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Sultan Insurance keeps it all in the family

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By Kurt Batdorf
HBJ Editor
Published: Monday, August 19, 2013, 3:25 p.m.
  • Sultan Insurance has been run by one family since 1932. Jim Jenft (seated) took over the family business in 1950 from his mother, Sophia Jenft, who st...

    Kurt Batdorf / HBJ

    Sultan Insurance has been run by one family since 1932. Jim Jenft (seated) took over the family business in 1950 from his mother, Sophia Jenft, who started the business. Jim Jenft’s daughter, Gayle Claffey (center), ran the insurance agency from her father’s semi-retirement in 1995 until April, when she turned over daily operation to her husband, Mark (right).

SULTAN — Gayle Claffey worked a few different jobs growing up in Sultan, but she’s glad she followed one of her father’s career paths.
Jim Jenft said his family has had its hand in Sultan Insurance since his mother, Sophia, founded the business in 1932 as Sophia’s Place. He took it over in 1950 and ran it for the next 45 years.
While Jenft ran the agency, he also found success in a parallel career soon after he started selling personal and business insurance. He started teaching in Mukilteo schools in 1951, then followed his twin brother, John, into higher education and earned his teaching certificate in 1954 from Western Washington State College in Bellingham. Jim Jenft taught for 16 years, then spent another 14 years in administration before he retired in 1981 as the Mukilteo district’s business and operations manager.
Claffey remembered that Sultan Insurance’s office hours were typically noon to 5 p.m. and her father would spend his evenings catching up on the paperwork the office secretary hadn’t finished during the day while he worked at his school job.
Claffey started learning about the family’s insurance business as a high school sophomore as she chauffeured her grandmother Sophia on daily errands and picked up the lingo on visits to her dad’s office. It sparked Claffey’s interest in the field.
After working for the family’s Shady Lane drive-in at the east end of Sultan, the Candy Cane drive-in and 10 years as a hairdresser, Claffey started her full-time stint at Sultan Insurance.
“This job presented itself and offered me an opportunity,” she said.
Claffey earned her insurance broker’s license in 1981 on her first attempt, Jenft said with pride, quietly admitting that he never passed the four-day exam himself. Claffey’s license allowed Sultan Insurance to sell policies to municipalities, schools and fire districts. Claffey and Jenft ran the business together until she took over in 1995 and started adding the technology the industry was rapidly adopting.
“Dad is an old-time paper guy,” Claffey said. “We had no fax or copier or Internet. Now it’s all online.”
Meanwhile, Claffey was living her own life. In 1978, she met the man who became her husband that year. Like his wife-to-be, Mark Claffey also had a background as an independent insurance agent, although neither of them knew it when they first met.
“When we first learned that we were both in insurance, we thought it was a fabulous coincidence,” Mark Claffey said. “It was almost like fate put us together.”
Claffey got into insurance through his maternal grandfather who opened the B. Thurston Agency in Snohomish in 1949. Claffey’s father bought the agency in 1965 and Claffey joined the firm in 1973.
“I could see that it was a successful family business that was worth getting involved with,” he said. “Back then, you had to buy insurance from an independent agent because there was no Internet where you could make comparisons.”
Mark Claffey joined his wife at Sultan Insurance in 2003. Now he runs the agency following Gayle Claffey’s early retirement with health issues.
In his 10 years with Sultan Insurance, Mark Claffey said automation and electronic records use have intensified, yet there’s still no shortage of paper that the computer age promised 30 years ago. He said part of that is Jim Jenft’s legacy as a “paper guy.”
“Our office still wants to see a paper trail and open a file,” Claffey said.
While insurance companies put more information online, which appeals to younger consumers, Claffey said he expects Sultan Insurance to succeed over the long haul with the personal customer service and face-to-face interactions the office has offered since Sophia Jenft opened for business in 1932.
“I know our customers can count on seeing or talking to someone,” Claffey said. “The younger generation hasn’t seen the need for that customer service, but I hope they’ll see it in the future.”
Kurt Batdorf: 425-339-3102;
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