average tenure of a Tolman & Wiker employee is 15 years, said Joanna Hayes, the firm’s director of human resources. That number would be even higher, she said, if not for a few recent retirements and a wave of new hires as the company has expanded in recent years.

“We just had someone retire after 40 years,” Van Ness said. “People like it here and they tend to want to stick around.”

One way that Tolman & Wiker put its people first was in its retrenchment following the 2008 recession. Before the company touched its payroll expenses, it cut about 30 percent from non-payroll expenses, said Steven Carter, Tolman & Wiker’s chairman and managing partner. That meant the company only had to reduce its payroll by about 5 percent.

“We went as far as we could on non-payroll expenses, and we showed people what we’d done with those expenses. There was about a 30 percent reduction,” Carter said. “I think that went a long way in a tough time.”

Those days are behind the firm now, and all four of its offices are growing again. Employees get matching 401(k) contributions as well as a pension plan. There’s a stipend for employees to further their educations. Tolman & Wiker gives cash and gift card prizes to employees of the quarter and of the year, and the firm has paid annual bonuses tied to companywide performance for 58 consecutive years, Van Ness said.

“We try and take pay off the table as an issue of concern,” he said. “We want people to be compensated well for their performance, and at the same time we know there’s more to job satisfaction than pay.”

There’s also an emphasis on health. In Ventura, Tolman & Wiker has lunchtime yoga classes twice a week, “Walking Wednesdays,” and a new snack bar with fresh fruits and other food to replace the old vending machines.

Part of health is maintaining a healthy schedule and a healthy outlook toward the proper place of work in one’s life. Hayes said her previous job was a company with “intense hours.”
“The culture was, ‘Let’s see who can work the most hours. I worked the last ten Christmases, did you?’ ” she said. “People are just much happier here.”
Lagomarsino has been with Tolman & Wiker for 11 years. Before that she spent nine years at a company with an attitude similar to that of Hayes’ previous employer.
“The owners there were all about making money for themselves, and that was pretty much it,” she said. “It seems like Tolman & Wiker really cares about the employees. They’re invested in our careers and they’re invested in us as people.”