When Dave Clayton saw the first plume of smoke lift into the sky across San Francisco Bay, he knew that his plans to leisurely drive home to watch the NFL season opener were off.
As he heard reports of the San Bruno fire come over the radio and emergency vehicles fly by him on Sept. 9, the owner of Clayton Insurance Agency in Fremont drove across the San Mateo Bridge toward the chaos.
It is Clayton's job to bring calm to his clients. In this case, he was helping other agents of Farmers Insurance, which he represents. Farmers Insurance has 60,000 employees.
"When your car breaks down, you know to take it to a mechanic," said Clayton, 57. "When your house is suddenly gone, what are you supposed to do?
"That's where I come in. I guide people through these major problems and help them anyway I can."
He's won Commercial Agent of the Year honors from 2004 to 2009 for Farmers Insurance Group. In 2005, he was the top agent for the entire company and rode on the company's Rose Bowl float. Clayton credits his success to a heavy emphasis on marketing as well as integrating himself as much as possible into the communities.
Since walking away from law enforcement in 1988 -- he was a police officer for the San Jose Police Department -- Clayton had led his agency to $15 million annual revenue. Profit for his agency is about $3 million to $5 million, which is distributed among his 13 employees. His son Darin, 31, serves as the chief financial officer.
The business model for him is set up so that his agency receives a percentage of the premium and renewal, usually 15 percent.
"I'm proud of my numbers and what we've made, because I've worked really hard for it," Clayton said. "I have no problem telling people I've done well."
Two years ago, a study conducted by the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America found an increase in small agencies.
"More agencies are being formed than in past years, particularly in areas of the country suffering from difficulties in the availability of coverage, and their principals tend to be younger," said Madelyn Flannagan, vice president of education and research for the association.
About 99 percent of the insurance that Clayton offers is Farmers Insurance, which he always gives the first right to refusal.
He has no specialty, offering insurance of all kinds, but 90 percent of his 3,000 clients are commercial. His clients include Lakeside Chalet in Oakland, Four-Star Cleaning Restoration in Fremont and Big O Tires in Livermore, Pleasanton and Lafayette.
When he insured Rob Dean's Oakland-based business, Dean's Trucking, Clayton went over some safety issues he wanted fixed before he would issue him a policy. For example, spot mirrors on the side of all the trucks were Clayton's suggestions; as a result, Dean saw a sharp decline in the accident numbers.
"Dave is one of the most professional guys I've ever dealt with," Dean said. "He's always calling to make suggestions, and every time I need him he's been there for me."
Clayton realizes that on the macro level, insurance agents do not always have the best reputation. But he thinks that by working with his clients on a personal level, he has built a trust factor that is invaluable.
"Everyone thinks that an insurance agent is selling smoke and mirrors until the San Bruno fires come, or until someone dies and it's your job to deliver $1.25 million to a widow, which I just did," he said. "The insurance industry is a wonderful industry because we're there to help people."
Sales have always come easy for Clayton. As a youth, he sold Christmas cards, newspaper subscriptions for the Hayward Daily Review and shoes.
Clayton found his knack for the sales translated well into insurance. Even though the money is good, he insists that being able to help people is what he loves most.
In the wake of the San Bruno fires, he helped with clients of other Farmers Insurance Group agents. Because none were his, he didn't get paid for helping, Clayton said.
"Sometimes, it just comes down to compassion," he said.
Rarely is he at his headquarters at 4460 Technology Drive in Fremont. Instead, he spends most of his time driving from client to client.
He likes to measure his day by how many of the nine Bay Area counties he drives through. Four is a typical day, and seven is his high.
"I like to drive out to see the people, cause I like to work eyeball to eyeball," he said. "Because when you're handling people's money, it's all about trust."
If he talks to people about the importance of life insurance, he brings up a story that happened Dec. 22, 1957, when a 5-year-old boy lost his father to a drunken-driving accident. Just 37 days prior, a $100,000 life insurance policy was taken out; as a result, the family wasn't sent into a financial tailspin.
"The reason I can tell that story and the importance of life insurance is because that boy was me," he said. "You always have to prepare for the unexpected, because if we didn't have that insurance, we would have been in big doo-doo.
"People don't plan to fail. They just fail to plan," he said.
Contact David Morrill at 925-977-8477.
Name: Clayton Insurance Agency
Owner: Dave Clayton
Address: 4460 Technology Drive, Fremont