Not many businesses can say they’ve endured more than a century, but W.J. Phillips Insurance Agency in Flint Township has been in business for 101 years and is now run by a fourth generation of family members. Stephen Phillips currently owns the agency started by his grandfather, William J. Phillips. “We are the oldest family-owned Auto Owners Insurance agency in the country!” he exclaims.
Stephen’s grandfather, William J. Phillips, began his career as a life insurance agent in 1915. In 1916, Auto Owners Insurance was founded by Vern Valentine Moulton, and in the course of his job, William had the opportunity to meet the founder. In 1917, Moulton told William, “You are in Flint, the birthplace of General Motors. You need to sell auto insurance for me there.” At that time, Auto Owners Insurance had just $186 in assets, which have now climbed to $11 billion.
In the early 50s, Stephen’s father, William J. Phillips Jr., and his uncle, James E. Phillips, took over the agency. “My dad was serving his country in World War II and my grandparents hired a staff person, Eva Wolfe,” he shares. “My grandfather was looking for a skilled office worker and my grandmother was looking for a daughter-in-law.” And, his grandmother got the daughter-in-law she was looking for when Eva and William fell in love and married, after William returned from the war and resumed working at the agency.
William J. Phillips Jr. and his brother, James, ran the business until William retired in 1989, which is when Stephen took over. Stephen started working for his father when he was 16 years old doing home inspections, but wasn’t sure that he wanted to join the family business. “I remember going to a job interview for General Motors in the late 70s,” he says. “My dad called me and asked if I would like to work for him. At that time, I decided it would be a better fit.”
Even after Stephen’s dad retired, he continued to come to the office for many years, every Tuesday and Thursday. “My dad passed away last year at the age of 99, just one month shy of the agency’s 100th anniversary,” Stephen sadly reports. Stephen’s daughter, Megan, threw a big 100th Anniversary celebration at Ruggero’s, an Italian restaurant in Flint that has been a client with W.J. Phillips Insurance Agency since 1958. “I gave a $100 bill to everyone who showed up,” Stephen says with a smile.
The fourth generation has now become part of the team. Two of Stephen’s five children are in the insurance business. Zachery Phillips currently works at the agency, having started working with his father when he was 16 doing home inspections, just as Stephen did. Joshua, one of Stephen’s other sons, no longer works at the family agency, but is still in the insurance business in Grand Rapids. “He cut his teeth here,” Stephen laughs. Zachery says that he knew he wanted to be involved in the family business when he was eight years old. Pointing at his father he says, “I want to be HIS boss one day!” Stephen’s wife, Marlene, also works for the business part-time doing the payroll and accounting.
Phillips Insurance Agency, which is an independent agency, sells auto, business, home, life and health insurance. Half of their accounts are commercial and half are personal. “Some businesses have been customers since my grandfather was here,” Stephen reports. “And we have many customers who have been with us for four decades.” Most of the businesses they work with are auto-related, including bump shops, auto parts stores and auto repair shops. Many of their personal clients are young families.
“My biggest desire and drive is to keep W.J. Phillips
Insurance Agency going for my children.”
– Stephen Phillips
Phillips Insurance Agency doesn’t just sell insurance. “We want our customers to know what they are buying,” Zachery says. “We take the time to explain how a policy works. It takes more time, but our customers stay with us for a longer period.” Zachery also says that the business is not always fun, but it’s always interesting and he gets to meet a lot of people. “You have to have a servant’s heart in this business,” Stephen adds. “Helping a person when a catastrophe happens is very satisfying and rewarding.”
A family who plays together, stays together – and when they are not working, the Phillips family enjoys spending time at a cottage on Chippewa Lake, MI purchased by William J. Phillips in 1924. The family now has five cottages there, owned by various cousins, brothers and other family members. Zachery met his wife, Mallory, at Chippewa Lake. “We have a lot of fun there,” says Stephen. “We love all water sports, wake-boarding, wind-surfing and fishing. There are four generations of the Phillips family who fish there now.”
Stephen also enjoys collecting, restoring, and racing vintage Hodaka motorcycles. Zachery likes to do nonprofit work in his spare time and is co-founder of PursueHope International. PursueHope develops and distributes video-based community development tools that are used in developing countries around the world.
It really is all about family for the Phillips. Stephen’s hope is to continue the legacy that started with his grandfather for many years to come. “It’s so rewarding to sit at my grandfather’s desk. I feel a responsibility to keep my ancestors’ names in good standing,” says Zachery, who lives in the home built by his grandfather in 1951.
“My biggest desire and drive is to keep W.J. Phillips Insurance Agency going for my children,” says Stephen. “It’s a legacy.”
Photography by Jennifer Hodney