At Agent Summit in May, Jimmy Atkinson continued a long career in public speaking when he joined “Building a Team Theme for Prosperity,” a panel discussion led by Tom O’Neil of O’Neil Financial Services Agency. Upon returning to his adopted hometown of Napa, Calif., the COO of AUL Corp. met with AE to reflect on his work in retail and as a trainer, product provider, marathon runner and long-suffering Braves fan.
Atkinson: I do. I spent about five years just doing training and another three or four years just doing F&I development. I started with MS Diversified, which was later acquired by Assurant Solutions, and then worked with Joe Verde for four years. I started my own training company in 2001. I found I had a real passion for teaching and sharing information. By the way, when I started at Joe Verde Group, the first person to take me under his wing was Dave Anderson.AE: The same Dave Anderson who spoke at Agent Summit? Atkinson: The same. And I gained a lot of confidence through that experience. It’s always great to see Dave and listen to his powerful message. AE: What was your first job in the auto industry? Atkinson: I started selling cars in March of 1983. Pugmire Lincoln Mercury, in my hometown of Atlanta, had an ad running in the newspaper. I actually replied to the ad at their Chevrolet store down the street. The sales manager at the Chevy store said, “You’ll never make it in the car business,” so I walked down to the Lincoln store. AE: If only he knew. Atkinson: Well, I was a bit more shy and introverted at the time. And it was only a 10-minute interview. But I caught on and moved into F&I after 18 months. Then I was promoted to sales manager and then general sales manager. I spent seven years at three dealerships. From there I went to work for MS Diversified as a regional manager and training director — the same work that agents do, but as a direct employee.
About four years into it, I got involved in F&I training. When I started my own company, I figured I would be a trainer and have a few products. In 2002, I received a call from my old boss at MS Diversified. They had been acquired by what was then Assurant and he asked me to rejoin him there.AE: When did you make the move to AUL? Atkinson: That was in July of 2010. Luis Nieves, the founder, was a client and friend through Assurant. He called me and said, “I would like to visit with you. I have an idea.” We met and he said he needed someone to come in and be his No. 2. AE: And that was a big move, leaving Atlanta for the Wine Country. Atkinson: It was. We had moved around a bit before that, but I was born, grew up and spent most of my life in Atlanta. AE: I learned most of what I know about Atlanta from “A Man in Full” by Tom Wolfe. Atkinson: I just read that a few months ago! The way he paints Atlanta is probably pretty accurate. It’s a great city, but you get the sense it’s always trying to prove itself. It is home to a ton of Fortune 500 companies, so it’s always growing and expanding, and that brings a lot of challenges. But I love it because it’s home, and of course I still love the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Bulldogs. You can’t learn to appreciate the meaning of loyalty and heartache until you follow teams that have lost so many championships. AE: Actually, I’m from Buffalo, so … Atkinson: Oh, that’s right. AE: Let’s move on! We had a nice visit in Napa a few years back. What is it like to live there? Atkinson: It’s very different. There are things I miss about living in the South, but California is a beautiful state. And people don’t realize this about Napa, but it’s like a small farming town, only with hotels and restaurants and tourism. When I think about living in Atlanta, I picture myself either being at the airport or fighting all the traffic, so the relaxed atmosphere is welcome. AE: Still, it must have been difficult to leave. Atkinson: It’s never an easy decision. It was made easier because we have two sons who were grown and moving to Los Angeles at the same time. That’s only a one-hour flight. We moved a couple times when the boys were growing up, and that was probably tougher on them than I’d like to admit. Thankfully, I have the greatest wife and mom in the world, and the boys are now wonderful young men. AE: What do you do to stay in shape? Atkinson: I ride a Pinarello road bike sometimes, and I’m terrible at golf, but mostly I run. I’ve been doing it for about 18 years. I have run four marathons and a bunch of half-marathons, including two with my younger son. It relieves stress and gives me solitude when I need it. AE: Running in Napa must be a lot more comfortable than running in Atlanta. Atkinson: If you’re training for a fall marathon, you’re running up to 18 miles in the summer. So, yes, climate-wise, it is better in Napa. But both cities have a lot of hills. AE: How much do you love working with agents? Atkinson: I do love agents. It’s kind of wild. They’re such a different breed. Not unlike car dealers. They are the masters of entrepreneurship and truly brilliant in their fields. They have that amazing ability to adapt to change and grow their businesses. It’s a neat group of people. AE: Are you looking for more agents? How does that process work? Atkinson: Jason Garner, our general sales manager, heads up agent acquisitions. He has a team of business development managers. We’re pretty selective. But if we have an area where we’re underperforming and want to grow, and if we don’t have an agent there, we will look for someone. But we have a very stable agent force. We still have the first agent we signed and the first dealer we signed. AE: That’s impressive. Atkinson: It’s all driven by Luis, who founded the company and created this wonderful culture. He is probably the most humble, generous and appreciative person I’ve met. He would give you the shirt off his back. He always believes in doing what’s right, and that’s the real secret. AE: So what drives you now? What gets you up in the morning? Atkinson: Well, first, there’s always a million things to do. Second, it’s exciting. You asked about agents. That’s one of the most exciting parts of the job. They bring unique opportunities and problems to solve. One of the things we strive to be is a company that agents can turn to for a new approach and we think we do a lot of it really well. At the same time, you have to find a way to create new value. It’s a tremendous business, and it’s growing. There is nothing I would rather be doing.