An Invisible Product Until You Need It—Matthew Mullen, Insurance Man for the New Millennium

Matthew Mullen at his Manhattan Avenue office in Greenpoint PHOTO BY CHRIS BISHOP

Matthew Mullen at his Manhattan Avenue office in Greenpoint / photo by Chris Bishop

By Kelley Shields

Imagine you are looking for employment and you come across a listing on a job board that reads: “Sales associate wanted, to sell invisible products no one wants to use.’” Can you imagine wanting that job? Can you imagine the difficulty of trying to provide people with intangible, undesirable things? And if you did want it, can you further imagine becoming so good at it that you stand out among others attempting to do the same thing?

Matthew Mullen can. Exclusive agent/owner of the Mullen Agency, at 661 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, his is currently the largest Allstate franchise in the area.

Becoming the -est at anything, whether it be the best, biggest, fastest, etc., implies that supremacy, or at least a certain measure of excellence, has been reached. I think the saying goes: Pursue excellence and success will follow. Over the course of the hour or so I spent talking with Matthew, it became apparent that how he measures excellence correlates with service—both to the individuals he writes policies for, and to the community he is doing business in.

How does one become the largest independently owned Allstate agency in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area? It can’t be that all it takes is buying existing rosters of policyholders, or books, from retiring agents. Certainly, acquiring pre-existing policies provides a healthy start to a fledgling insurance agency, and is a welcome infusion for an existing business, but retention of customers post-purchase of a book is not guaranteed. On an unconscious level, customers might associate their protection with factors like the stability of whomever sold them their policy, or where the office is located. The familiarity of a face or locale can mean the difference between a renewal, a cancellation, or a lapse. So if buying up other people’s businesses will not in itself create a successful insurance agency, how is it accomplished?

By talking to people about things they do not want to think about. By building a rapport and helping them make choices that will preserve their assets and mitigate the risks of some potential—and other inevitable—eventualities.

Selecting what insurance to buy, and the agent to provide it, are emotional choices governed to a certain extent by individual thresholds of fear and trust. Essentially, people buy insurance to protect themselves against potentialities they do not want to think about, much less experience, due to their fear of grave losses. But they know it is prudent to think about and take action on those potentialities.

With respect to life insurance, I’d venture to say that, for many people, awareness of one’s mortality recedes into the background of living fully in the present. However, leaving loved ones without resources to carry on in our absence is an avoidable ill, if a policy is in place. And as for property insurance, besides being obligated to carry it as a mortgagor or business owner, no one wants to imagine their home or business decimated by a hurricane or reduced to rubble by a fire. But on some level, we know the possibility exists, which is why the compensation insurance could provide becomes a reasonable trade-off for premiums that are, hopefully, uncollected on year after year.

I asked Matthew what attracted him to the insurance industry. “My father was in the business. At a certain point he needed me for what was going to be a short period of time, a few months maybe. That was 1993. It was 2004 by the time I left. I realized pretty early into it, that talking to people felt good, it felt right.”

Matthew grew up in East Rockaway, Long Island. After college he worked in the Community Service Corps of Syracuse, for the Catholic Charities Diocese. He ran both an elementary and a teen program at Vincent House. During a break in his corps service, a trip to visit his sister in New Orleans during Mardi Gras resulted in a lengthy stay. He fell in love with the city and entered grad school there at Loyola University on an MBA track, heading for a future in investment banking. Early on he won an internship with Paine Webber, working with the real estate investment trusts team. It was interesting, but apparently not enough. So when the opportunity to work with his father came up, he switched gears without hesitation.

Matthew went on to describe, with palpable heartfelt admiration, how the opportunity to be of help was matched only by the pleasure it gave him just to be around his father, who he referred to as “Dad” in the office only once. A terse correction set the professional demeanor Michael Mullen expected of his son in the workplace. Thereafter, in the office he called his father Mike. Their handedness—Matthew the righty and Mike the lefty—defined the arrangement of their desks, butted up against each other in an L-formation. They worked side-by-side for 13 years, serving Mullen Sr.’s Allstate customers in Canarsie.

We talked about how he builds rapport, a term he used more than a few times, I suspect because it most aptly describes the quality of relationship he strives to establish with his customers—one of mutual understanding, trust, agreement, and connection through a commonality of interests. Matthew says the key to his success is understanding his customers’ needs. And although he claims the “talking to people” aspect is what hooked him, the only way a person comes to truly understand someone else is through less talking and more listening. So, to be number 1 in the Allstate business, Matthew Mullen must in fact be an accomplished listener.

“You have to find out what is appropriate for them and sell them only what they need after helping them weigh out cost vs. benefit in all the possible scenarios.

