By Michael J. Whitlock
I am not sure if a white hearse with a giant rooster’s head bolted to the roof is a good omen or bad but it pulled up in front of Allied Fidelity’s office at lunch time in late January 1986. It was my dad’s 50th birthday and someone thought this would be a fun idea. As it turns out the rooster’s head would prove to be both a good and bad omen in 1986.
Two years earlier in 1984, I had arrived in Indianapolis and started my job at Allied Fidelity’s Home Office on north Meridian Street. I was one of three underwriters working in the Underwriting Department. My manager was Terry Waltrip, and the head of the bail division was my dad, Jack Whitlock. In the office it was Jack, not dad.
Instead of working with bail agents in a few states I was now assisting and learning from bail agents across the country: Buffy Osti in San Jose, John Peru in Tucson, and Linda Braswell in Stuart, FL, to name a few. My world was expanding. I was 21 years old.
Being the boss’s kid, I had two choices: I could phone it in (which my dad would never allow) or work twice as hard as anyone else to prove I was not getting a free ride. I chose the latter. The underwriting team not only worked a regular workday, but we also rotated on-call duties a week at a time. Mobile phones like the Motorola DynaTax were a luxury in 1984, we were assigned pagers instead. When the pager beeped (and after a time you could anticipate it), I would call the answering service for the message and then place a call to an agent to see what they needed. Get paged, retrieve message, call the agent, wash, rinse, and repeat. Bonding companies were open 24 hours a day, so we had to be available at all hours to provide assistance and still be at work by 8am the next morning. It proved to be conditioning training for the work hours I would experience in the years to come.
Much of bail is written through licensed bail agents at the state level. The underwriting team was providing service to agents across forty states. This was both exciting and daunting at the same time, as we had to know the bail statutes and regulations for each state; filed rates, bond forfeiture periods and specific collateral forms. It was not long before I would know most of the nation’s 3008 counties and area codes for most jurisdictions. In many cases, I had more general knowledge of an agent’s state than they had themselves.
The bail division was comprised of seven departments: Underwriting, Claims, Collateral, Bond Processing, Accounting, Auditing, and Marketing. I was enjoying what I was doing so I wanted to learn everything I could. Real Estate liens were particularly challenging because every state used a different form. Texas used a Deed of Trust and Real Estate Lien note, Florida a Mortgage Deed, Georgia a Deed to Secure Debt while Confessions of Judgment were used in New York. I was soaking up the knowledge through repetition, building an encyclopedia of information.
I conducted my first agency audit in 1985 under the watchful eye of Charlie Allen. Charlie would eventually move to Florida with his wife Nola and open a general agency they would manage for more than 20 years. The first agency I audited was Lewis Bonding Company in Jackson, TN, owned by Ralph Lewis. A silver-haired man with a southern drawl who smoked a pipe. About as nice a man as you will ever know. I would go on to meet several Ralph Lewis’ over my career. There are many fine people working in the bail profession.
By the end of 1985, I was familiar with claims, underwriting, collateral, and auditing. I say familiar, because I only knew one percent of what I would eventually learn over time, but I thought I knew everything. What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for in confidence. Confidence can come across as arrogance if you’re not careful. Veteran agents like Linda Braswell were quick to put me in my place (ironically, Linda would attend my wedding in 1988 and induct me into the PBUS Hall of Fame as President in 2012).
Allied Fidelity would fail in March of 1986, or least that’s when the bomb dropped. I recall the day the Indiana Insurance Commissioner and a team of investigators marched into the building and spread across the office like ants at a picnic. Within days, most of the staff, including Jack, were let go. I agreed to stay on to help with the liquidation for a period of time. My training with collateral came in handy as thousands of liens would need to be released. Company liquidations added to my resume, an experience I would never want to repeat.
The Rooster proved to be a bad omen for Allied Fidelity and a good omen for Jack Whitlock. Making lemonade out of lemons, Jack decided it was time to go back into business for himself, this time as a national managing general agent. Two years running the bail division for Allied afforded Jack the opportunity to form relationships with bail agents across the country. To start this new business, he would need a partner to help run it, investors to aide with capital funding, and a contract with a surety company with which to place bail agents.
Soon thereafter Jack got together with Bill Carmichael who had been working in Allied’s Florida office to discuss a potential partnership. Bill was a Notre Dame graduate and 20 years Jack’s junior. It proved to be a perfect match from the word go. Jack would manage the agency side and Bill would manage the company finances and administration. Over the next several months Jack and Bill secured everything needed to open the doors for a new business. In October 1986, at the age of twenty-three I left my job at Allied to become the first employee at Underwriters Surety, Inc. For the Chinese it was the Year of the Tiger, for me it was the Year of the Rooster. A new chapter was beginning.