The world was a quite different place in 1922. Computers were many years in the future, radio was the entertainment technology of the day. Little did the residents of Galesburg know that a young insurance man, Grant L. Bullis, was about to establish a business downtown that would be thriving in the 21st century. As what is now Bullis & Sundberg Insurance Services prepares to celebrate the agency’s 87th anniversary, it’s still very much a family operation.
The world was a quite different place in 1922. Computers were many years in the future, radio was the entertainment technology of the day. Little did the residents of Galesburg know that a young insurance man, Grant L. Bullis, was about to establish a business downtown that would be thriving in the 21st century.
As what is now Bullis & Sundberg Insurance Services prepares to celebrate the agency’s 87th anniversary, it’s still very much a family operation. Partners Jay Bullis and Marcia Bullis can trace their family tree back through the eight different locations the firm has used through the years in Galesburg. Rick Sundberg, who went to high school with Jay Bullis, is the one partner who is not part of the Bullis family, but all 17 of the agency’s employees are part of the Bullis & Sundberg insurance family.
Marcia Bullis said that her grandfather, Grant L. Bullis, “was a farm boy and started working for Northwestern Mutual Life.”
“They said ‘you’re going to Galesburg,’ ” Jay Bullis said of his grandfather, who came here with his new wife, Ramona.
“The first office was on Simmons Street, where Accounting Systems is and they lived on Beecher,” Jay Bullis said.
Marcia Bullis said that when her grandfather arrived in Galesburg, he was selling life insurance, but the independent insurance agency soon broadened to offer all lines of insurance.
In 1949, Grant T. “Tom” Bullis came to work at the agency during the height of the polio scare in this country. Marcia Bullis said there was such a demand for the coverage, Tom Bullis set up a table outside to sell polio policies.
The business was an independent agency then and remains so to this day. But, what exactly does that mean?
“It means we can pick and choose between many companies,” Marcia Bullis said, as opposed to selling just one company's insurance.
While there have to be some breaks along the way for a family business to last this long, a sound foundation had to be built by Grant L. Bullis. Marcia Bullis said she heard all of her life, “ ‘Geez, your grandfather was a straight-forward, honest man.’ I see that in all of our employees.”
Loyalty is a word that is thrown around a lot in the business place, but Tom Bullis set another standard that has been vital to the insurance agency’s success over the years.
“They were eating, sleeping and drinking insurance,” Sundberg said. “You talk about loyalty — all of the customers, Tom was emphatic they (his employees) had to buy from their own clientele. He’ll still ask us to do that to this day.”
Meanwhile, the Bullis family continued to make insurance the family business. Grant Marc Bullis came into the business in 1973, with Jay following one year later. Jay, Marc and Tom were the partners by this stage in life of the insurance company.
Technology with a personal touch
By the late 1970s, technology began to enter the picture, although never to the point of the insurance agency losing its personal touch. One day, in the late ’70s, when Tom was on a bike ride, “We bought an IBM Selectric typewriter that could remember people’s names and addresses,” Jay Bullis said. It was a giant step forward in sending out marketing letters, although Jay admitted there was some explaining to do about why so much money was spent on a typewriter.
Over the next 15 years, computers gradually became more common at the office — from one shared by the entire business, to one on each desk. There were other changes. In 1991, Marc Bullis moved with his wife to a suburb of Minneapolis and established Bullis Insurance in Wayzata, Minn.
“He has his son working for him now,” Marcia Bullis said, as the family tradition is carried on in the Twin Cities.
“I joined the agency in ’83,” Sundberg said. “When Marc left, we created a partnership with the four of us.”
Marc was bought out, as the Bullis family in Galesburg helped him get started and the three partners of today’s business here were in place.
The exact recipe for such long-term success for a family business consists of, like all great recipes, a little of this and a little of that.
“I think what’s been so successful for our agency, I think compatibility,” said Sundberg. “All of us getting along.”
Marcia Bullis agreed.
“We have meetings and hash through things when they happen. And, they put us in the farthest corner from each other,” she said, with a laugh.
“I think we’re all very community-minded people,” Jay Bullis said.
“I think that also makes us successful,” Marcia said. “People see you.”
And technology with a personal touch?
“Our phone system is not 100 percent automated,” Sundberg said. “There is always someone to answer the phone. When that phone rings, unless everyone is on the phones, it will not kick into automation.”
Pausing to think how to sum it all up, Sundberg said, “It’s a fun business. It is a business that has its rewards, but it also has its disappointments. But writing a piece of business and having (that person) become part of your clientele, it’s exciting. It’s a course in sociology, in a lot of ways. You get to understand people.”
John R. Pulliam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.