“I run an agency and never charge my customers a service fee. Even when I act in the capacity of ‘broker,’ I will not charge my clients broker fees. The difference between an agent and a broker is that an agent represents a company to the insured, and a broker represents the insured to the company. The broker is paid commission from the company they place the policy with and they then charge the insured

fees—usually quite high—to represent them. As an agent I am paid only commission. When I write policies that are not from Allstate, I act as a broker, but still never charge the service fees to my customers. When brokers charge a fee they must disclose it to the insured.”

Wow. How unlike a recipe for success does that sound? Never mind success, how unlike the sales impetus in general does that sound? However counter-intuitive his methodology seems, it is clearly working.

Agency size is measured by policies in force, premiums, and households insured. Matthew’s ratio of new to pre-existing policies is about equal. All told, Matthew has bought three books of business. In 2005, he bought his first book from a fellow Allstate agent named Lou Mazzeo. Lou had been operating his Allstate franchise on Nassau Avenue between Leonard and Eckford for over 15 years and was eager to get a Manhattan-based book he heard was coming up for sale. Wanting to concentrate solely on his new area, the sale to Matthew went through in 2006, and he opened his first independent office on Manhattan Avenue between Nassau and Driggs. Matthew’s business grew further through the purchase of policies in force held by two more Allstate agents, both of whom were retiring: his father’s Canarsie book in 2008, and Irv Tyler’s Grand Army Plaza book in 2011. As his policy volume grew, so did his need for more agents to specialize in specific products and a larger space in which to conduct the business. In 2011, he moved to his current location, a larger office also on Manhattan Avenue, between Bedford and Norman. Matthew employs six associates, four of them residents of the area.

I asked him about the changes he’s observed over the course of the seven years he’s been commuting here from Rockville Centre, Long Island. He naturally referenced the massive shift in demographics, and I asked how the shift is translating to trends in policy sales in the area.

“With the increase in the condo development and subsequent purchases, I noticed a need to provide guidance to an affluent population with assets outside of the typical contents to protect. Along these lines clients with art collections, for example, come to mind. In standard homeowner policies replacement costs would not apply to fine art or antiquities.”

With the population growth and its general age on the younger side, and with residents just beginning families, there is also an increase in the need to talk about life insurance. No stranger to tragic loss, Matthew lost his sister, a mother of three girls at the age of 43, when a seemingly innocuous fever was followed by swift descent into cancer. The unspoken message taken from the sharing of this personal detail was that, although one should not live life banking on the worst, betting against it entirely isn’t wise. Fortunately, just a year and half before her demise, Matthew sold his sister a life insurance policy.

I had the impression that Matthew doesn’t employ service to gain success, but rather that it is as an imperative of his nature. We touched on Hurricane Sandy, the attending spike of 1,000 or so claims—most of them from the Brooklyn area—and the affect it had on his agency. Allstate provided the funds for Matthew to hire three specialists, advocates for the claimants, to work directly with his clients from filing through to settlement. The added staff stayed on until January, and their presence meant claims were processed quickly (Allstate as a company is, at this time, 98% settled and paid on all Sandy claims) and at a higher return for the affected home and business owners. Those claimants might otherwise have hired public adjusters, whose fees are steep and come out of the proceeds of the claim payout. Contracting on-site advocates who were focused exclusively on processing Sandy claims meant Matthew’s customers could feel confident in both the timely progression of their claims—and fair outcomes.

The Greenpoint/Williamsburg business community also benefits from Matthew’s service-minded ideology. He is currently working with the Chamber of Commerce on an initiative to educate small-business owners on the Affordable Care Act, and how it may affect them, hoping to bring clarity to a complex issue. Timing is critical, as business owners will need to make important decisions about the act before October 1, 2013. When asked how he structures his philanthropic outreach, he says he depends on the strength of advocates like Susan Anderson, who founded and manages the highly visible and effective Town Square network. In addition to his upcoming seminar on the Affordable Care Act, his agency recently hosted an information session as part of the 2013 Baby Fest event, focused on everything parents need to know about 529 federal tax-free college savings programs.

For agents like Matthew, who walk-the-talk of being a community-minded business, Allstate has match programs in place to augment the agent’s sponsorship. The matching funds come from their Good Hands in the Community Grants. Through his affiliation with the Sons of the American Revolution, Matthew has received company matches for scholarships for the Eagle Scouts and cash award prizes for the winners of the Knights Essay, a contest open to high school students. Most recently, his agency sponsored a golf tournament for the Association of Children with Down’s Syndrome.

With an innate expertise so keenly focused on understanding needs projected against future outcomes, I asked Matthew what he sees for the Greenpoint/ Williamsburg area in the coming years.

“All good things,” he responded without hesitation. “Everything is moving in the right direction.”