Johnny Pitts serves as co-CEO of Lipscomb and Pitts insurance. Pitts’ father cofounded the company in 1954. Photographed Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in the Founders Room at Lipscomb and Pitts Insurance Company in Memphis. (Photo: Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal)
In 1954, Mathew Lipscomb II and John Pitts met for the first time to share 10-cent cups of coffee at a cafe on Cooper Street. They needed to talk business.
The two World War II veterans came home to Memphis after serving and started jobs at Liberty Mutual. They quickly became the top two insurance salesmen in the Southeast for the company. They met that day to talk about the possibility of striking out on their own.
In October that year they launched Lipscomb & Pitts Insurance, offering personal insurance services like home and auto coverage. Now, 65 years later, it is still in business. The company led by their sons Johnny Pitts and Mathew Lipscomb III has grown to become the largest privately-held insurance company in the Mid-South, offering a range of much more complex types of insurance products for companies large and small. It has 132 employees spread across four offices in Memphis, Nashville Chattanooga and Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Lipscomb & Pitts was named the Top Workplace among Memphis’ midsize companies for 2019.
“It all begins with a couple of things: Stating a clear vision of where your company wants to go, communicating with your staff and then hiring the best people,” Johnny Pitts said, adding that the company’s selective hiring process led to an average annual turnover rate around 2%. “It’s always the little things … What really keeps people is that they can see that you care about them.”
Pitts said Lipscomb & Pitts offers competitive benefits and salaries that rival the biggest employers in town, but the company also seeks out feedback from employees to see what they need to do their jobs better. On hot summer days they might order ice cream for the entire staff, and Pitts spent one year having lunch with every employee in groups of three with one rule: Talking about work was off limits.
“Let’s talk about your vacation,” Pitts said as an example of the kind of topics he and his employees discussed over lunch. “How’s your family? How are your pets? What are your issues in life? You want to know those kinds of things. That, to me, makes it more personal.”
As part of the Top Workplaces survey, nearly two dozen employees submitted anonymous comments about why they love the company and responses ranged from pay to benefits to a work culture that doesn’t require them to check their personal lives at the door.
“They give me the flexibility to be a mom and a professional,” one employee wrote. “While I am encouraged to work and do my best, I don’t feel pressured to put work over my family.”
Another employee said the fulfillment they feel each day makes them feel appreciated.
“All day, every day, I get to help people,” that employee wrote. “That’s a gift. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my peers and my upper level management. They share their own challenges and resolutions, which, in turn, helps me to grow as well. I’m so grateful for this place.”
Others still shared how they felt empowered to make decisions and felt that after training, upper management trusts employees to do their jobs the best way they see fit.
That autonomy has been part of the DNA of the company since Pitts and Lipscomb III took over from their dads.
“I’ll never forget, I was 28. My dad came in and said, ‘Alright, it’s time for you to start running things,'” Pitts said, adding that Lipscomb’s father gave him the same speech and the two agreed only if they could run the company the way they wanted. “From time to time as we were learning management … they would watch us make these mistakes and never say anything, and then after they would say, ‘Well I saw you walking right into it … You wouldn’t remember. You needed to learn it the hard way.'”
In those cases remembering the lesson was worth the missteps along the way, a message that is still embedded in how the company operates.
Desiree Stennett covers economic development and business at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at email@example.com, 901-529-2738 or on Twitter: @desi_stennett.
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