Ott Insurance thrives on customer service

Dwain Hebda

Dwain Hebda is a writer, editor and journalist living in Little Rock. The president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, he’s covered a wide range of subject matter over the course of his 40 years of professional writing that includes magazines, newspapers and books. When he’s not bringing the tales of Arkansas and her people to the page, Hebda and his wife spend their energy on their four grown children and three lovely dogs.
Dwain Hebda

by Dwain Hebda
Mike Kemp photo

When a business has been in operation for 116 years, it’s definitely doing something right. For Ott Insurance, a company that’s resided at 831 Parkway for 50 of those years, that something is customer service. 

“Anytime I interview an applicant, the thing I look for first and foremost is a caring personality,” said office manager Michelle Mallett, who’s worked at Ott for 23 years. “I look for kindness and concern for the client because it is a service. You’re helping people, and you have to want to take care of them. You have to be open to working with people of all different backgrounds and personalities.”

The staff at Ott Insurance: Evelyn Brinkley (seated, from left), Barbara Lewis, Dana Healy, Debby Saddler, Karen Hillyer, Michelle Mallett; Patsy Bajorek (middle), Charlene Lucey, Michelle Tews, Ashley Spencer, Sheila Ball, Laura Hillis, Redessa Graham, Cynthia Rickett, Marla Magness; Brett Hedrick (back), Luke Gordon, Lonnie Cagle, Trevor Martin, Cole Schanandore and Rex Saddler.

That may sound overly simple, but it’s a formula that’s worked since G.L. Bahner founded the company in 1902. Robert Ott, the namesake, came aboard in 1948, became a partner six years later and was sole owner of the agency by 1958. The mother-daughter team of Learleen Caputo and Pat Hawkins, both longtime employees, bought the company from Ott in 1998. 

Three years ago, the company changed hands again, this time to area businessmen Stanley Gordon Jr. and Lonnie Cagle, but most policyholders didn’t have a clue. That’s how rock solid and smooth the transition was, right down to keeping the name above the door.

“I wouldn’t say that we were really proactive in (announcing) that,” Cagle said. “We kept the same people. We just wanted a smooth transition. As far as the public goes, I don’t know if there was even an announcement of a change of ownership. Most people didn’t know because it was 95 percent the same, especially the people doing what they’d always done.”

“This business right here is about people like Michelle and all the others around this place,” Gordon said. “I mean we’re nothing without them. We’re just blessed to be where we are. We’ve got a lot of confidence in the people that we’ve got here. They’ve been good to us. We try to be good to them.”

In fact, Ott Insurance has an equally stellar reputation for being a great place to work, and this contributes to employee performance. In the last three years, the firm has lost just three employees — of whom, one died and one retired.

“I worked under Mr. Ott and then I worked under Pat and Learleen,” Mallett said. “All the way through those three ownerships there’s a mutual respect, mutual love, mutual common goal. All those owners always made us all feel part of the team.

“Anything you could ask for here, from one ownership to the next, is there. It’s always been there, and it’s never changed. It’s just a teamwork kind of atmosphere. Everybody has respect for everybody else and their opinions. It’s a family.”

Of course, an insurance company shows its true mettle in a crisis, and few were bigger than 2014’s tornado. Gordon saw the company in action during that time in the aftermath of the storm’s devastation in his hometown of Vilonia.

“During that time, our family suffered a lot of loss, not to our homes but our businesses,” Gordon recalled. “My business was probably hit the least of any of our family’s; the other ones were destroyed.

“(Ott employees) were focused on trying to take care of people from Little Rock to Mayflower to Ferndale, all the areas in that path. And still, I’ve have Cynthia Rickett calling me, Pat Hawkins calling me, the adjustor calling me. Everybody was calling to check on us.”

At the time, Ott employees didn’t know Gordon and Cagle had been in discussions about buying the business. After seeing such professionalism and customer service firsthand, the two businessmen were more sold on the company than ever. 

“When we announced the buyout, I think most employees probably had no clue that (negotiations) had been going on,” Gordon said. He added, with a grin, “I told them this is y’all’s fault. You shouldn’t have given such good service. You treated me too well.”