By Erin Timony
What began as a surprise phone call Frank Baer received from his father turned into 25 years in the family-owned business, Commercial Insurance Services.
“I got a phone call out of the blue from my dad who was in a second generation family business in the spring of 1989,” he said.
Baer’s father said, “If you are ever thinking about coming into the family business, now is the time,” Baer recalled.
And according to Baer, his father had never previously encouraged or solicited him to join the family business.
Although Baer was born in Charleston and attended George Washington High School, he moved away to the University of Colorado for college in 1979. After completing three years of law school at the University of Colorado, Baer worked for three years as a corporate attorney in Denver while living in Boulder.
“I lived for 10 years in my college town,” he said.
Then came the out-of-the-blue phone call from the elder Baer, saying he would hold the business for Baer if he wanted to come into it, or sell it. Shortly thereafter, Baer moved back to his hometown.
“I had had just enough of corporate lawyering at the time to say, ‘OK, fine, I’m coming,’’’ Baer said. “(My father) next sent me to Hartford, Conn. for six months of insurance boot camp to learn the insurance business.
“I came back in the fall of ’89 and started at CIS as a salesman. (My father) gave me an office, he gave me a desk, a pad of paper, a phone and a pen and said, ‘Have at it. Let’s see what you can do.’’’
What shocked him, Baer said, was what he didn’t have.
“I came from lawyering, where you had an inbox that was constantly full,” he said. “I didn’t have anything like that at my father’s insurance business.
“I had just myself so I started making calls.”
After going on calls, Baer said he found out he was pretty successful with insurance sales. He has grown the business throughout his 25 years there.
Baer’s father eventually sold him the business using a 20-year note and in December 2013, Baer made his last payment for the purchase of the stock.
Baer’s areas of priority within the business were focusing on client work, strategic planning and running the finances for the firm.
One of the things that helped the business grow was the creation of small, specialty niche markets.
“We started building specialty niches, and we created a municipal niche,” Baer said. “We have become probably the largest insurance agents in West Virginia insuring cities, municipalities, towns, counties, public service districts, those sorts of entities.
“We developed a specialty with financial institutions. We’re the endorsed agency for the West Virginia Bankers Association. We did a lot of work with hospitals and doctors throughout the state. We developed an expertise in certain classes of business and that has served us very well.”
When asked about his proudest business achievement, Baer said it was having a net income larger than his father’s gross income with his dad still alive to witness it. Baer credits much of his business success to his long-time staff and partners at CIS. To create an even “larger footprint for (the) business,” Baer sold Commercial Insurance to Assured Partners in January 2014.
Assured Partners is a national, privately owned company Baer said had a good reputation for buying well-managed, well-run profitable companies and then leaving them alone.
“We’re only three months into it, but I’m excited because they appear to be doing what they said they were going to do,” Baer said. “We kind of have our cake and eat it too. We’re part of a much larger national organization with all of their power and resources yet we’re still the same company; the same local team, locally run, private company. We make our own decisions and everyone stayed in place and from the client’s perspective, it’s seamless.”
Despite the fact that Baer left law to take up insurance, practicing law is still a part of his life and his business.
He has maintained his law license in both West Virginia and Colorado and has a mini law firm inside of Commercial Insurance, doing specialized work in the insurance field.
“I will be an expert witness from time to time if I like the case and I will work for either side,” he said. “Either representing the insurance company in defense of a claim or representing a policy holder against an insurance company in a coverage dispute.
“I’m proud I have a pretty 50/50 resume. I’m not clearly for one side or the other.”
Baer said he enjoys “staying up with the law” and taking a few cases here and there in order to keep himself sharp and up-to-date about what’s going on in the legal world. He also takes continuing legal education and said there is a vast opportunity to deploy legal skills in all aspects of the insurance trade.
“Insurance, at the end of the day, primarily involves a complex and legal contract between the policy holder and the insurance company,” he said.
Baer has been a certified insurance counselor for almost 20 years and has to take 20 hours of CIC continuing education every year to keep his CIC license current in addition to CLE credits for maintaining his law license.
When it comes to time spent in the community, Baer is actively involved in many local charities as well as the Young President’s Organization, YPO. The organization consists of presidents, business leaders and chief executive officers of companies that are 50 and under. It’s a worldwide organization with about 21,000 members in 140 countries and has been around for over 60 years. Baer said one can graduate to the 50+ group, called World President’s Organization, WPO.
Baer is the regional chair of the WPO’s East Central Region. The region extends from Chicago through Ohio, Michigan, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The region has nine chapters Baer has responsibilities to help oversee.
It’s a volunteer job, with Baer saying the more you put in it, the more you get out of it.
“I spend a lot of time traveling and doing work in (the organization),” he said. “It’s been a phenomenal experience for me and my family.”
Beginning July 1, 2014, Baer will start his new, three -year position within the organization as a member of a 20-member YPO/WPO international board. The first three meetings are in Berlin, Germany; Lima, Peru; and Melbourne, Australia.
“The networking is unbelievable … and meeting people from all over the world,” he said.
When it comes to travel and different cultures, Baer is no stranger.
He met his wife, Camilla, a native of Sweden, in Colorado in 1986 when she was in the United States skiing.
The couple has three children, all bilingual in Swedish and citizens of both Sweden and the U.S.
For 26 years, Baer and his family have been spending every summer at their second home in Sweden. Camilla and the children stay the whole summer, while Baer goes back and forth to “open the mail, pay the bills, stay up with work and keep life going (in West Virginia).”
A big part of Baer’s family’s life is the shared hobby of snow skiing in the winter. In addition to the family’s place in Snowshoe, Baer and his family go “to some really wild places for skiing” every year.
“We’ve been to Alaska, Chile, Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy, Canada and all over the United States,” he said. “It’s a big part of our life. I often say it’s why I work — to create the freedom and ability to go the places we want to go and do the things we want to do.”
Although Baer likes keeping up with the legal market, he said he loves insurance too much to quit now or go back to law full time.
“Less than 3 percent of my income is generated in legal cases,” he said. “It’s just the excitement of staying in the game. I love insurance and I love the industry.”
When it comes to what Baer is most thankful for, that’s easy, he said — In addition to his supportive wife of 24 years and his three kids, is having had the opportunity to work with his father, who passed away almost three years ago.
“Dad and I got to work together for almost 25 years,” he said. “That’s a rare gift to be able to work with your own parent in a family company.”