‘Scrooge’ no more

After innovative insurance career, High Point businessman focuses on philanthropy
Nov. 09, 2013 @ 04:56 PM

By his own admission, Doug Witcher used to be “an Ebenezer Scrooge” when it came to charitable giving.
As he built his High Point business, Smart Choice, into a network of more than 3,700 insurance agents in 42 states, Witcher says he had little interest in community service.
That has changed in a big way.
The phenomenal growth of his company has yielded a new mindset in recent years, as Witcher has taken more of Smart Choice’s profits out of the company and put them into philanthropy.
The trend reached new heights in September when Witcher pledged a $2 million gift to his alma mater, High Point University.
“The university had provided me with so much as a student, gave me a great education, gave me an opportunity to work my way through school,” he said. “So part of the gift was just an acknowledgement and thank you to the university. Nido (Qubein, HPU president) said ‘That will catch you up for what you didn’t give in the past,’ because I was basically an Ebeneezer Scrooge for many, many years. I ducked from United Way and everything.”
Witcher, 59, started Smart Choice when he found himself in a difficult situation about 25 years ago.
Trying to grow his small insurance agency, he essentially was held captive by the one large carrier he represented. When he brought in an additional carrier, the other company, whom he had represented for nearly 10 years, pulled out of his agency. 
“I was a typical small insurance agent who was challenged getting access to large insurance companies,” he recalled.
Witcher came up with the idea of an alliance of sorts among his peers, a way for small agents to break into new insurance markets by banding together.
The premise was to act as an intermediary between the agencies and the insurance carriers in a mutually beneficial arrangement: agents getting access to insurance customers they couldn’t reach on their own, while the carriers saw a larger number of policies written and premiums generated.
The key was convincing large insurance carriers to break with their preferred way of doing business at the time by allowing small agents to cluster under one umbrella organization.
“When Doug launched this, he had to go and sell these carriers on doing this,” said Andrew Caldwell, executive vice president for business development for Smart Choice. “It really revolutionized our business.”
Smart Choice was launched in 1994 when Witcher assembled 13 independent agents as part of the network, which grew to 140 by 1996.
“We were breaking into the industry in a way that nobody had tried to pull together before,” he said.
Smart Choice has grown to the 30th largest privately held insurance agency in the nation, with about 200 national and regional insurance carriers in the network. There is no fee for agents to join the network, but agents share part of their commissions with Smart Choice.
“Everybody goes, ‘How in the world can you make any money doing that?’ Well, we do, because we have a lot of great agencies that produce a lot of business. We are the No. 1 writer of new business for many of our insurance companies in the country,” Witcher said.
This is a point of pride for Witcher, but it’s his turn away from the day-to-day operations of the company and toward community service that’s his passion these days, he said.
Heading up a stewardship campaign for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church a few years ago opened his eyes to the need in the community, he said. Smart Choice was doing well even at the height of the Great Recession a few years ago when the company started sponsoring events and getting involved with the United Way of Greater High Point.
“One year, we gave 40 percent of our profits away. I think over the last three years, we’ve given $790,000 away,” Witcher said. “I was really blessed the company gave me an opportunity to step out from behind that desk and step into the community. And when I did, a passion just overwhelmed me. I saw so much need out there, and I thank God I’m wired that way that I never had an attachment to money.”
Along with charitable giving, Witcher now devotes considerable time to various community endeavors, including serving as 2013 campaign chairman for the United Way.
A Jamestown native who still makes his home there, Witcher credits organizations like the Boys & Girls clubs and the YMCA with setting him on the right path as a child.
He’s turned his attention to working on behalf of these types of entities virtually full time while Smart Choice veterans like Caldwell handle the business.
“We see Doug once or twice every couple of weeks, because he has a tremendous schedule with the United Way, the Chamber (of Commerce) and different boards that he’s involved with,” Caldwell said. “He has told us he is going to be hands-off allowing us to manage the company in his absence.”
Witcher said, “I think there is a time in your life you can accumulate. Then there is a time in life where you methodically think about how you’re going to go and disburse part of that. That’s what I’m focused on now, and I’m excited about it.”