There’s an old saying that “timing is everything.” From timing a perfect pass on the gridiron to making the right career moves, it’s all about timing.
For Wheeling’s Laura Bissett-Mull, 2016 was the perfect time to assume the helm of the family-owned State Farm Insurance Agency started by her grandfather more than 60 years ago. On January 1, 2016, Bissett-Mull formally became a small business owner in the community she “loves more than any other” she’s lived in.
Laura is one of an ever-growing number of native Weelunkers and transplants who realize there is true value and opportunity in this old city, a community that offers a culture and lifestyle that left an indelible mark on all of them growing up. Despite leaving for college, new careers in other states and opportunities for big city lifestyles, the call to “come home” has won them over.
For Laura, the possibility of following in the footsteps of her dad, Doug, and her grandfather, the late Paul Bissett, was an idea always tucked away in her subconscious mind. She spent her high school summers working in the agency’s office, even going so far as to take an aptitude test to determine if it was something for which she was suited.
“The voice in the back of my head was always there whispering to me, but for a long time I dismissed it. But, I kept coming back to it,” Laura said from her office in the restored Victorian storefront in the 1100 block of Main Street. Today, her name is emblazoned across the front above the doorway just as her father’s had been until January.
However, a lot of other things happened along the way to that office. A degree in finance and marketing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, led to a job in Chicago crunching numbers for an intellectual property consulting firm called InteCap. After a few years, Laura moved closer to home by taking a marketing position with Pfizer in a territory that included her hometown. Eventually, Laura became a physician liaison for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, a position that also kept her in docs’ offices in and around Wheeling. Each of these moves brought her a little closer to Wheeling.
Along the way she married her high school sweetheart, Wheeling native Adam Mull, an architect who also had been working in Chicago. The desire to be closer to home was a decision they both agreed upon. Adam joined a Pittsburgh firm, and they settled in Pittsburgh’s Mount Lebanon section, where they added a daughter, Grace, to the family. Living just an hour away from family and friends, coupled with the birth of their daughter, brought Laura’s timing clock pointing closer to her hometown.
Then that nagging call to “come home” became so strong that the couple decided to make the move back in the spring of 2009.
“The attraction to come home was based upon the fact that Wheeling has the best of everything,” Laura said, adding, “and because it was the right time.”
Primarily, Laura’s deep love for her close-knit family is at the heart of her decision to make Wheeling her final destination. And, although the draw to return was overwhelming, it wasn’t an easy move to make, Bissett-Mull notes, saying, “We were hesitant at first because of the way the city looked from the outside, but you can’t replace the culture of this unique town and the sense of belonging created by relationships that have been established here over many years.”
“It’s all about that Wheeling feeling,” chimed in her dad, echoing Wheeling’s old tag-line.
Having explored more cosmopolitan cities – Chicago, Pittsburgh, and for Adam, Park City, Utah — allowed them to make value-based comparisons. But the decision to return almost 10 years ago was based upon the fact that they had started a family and that a number of their friends and their young families were returning.
“Adam and I wanted to come home, just as did a group of our childhood friends. We started thinking outside of the box how to make it viable, and we all made an effort to get back here. These are special relationships,” Bissett-Mull said about their tight group of friends who represent a variety of professions contributing to the city’s economy, from medical and business professionals to entrepreneurs in start-up companies and building restoration efforts.
“We also realized we could afford to build a house when we returned, something that wouldn’t have been possible at that time in Pittsburgh. And, it was important to know that you can make an impact on the community by what you can offer,” Laura said. “I decided then to change career paths and set my sights on becoming a State Farm agent because that would allow me to be a small business owner in a community I love more than any other I have experienced.”
Being part of Wheeling’s revitalization efforts was also a draw for the couple, who are involved in a number of organizations established by the city’s young visionaries. Adam, an architect, is owner of AM-Architecture, a firm that specializes in custom home design. He operates out of an office adjacent to the family’s farmhouse home he designed in Oglebay Meadows. The couple now have two children, 8-year old Grace and Jillian, 4, both students at Wheeling Country Day School.
Making her mark in the insurance business that was started by her well-known grandfather presented Laura with a daunting challenge, one that didn’t shy her away from making the decision to move in that direction five years ago.
“My first priority was that if I was going to be a State Farm agent, it would be in Wheeling and nowhere else,” Bissett-Mull said as that voice in the back of her head came front and center.
