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Bill Willson, Blake and Wayne Roberts, Kelsey Roberts Nichols

Image: Jennifer Soos

When Wayne and Karen Roberts moved to the area to start a small insurance agency more than three decades ago, life was simpler in Venice—and so was the insurance industry. The city had 12,000 residents, about half its current population, and the Robertses could write a home policy from Nationwide, which was the sole company they represented, for about $300 a year.

“We didn’t know anyone,” says Wayne Roberts about those first months in the city. “We financed a desk and a chair and didn’t have any clients.”

Community involvement, such as Wayne coaching YMCA basketball and getting involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, brought them friends, customers and a rewarding new life in Venice, a place they had never visited until they moved here sight unseen from Gainesville.

“It’s been a pleasure to watch the city grow along with the agency,” Wayne says.

The Roberts’ son, Blake, and daughter, Kelsey Roberts Nichols, now work for the Roberts Insurance Group, along with 20 employees; many have been with the company for decades. Customer service and community involvement are deeply ingrained in the company’s philosophy.

“We expect our employees to be involved,” says Blake, an associate agent. “Whatever your interest, we want you to be involved. We are in a relationship business.”

Over the years three company employees have served as Venice Area Chamber of Commerce presidents; company president Bill Willson served on the Venice City Council; and employees coach Little League, Venice Vikings Football and serve as leaders in Rotary, the Sertoma Club of Venice and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Wayne organizes an annual clay shoot for Big Brothers Big Sisters, an event that brings together company teams for friendly competition and raises about $25,000.

The Roberts Group customers are neighbors, friends, family and club members, so when Hurricane Irma started barreling up the Florida coast recently the company went into overdrive. When it looked like the storm’s eye would touch Venice and bring a potential eight-foot storm surge, employees at the Roberts Insurance group had to simultaneously field calls from anxious clients and evacuate. “After the storm, we had to get up and running as quickly as possible,” says Willson. “We had to figure out how to make it work.”

One of those contingency plans involved forwarding client calls to cell phones. A generator could keep the power on at the office, but after the storm, the phones and the internet were down for several days; some employees had left the state and several of those who stayed did not have power.

Wayne’s daughter Kelsey had one of the few homes with power and internet after the storm, so the company set up a makeshift claims processing center there, filing many of its 1,300 claims.

The business the Robertses started in 1983 selling auto, home and life policies for Nationwide has been transformed by industry changes and the catastrophic losses brought on by hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which wiped out many insurers. Willson says it was a tough period as national carriers pulled out of homeowner’s insurance. “We lost 3,000 homeowner’s (policies),” Willson says. “We had to reinvent ourselves.”

Roberts now sells insurance from multiple insurers, giving clients more options.“Who knows what the future holds?” Willson says. “But we know we’re capable of meeting the challenges the future presents.”

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