17 Nov A community fixture: Sonia Bell Insurance committed to customers
by Donna Lampkin Stephens
Sonia Bell opened her first Nationwide Insurance agency in Corning (Clay County) in 1981, but it was her 1984 move to Conway that was the move of her life.
Bell, who has been a Nationwide agent for 31 years now, followed her daughter first, and then love, and Sonia Bell Insurance has been a fixture in Downtown Conway ever since.
“It has been absolutely awesome,” Bell said. “God blessed me when he placed me in Conway, Ark. The town I came from had 3,200 people, so the market area was much better.
“The people are great and it’s a privilege to be part of Downtown Conway.”
Her daughter, Angela, had gone to work for her when she was 16 in Corning. After her high school graduation, she chose to attend the University of Central Arkansas in 1982. When Bell visited in Conway, she met her daughter’s boss, Jerry Bell, fell in love and gave up her Corning agency to move to Conway and start all over when she married him.
“Since I was marrying a man here in Conway and my daughter was at UCA, it was a big decision but it was easily decided,” Bell said of making the move.
Angie, now Angela Bickford, studied sociology and marketing and joined her mother to help start the business. Twenty-eight years later, she remains with her mother as associate agent. Jerry Bell, who died a few years ago, joined his wife and stepdaughter in 1986.
Bell had a background in sales — not insurance — when she first walked into Nationwide’s corporate office in Memphis. Her education had been at Rector High School and Arkansas State University.
“They were just opening in Arkansas,” she said. “I recognized an opportunity. I went back until they hired me.”
She was the company’s third hire — and first woman — in Arkansas.
According to nationwide.com, the company, then known as The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and based in Columbus, Ohio, sold its first policy in 1926. In 1955, the name changed to Nationwide Insurance to reflect its growth. Today it is one of the largest insurance and financial companies in the world with a focus on comprehensive insurance needs for domestic property.
Its sponsorships include NASCAR’s Nationwide Series; the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, one of the largest and most comprehensive pediatric hospitals and research institutes in the United States; and the Nationwide professional golf tour.
“NASCAR has been a great big promotion for Nationwide and our agency,” Bell said, explaining that the company had insured the sport’s Earnhart family for 30 years. She brought the Nationwide Series Pace Car in 2009 to Conway.
Bell has been successful because of her personality and philosophy of business.
“Insurance is a form of sales, but I’m a people person,” she said. “I guess God’s gift to me was the desire to help people. When you’re in the business and you sell what I sell, it gives you the opportunity to really help people to make sure that — well, actually, it comes down to protecting them, making sure their needs are met, that they are able to protect the people they love and everything they’ve worked hard for their entire life.
“People don’t see insurance that way, but if you stop and think, your biggest investment is your home and auto, but the greatest is the family God gave you, and they need to be protected.”
Bell stressed the agency’s on-your-side review, in which agents sit down with policy holders to review their coverage to make sure they are up to date.
“That is our job — to make sure they’re taken care of,” she said.
Sonia Bell Insurance offers business, auto, home, life and financial policies. Besides Bell and Bickford, the team also includes Tracy Robinson, who has been with the agency 15 years and lives in Greenbrier, and Lori Velasco, an eight-year veteran who lives in Vilonia.
Combined, they have 92 years of insurance experience.
“We feel like we’ve got the county pretty well covered here,” Bell said. “Our customers are not only our policy owners, they’re also our friends. I really feel old when I give a graduation gift to a child that I have given the mother a baby gift, and before long I insure their homes. They are our friends as well as our business partners.”
In addition to being her employer, Robinson considers Bell to be a great friend.
“She has as much as adopted my family as her own,” Robinson said. “Over the years I have watched Sonia reach out to many with a loving heart, desiring to help others through her local church and through her business. Her generosity has come in several forms, I have seen her provide housing, jobs, food and Christmas presents throughout our community.”
Bell said Nationwide made it easy for her company to take care of its policy holders.
“Honesty and integrity are Nationwide&rsqu
o;s idea of being a business, and those values should never be compromised in any way,” she said. “The company has grown into a world-class insurance and financial provider where honesty and integrity are the cornerstones. They always say these core values should never be compromised.
“That philosophy is why I’m so proud to be a Nationwide agent. Honesty and integrity — that has been my motto since I started in business. Take care of your customers because your customers are your business. Be honest. Everyone in my agency knows when they’re hired that that’s what I live by.”
Robinson has been a witness to that philosophy since joining the agency in 1996.
“I have watched over the years as Sonia has built her business with honesty and integrity,” Robinson said. “Working with Sonia has been a joy as she eagerly shared her insurance knowledge and helped me to gain an understanding of the insurance industry. I learned quickly that being able to communicate with others and truly listening to the needs of our clients was just as important as signing an application. Sonia truly wants to make sure our clients have the insurance products that fit their needs.”
Bell’s philosophy of business encompasses the families of her employees. When a child is having a field day, homeroom party or something else important in his or her life, it goes on the company calendar so that the parent can be there.
“I think that has created a tremendous amount of loyalty to me,” she said. “We’ve got seven kids among the three women here. There’s a lot going on. I am a Christian, and this is the kind of business we run, and it’s been a very big blessing for me.”
Another blessing has been working with her daughter all these years, whom she feels has been instrumental in building the business.
“We have over the years learned together,” she said.
Bell considers Jerry’s three children — Scotty, Philip, and David — as her own. She also has two grandsons — Seth Bickford, a senior at Conway Christian, and Aaron Bickford, a second-grader at Carolyn Lewis Elementary. Both intend to go to UCA, which is a pillar in their family history.
Besides Nationwide activities and her involvement with the First Freewill Baptist Church of Conway, her grandchildren are her hobbies.
“I never miss a ball game, the new frog we found or the play at school,” she said. “I’d rather be with my family and grandchildren than anything — anywhere.”
For more information, visit Sonia Bell Insurance at 1155 Front St. or soniabellinsurance.com or call 501.327.8017. The company is also on Facebook.
“Nationwide has been very good to me and my family.”