The process that led to her taking over for her father’s agency entailed a series of interviews over a three-year period, licensing, building a business plan, and a nine-month internship which included classroom studies, as well as field training. She is fortunate that veteran members of Doug’s staff, Sheila Jackson and Connie Mirides, have remained on the job. Currently Laura employs a team of three fully licensed members, and they recently welcomed a summer intern.
Doug Bissett is visibly proud of his daughter’s decision to join the family trade. His own experiences that led him to join his father in the agency were different than Laura’s because of the era in which he grew up. He recalls that Paul went from being in the furniture sales business in Wheeling to starting his career with State Farm.
“As kids you don’t always know what your dad actually does for a living. As a new agent, Paul would take me and my sisters, Sheri and Cynthia, along with him as he went door-to-door, approaching potential customers in their homes. He worked out of our home in McMechen,” Doug said. “Many insurance policies in the 1950s and ’60s were sold at the kitchen table.”
Paul’s work ethic and focus on personal contact translated into his success as a State Farm agent. His unique sense of humor and his affable manner charmed his customers, Doug noted. As Paul continued to hone his State Farm skills, Doug recalled that on one occasion his dad stopped in at the Benwood City Building and wrote 10 to 12 auto policies in one day.
“He didn’t know if that was good or not, but that personal touch worked,” Doug said of his father, who had a personality that was larger than life. Paul also was well-known for his booming singing ability in the community, where he sang at weddings, as well as the McMechen Methodist Men’s Choir.
Doug graduated from Union High School in 1968. When he completed his degree at Marshall University, he knew he was going to join his dad in the State Farm office. However, he worked in the steel mill for more than a year until an opportunity to become an agent opened up. Doug soon learned the importance of building relationships with clients and treating them as family. He can share volumes of stories of current clients whose relationships with the family were started over 50 years ago. Their parents or grandparents knew his dad, and they have been customers since they were kids, and now their kids have become Laura’s clients.
“I would have to say that these types of multigenerational client bases don’t happen in many other parts of the country. This is one of the things I was proudest of,” Doug says
Doug’s sister, Sheri Cates, is also part of the State Farm family, having forged her own path by opening an agency in Mt Airy, Md. It was rare in those days for a woman to become an agent, Doug said. Sheri graduated from WVU and received an MBA at Wheeling Jesuit University. She worked as a secretary for her father before a manager offered her the chance to open a new agency in the western Maryland town. Sheri worked hard using the same principles she learned from her dad, and she now operates a highly successful State Farm agency herself.
Laura said, “When I told my grandfather that I wanted to pursue becoming a part of the State Farm family he was overjoyed. He was very proud of State Farm and of what he accomplished and said it would be the best career choice for me. I remember asking him (Paul) near the end of his life what advice he had for me, and he said you have to make the calls and put yourself out there. It is all about building relationships.”
Doug Bissett echoed that advice, noting his own career at State Farm also meant knocking on doors to offer the company’s services. Cold-calling was the name of the game. The Bissett offices changed locations over the years from that kitchen table to the former Hawley Building (Mull Center) and the Windsor Manor, before moving to its own Victorian-style building on Main Street.
The family’s history with State Farm could be classified as the building of a “dynasty of sorts,” Doug quipped. Laura concurred and said she always had the full support of her parents and her husband about her recent career decision.
Laura’s own approach to insurance sales mirrors those of her dad and grandfather.
“Relationships are what make the difference. I don’t like to think of insurance as a commodity. I like to talk through what is important to the client,” Laura explained.
Today’s internet and computer technology have also offered opportunities for research in developing a client base that was unavailable to her predecessors.
It’s only been a few months since the Laura Bissett-Mull sign was installed on the office building, but Laura has a sense of satisfaction believing that she is now part of the revitalization of her hometown, where “all my favorite people are,” and where entrepreneurs like her husband have taken their talents and housed them here. Her dad, who is enjoying more time on the golf course these days, agrees with Laura’s sentiments, commenting that he’s “more optimistic about downtown Wheeling” than he’s been in the last 40 years.
Another member of the clan, Laura’s sister, Jenny Snyder, and her husband, Michael, are eyeing a return to Wheeling after living in Peachtree City, Ga., with their young daughter. Michael, a North Carolina native, is an air traffic controller who will be working at the Pittsburgh airport by the end of the year.
Reflecting on her decision to carry on the family business, Laura said she is confident that making the move to invest in Wheeling all came down to “perfect timing.” And if anyone believes in life’s karma, fate or the stars, they might want to play 1111 on the lottery. It’s the address of Laura Bissett-Mull’s State Farm Agency on Main Street, where they treat you “like a good neighbor,” and that’s a sure bet.