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Insurance mainstay Steve McDonald retires - sort of - after 37 years

Steve McDonald and his son Branden in Steve’s award- and photo-packed office on Crest View Drive. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)

How did Steve McDonald build one of the country’s most successful insurance agencies from a modest Hudson office near the Interstate?

Lesson #1, for starters:

“I told my staff, ‘Let’s say you’ve got a customer with a $2,000 boat. That’s the most important thing in the world for you right now.

“It’s not just a boat. The guy you’re talking to might’ve had to work overtime to get it. So you’ve got to treat that guy the same as a guy with a $750,000 house. You’ve got to give them the same respect, and you’ve got to spend the same amount of time with them.”

Now McDonald chuckles, “You also work three or four nights every week, plus weekends. … And take a lot of Tums.”

He’s kidding, of course, at least about the stress. McDonald loves his work. He’s a natural people person. Genuine human relationships are what make both him and his business tick.

McDonald’s agency -- affiliated with American Family Insurance for 37 years, until this April -- was recently ranked the parent company’s ninth-largest in policies written, out of more than 3,000.

Success lesson #2:

“You’ve got to answer the phone, for one thing,” he laughs, referring to the automated-answering Rube Goldbergs that so many insurance customers are left with these days. He knows how much people hate them.

McDonald has turned his business over to his youngest son Branden. It’s now independent, with more than 30 insurance companies at hand. Steve still works with customers, parses coverage options, provides sage advice and helps out however he can.

“It’ll still be the same office, the same staff. There will just be more choices for our customers,” he says.

When most clients hear about the McDonald agency leaving American Family, McDonald adds, “The comment over and over is, ‘We’d still like to have you quote us. We just want to stay with you because you’ve been so good.’”

A community of friends

McDonald has been named Hudson's Community Volunteer of the Year and North Hudson’s Good Neighbor for his work with the Jaycees and other groups. Every wall in his agency is packed with awards for the company’s extra-mile style.

It’s not the awards he remembers. It’s the people he worked with and helped.

Like the sixth- to 11th-grade youngsters who get to go skiing after school in January and February through the Jaycees Ski Club McDonald ran for many years. The ski club, too, is now run by Branden, along with his wife Beth. Steve helps out “a couple of nights a week.”

“There’s that group of kids who, if they didn’t have something like Ski Club, wouldn’t be able to go skiing,” McDonald notes.

Disabled hunters, hikers and anglers also have a friend in McDonald. Many can now finally rock the woods again, thanks to his Action Trackchair, a high-tech wheelchair with tank-style tracks instead of wheels.

He raised $15,000 in donations to buy it for the Hudson Rod, Gun and Archery Club. Last year, the Trackchair went out for 31 days in October and November alone.

It’s free and can be reserved through the club, (715) 386-9955, McDonald picks it up when it’s needed, drives it to the users’ homes, shows them how to use it and picks it up when they’re done.

“One person -- I guess he was about 50 years old. He’d fallen out of a tree stand and was paralyzed,” McDonald says.

“Afterward, he wrote us a letter. It was highlighted in the middle where it said, ‘This is the one thing since my accident that has made me feel like a normal person again.’”

Pumpkin patches and a snow machine

McDonald opened his Hudson agency in 1977 after a stint as a retail manager in Menomonie, and he recalls the lean early days all too well.

He and his wife Rita would take their young kids, Branden, Chad and Farah, on weekend drives around their new home town, jotting down names on mailboxes for a list of potential customers. Mailings and phone inquiries followed.

Thirty-seven years later, Farah is an architect for the Marshfield Clinic, and Chad is an internet marketing director in Roseville.

Steve and Rita now have a cabin near Pepin, with apple trees and a pumpkin patch for their nine grandchildren’s annual Halloween party. McDonald also built his own snowmaking machine so there’s always a sled course behind his Lake Mallalieu home in the winter.

“A couple of years ago, there was no snow in January, but I had mine all made,” he smiles. “It’s got a starting ramp at the top. Curves and bumps all the way down. I can shoot the kids right out onto the frozen lake.”

Don’t worry -- Steve McDonald’s an insurance pro. Everybody’s safe and sound.

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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