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Family strength keeps insurance firm successful

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Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2007 6:56 am

Selling American Family Insurance policies is what the Uhlhorn family of Gilbert is all about.

They’re also about sticking together during a family tragedy and, gradually, building a successful family-operated business that is ranked among the top American Family Insurance agencies in the nation.

And it all started with Leon Uhlhorn, their late husband-father, a long-time American Family Insurance executive and agent and former president of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce.

He and his brother, Howard Uhlhorn drowned during a family fishing trip in Canada nine years ago.

Their sons Marty and Joseph were following in another boat when they lost sight of their dads.

“Their boat hit a swirling part of the river and they weren’t wearing life jackets,” said Marty Uhlhorn, 38.

Their bodies were recovered the next day.

Marty Uhlhorn found his father’s baseball cap floating in the icy river.

He keeps the cap on his desk at the Martin Uhlhorn Insurance Agency at 3303 E. Baseline in the Val Vista Lakes Community commercial center in Gilbert.

“It was a terrible experience for all of us,” said Uhlhorn. “But it drew us even closer together.”

The late Leon Uhlhornand his wife, Suzie and three children — Marty, Deanne, Rachael and Laurel moved from their small town in Windom, Minnesota to Gilbert in 1989.

“My husband was a regional sales manager, but he wanted to get back to selling policies and dealing directly with people,” said Suzie Uhlhorn, the company’s office manager. “Our family has a perfect working relationship ... we leave our personal problems at home and focus on our work at work.”

Besides her son, who joined the family’s Gilbert office in 1995 after working as a bank financial adviser in Tempe and then opening his own American Family Insurance agency, other family members who work at the agency are: brother-in-law Sean Witkin (wife, Rachael) and sisters Deanne Olson and Laurel Chose, who all live in Gilbert.

“Before dad’s death, we worked together out of a small office (1,400 square feet) at Val Vista and Baseline, but we all were independent agents,” said Martin Uhlhorn.

“After his death, I reorganized and formed a company and continued to sell American Family Insurance policies and other services.”

They moved into their present, 3,600-square foot office in 2002 and have since increased their sales and office staff.

Sales, meanwhile, have grown from 1,500 insurance policies in 1998 to more than 7,000 today.

Gross revenues have climbed from $140,129 in 1998 to more than $1.5 million last year, Uhlhorn said.

“We expect to continue to grow, to hire more sales and office staff,” he added.

His employees were named by American Family Insurance as having the Top Agents in the Nation among the country’s more than 4,000 agents.

The insurance industry, especially in Arizona, is also steadily growing, said Uhlhorn.

“The steady influx of people into the Valley results in a rising sales of policies, but it also creates more claims, especially for thefts and auto accidents,” he said.

American Family Insurance, based in Madison, Wisconsin, is a mutual company and is owned by its policy holders in 18 states.

It, however, suffered severe losses in recent years as a result of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

The company paid its customers about $1.1 billion in storm losses in 2006, recording a loss of $202.1 million after posting $889.1 million gain in 2005, Uhlhorn said, referring to annual reports from American Family Insurance.

“In Arizona we’re lucky since we don’t face a coastline like California and the East Coast,” Uhlhorn said.

He looked away from a list of business statistics and then stared quietly at a photo on his desk of his then young father holding his newborn son.

“After his death, I became the head coach,” he said softly, referring to his position as the only son and leader in the family’s business.

Each year since his death, the Uhlhorn family has gathered to note his death and celebrate the family’s achievements both on the home and business fronts.

Uhlhorn lives in Gilbert with his wife, Brandi, and their children, Paige, 5 and Alex, 2 — two more Uhlhorn family members who may join the company.

American Family Insurance

Headquarters: Madison, Wis. Product: Insurance policies that include protection for homes, vehicles, businesses, health and other coverage as well as financial services. Assets: $15.5 billion. Policy holder equity: $4.9 billion. Revenue: $6.8 billion. Life Insurance policies in force: $75.9 billion. Founded: Oct. 3, 1927 in Madison, Wis., with 3 employees and 346 policy holders. Today: Companies in 18 states, 4,300 agents and 8,200 employees. 2006: $1.1 billion paid out for storm losses. 2006: $202.1 million in company losses as a result of storm losses. 2005: $889.1 million gain in revenues. Officers: David R. Anderson, chairman and CEO; Jack Salzwedel, president and COO. Information: (608) 242-4100 or

Uhlhorn Company highlights

Policies sold

1998: 1,500 Today: 7,000

Gross revenues

1998: $140,129 Today: $1.5M

Marty Uhlhorn

Age: 38. Family: Wife, Brandi; children, Paige, 5 and Alex, 2, ; mother, Suzie Uhlhorn, sisters, Deanne Olson, Laurel Chose and Rachael Witkin. Home: Gilbert. Occupation: President of Martin Uhlhorn Insurance Agency, 3303 E. Baseline Road, Suite 101, Gilbert. Key Achievement: Took over his father’s Gilbert-based American Family Insurance agency following his sudden death in 1998, supported his family-co-workers after the tragedy and then continued to expand the agency until it was named by American Family Insurance as one of the Top 12 agencies in the nation. Background: Joined his familyowned-and-operated American Family Insurance agency in 1995 and, in 1999, restructured the company while he and family members continued to add more clients and steadily increase their gross revenues. Philosophy for success: Never compromise anything ... and help others Information: (480) 926-9020 or

Uhlhorn family


• Leon and Suzie Uhlhorn and their son, Marty and three daughters, Deanne, Rachael and Laurel left their home in Windom, Minn. in 1989 and moved to Gilbert, primarily because Leon Uhlhorn, an American Family Insurance Company regional manager, wanted to resume his work as an insurance agent and deal directly with people.

• Marty Uhlhorn graduated from Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa in 1991 with a degree in business management and entrepreneurship. He and his wife subsequently moved to Tempe, where he worked for two years as a financial advisor for a Tempe bank before joining his parents and sisters, Deanne and Laurel as a sales agent at the Gilbert office.

• In 1998, Leon Uhlhorn, by then an active member of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce and communities in the East Valley and his brother, Howard, drowned during a family fishing vacation in Canada. His son, Marty and a cousin were in a similar, engine-powered boat when their fathers and uncle’s boat disappeared.

• Marty Uhlhorn, who had opened his own American Family Insurance agency in Tempe in 1993, moved to his father’s office in Gilbert and, following his death, took charge of the family-operated agency. He named the re-organized company, the Martin Uhlhorn Agency and continued to sell American Family Insurance policies.

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