This Gainesville leader is a legend, but he’s not slowing down any time soon. We talked to athlete, philanthropist, insurance agent and former state representative Perry McGriff about why this town is worth giving back to—and why he’s undertaking a new venture.
Most people might recognize Perry McGriff, but for each person, it might be for a different reason. McGriff has been a fixture in the business, charitable and civic communities of Gainesville for half a century. And now, he’s returning to one of his first roles—insurance agent.
Two years ago, State Farm Insurance forced him to retire as one of its agents, at a time when the carrier was considering leaving the state.
“I wasn’t ready to retire,” McGriff says. “I had insured the second, third and even fourth generation of families, and I wanted to help meet people’s needs.”
At first, after giving up ownership of his State Farm agency, McGriff worked with his son, Mark, who had taken over the business. But he wanted his own business again. So he approached Faye Johnson, who owned Johnson-Fletcher Insurance, an independent agency that represents a wide group of companies. Although Johnson initially rebuffed him, she eventually agreed to sell the agency to McGriff. Johnson remains active in the agency, now known as Perry McGriff Johnson & Fletcher Insurance Agency.
Before buying the agency, McGriff had been planning another cross-country bicycle ride on behalf of the Five Points of Life, which encourages people to give blood and bone marrow and become tissue donors. McGriff has donated 310 pints of blood and has undergone apheresis, in which platelets are removed from blood, 174 times. He ultimately decided against the ride in order to get to work on expanding the insurance agency.
McGriff has always been physically active. He starred in both baseball and football at the University of Florida. He was named an All-American in baseball and played two years in the Kansas City Athletics farm system.
In addition to running the insurance agency, today McGriff is president of the Community Foundation of North Central Florida (formerly the Gainesville Community Foundation) and on the board of the Cade Museum Foundation.
One thing McGriff has retired from? Politics, following what he calls an “ugly” campaign for state senate in 2010, which he lost to Steve Oelrich.
McGriff and his wife, Noel, have five children and 12 grandchildren. “The Lord has blessed me with a good family,” he says. We talked to the former mayor about his lifelong commitment to helping others, and what led to his success in business, politics and more.
How are you approaching your new business?
I approach it like anything else. I wrote down my plans. I set my goals. I want to expand our business in five years. I want to add employees and provide them with a profession and good-paying jobs. I’m eager to give people a job in a professional career.
How was it starting your State Farm agency in 1962?
I started from scratch with no policyholders. Because I was a local yokel—went to the public schools, played both baseball and football at the university—my name was in the paper. As I got started in my insurance career, people knew me. I can’t say thanks enough to athletics because it opened doors for me.
State Farm trained me by bringing in booklets. One was about how to build a fortune, starting with how much you can save if you save $10 a month. They had a little flip chart in a notebook for auto insurance. You just read the words and flipped the pages. They gave me my rate books and the flip charts, and they said, “Sic ‘em.” I learned by the seat of my britches.
A lot of times, I was at someone’s kitchen table at suppertime. It was long, hard hours. At the end of five years, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In 10 years, I felt I was on the right path, doing the right things, for the right reasons.
As I grew, I was asked to join a study group of top producers from Florida and other parts of the country. We met once a year, and we would share ideas about how to increase business. We had an agent in South Florida during the building boom who wrote 5,000 policies in five years. How do you do that?
He said it was very simple: He sat down and asked “centers of influence” to help him get referrals. I realized that that made sense. I could do that.
In the 1970s, I made the top 50 agents in State Farm in fire insurance. There were 17,000 agents, and I was in the top 50.