Oak Harbor’s time-honored insurance and real estate go-to, Koetje Agency, merged with Whitfield’s United Insurance Agencies, Inc., this month.
The decision wasn’t easy, said Koetje Agency’s current owner Bruce Neil, Jr., son-in-law of Hank Koetje, founder of the locally famed insurance and real estate business that’s served the Oak Harbor community for 50 years.
In 1992 Bruce and Mike Sullivan purchased Koetje Agency from brothers Hank and Al Koetje, a pair of octogenarians who have continued to work out of its Midway Boulevard office.
But a cancer diagnosis forced Mike into an early retirement, said Bruce. His last day at work was Sept. 20. The unexpected loss of his business partner made Bruce look at the future of Koetje Agency.
Bruce, 61, plans to hang up his hat around his 66th birthday, and he had no interest in buying out his partner.
“I didn’t want to be an indentured servant for 13 to 15 years,” he said. “I didn’t want to borrow money for it or have to pay in installments.”
From Bruce’s perspective, his only other options were to sell the Koetje Agency back to Al and Hank, sell it in whole or in part to other employees, or merge with another company.
“Al and Hank were not interested in my offer,” he said, “and it became apparent to me that I could not sell the businesses to the other employees.”
The merger was the best decision for the business, he said.
“When I looked at it from an eagle’s view, it made everything work with the exception that it didn’t satisfy Hank and Al,” he said.
The agreement calls for Hank’s retirement, and that of longtime Koetje Agency employees Al and Cherita Koetje, Hank’s brother and sister-in-law.
But Al, a former Oak Harbor mayor, doesn’t see it that way.
“Hank, Cherita and myself, we were terminated,” he said. “I will not hang my license at Koetje Agency (after the merger).”
He’s not sure where he’ll work from in the future, but he’s adamant that it’s not yet his time to retire.
“We appreciate and thank all our clients,” Al said, adding that he intends to remain involved with the community.
Bruce said he did offer the trio a place to hang their licenses, even after the merger, as long as they went through himself and paid their license fees.
Hank, on the other hand, apprehensively accepted the retirement agreement.
“After 61 years, I will miss going to the office, the wonderful people who I’ve done business with and the employees,” he said.
The key to Koetje Agency’s success, Hank said, are integrity and personal service.
“I treated every client with honesty and tried to do the best I could for them to give them the proper coverage.”
Bruce hopes the tension will clear sooner rather than later.
“It hasn’t been an easy generation for me,” Bruce said. “I have as much invested as the old line owner. And I don’t know how many good years I have left.”
Another office mainstay, insurance agent Shelli Trumbull, will also leave after the merger, Bruce said.
Koetje Agency will keep the same name, but there will be a few changes around the office.
Employees will enjoy a better benefit package and customers may notice the integration of new computer technologies and younger employees.
“Adding some 30-year-olds is going to be healthy for the agency,” he said. “The merger will also benefit the consumer because there’ll be four or five more companies to shop. That’ll mean more coverage and lower prices.”