Standing the test of time
Published: Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.
Lee McGriff and Mack Williams talked a lot of business when they started running together about 30 years ago.
McGriff was new in the insurance business after leaving coaching, having served as wide receivers coach at the University of Florida.
Williams was looking for a new venture after selling the family business, Imperial House, to Service Merchandise.
At McGriff's invitation, they hatched a plan to go into business together, starting McGriff-Williams Insurance in 1986.
McGriff, 59, and Williams, 64, are still partners and still talking business on their morning runs.
For McGriff, it was a return to the insurance business after two attempts at a football career. After playing wide receiver for the Gators from 1971-74, he played part of a season with the Dallas Cowboys and part in the World Football League before playing for the first Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in 1976.
"After playing for the Bucs, it was a hard decision to stop trying to play," said McGriff, who today maintains his connection to UF football by serving as analyst for Gator football radio broadcasts.
McGriff spent three months in insurance in Tampa, "but I could not get my mind off of football."
In 1977, he got a job as tight ends coach at Florida State University under Bobby Bowden before he and Steve Spurrier joined the Gators' coaching staff in 1978. McGriff coached first under Doug Dickey and then under Charley Pell.
After the 1982 season, he made another difficult decision to get out of coaching. He said he wanted to have the time to know his kids and wanted to put down roots in the community. Coaching was not conducive to either.
His offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, currently head coach of the Washington Redskins, had put in the good word for McGriff to interview as offensive coordinator at Iowa State. He said Shanahan lit into him when he didn't want to go.
"That's when the light went on and I started thinking, ‘Well, what are you doing?"
McGriff said he wanted to do something that allowed him to be in charge of his own time and to be rewarded for his efforts. He had models in his own family of people who had made that work in the insurance business — father, Jack, and uncles Gus and Emmett. Insurance agent Perry McGriff is a first cousin.
He went back into the business as an agent for Nationwide Insurance, which he had heard had a good training program. It also allowed him to start out at the regional office here in Gainesville, saving on office costs.
He struck out on his own in 1984 after landing a business account with the UF athletic department.
At the time, Williams and his brother, Gary, were running Imperial House. Their father, Don Williams, founded the business as a furniture store in 1958 before turning it into a catalog warehouse with two locations in Gainesville and one in Leesburg.
Mack Williams said competition from big box stores hurt the business. They closed one location and sold the other two to catalog store chain Service Merchandise in 1985.
Nationwide had started selling business insurance. Although it was rare for agents to partner, McGriff said he saw an opportunity because of Williams' experience and contacts in business.
No sooner did they start than Nationwide temporarily dropped business insurance. Williams turned his attention to personal insurance.
"It made us pretty resilient right from the beginning," McGriff said. "We had to be flexible and adjust."
While starting as exclusive agents, Nationwide gradually loosened restrictions over the years following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to allow agents to sell policies by other companies since they were limiting new policies. In 2008, McGriff-Williams became an independent agency and now writes property insurance policies for 61 companies, including Nationwide.
Today, McGriff-Williams has 16 employees supporting about 3,300 personal clients and 500 business clients.
While having a partner in the insurance business is rare, rarer still is a business partnership that lasts nearly 30 years.
Williams said he likes having someone to bounce ideas off of.
"I had the same experience before with my brother in business," he said.
McGriff said Williams is one of the most fair-minded and honest people he knows.
"The other part is some unselfishness because oftentimes greed takes relationships or partnerships down," McGriff said. "... His clients are my clients and my clients are his clients."