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Speaking Their Language

Kathryn Söderberg was in eighth grade when she fell in love — with the Spanish language.

Spanish was an easy subject for her in school, and she would practice speaking the language with her friends at home as a secret language that her parents did not understand. She even would follow Spanish speakers into a store, just to listen to them talk. She majored in Spanish in college, studying in Mexico and Spain.

She dreamed of being a linguist, traveling the world and ultimately ending up as a translator at the United Nations.
But her parents had a thriving insurance practice in Lynnfield, Mass. She knew she could have a rewarding career by taking the foundation her parents had created and building on it.

“I realized if I could somehow marry my love for Spanish with my love for business, I would have a formula for success,” she said.

Söderberg is president of Söderberg Insurance Services, the company her parents founded 54 years ago. She used her love of Spanish to guide her practice toward its niche of providing life and property/casualty insurance and mutual funds to Hispanics who live and work in the urban communities north of Boston — cities such as Lawrence and Lowell.

When Söderberg began working in her family’s practice in 1986, they had no Spanish-speaking clients. Today, about 40% of their clients are Hispanic. Five out of the nine people who work in her practice speak Spanish.

“When you speak another language fluently, doors open for you,” she said.

A Niche Is Born

Söderberg, 56, said her company’s journey to serving the Hispanic community began when she made friends with a Hispanic woman while they both served as election volunteers. They bonded over speaking Spanish. Later, the woman told Söderberg she was a real estate agent and needed someone who understood Spanish to help her clients with their insurance needs. Söderberg was happy to serve them, and a niche was born out of those referrals.

“The Hispanic client is a very loyal client and more likely to refer others than a non-Hispanic client,” Söderberg said. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is where we should be spending our time and efforts.’ We ended up hiring more people who spoke Spanish and it really blossomed from there.”

Söderberg said that she did all the traditional networking activities 20 years ago. But now that her practice has become known within the Hispanic community and the community at large, those activities are not as important.

“Now, it’s mostly spending time with people who are good clients or good sources of business,” she said. “We also help their causes. If any of our centers of influence has a charity that’s important to them, we support it.”

Her agency assists a number of community programs, most notably a homeless shelter in Boston, as well as a scholarship benefiting students pursuing special needs education. Mapfre Insurance awarded her agency its Outstanding Community Service Award in 2017.

She attributes much of her success to “being present, being responsive, getting back to people promptly.”

Bahar Uttam is chief of staff at Söderberg Insurance Services. He praised Söderberg for her “very engaging personality” and her commitment to community service, which he said is what he admires most about her.

He also praised her for taking the time to get to know her clients both professionally and personally. “She devotes time to visit with them without any agenda, just to acknowledge their loyalty and longevity as a client,” he said. “That personal touch goes a long way to keep them coming back.”

Having people in the office who speak the language and understand the culture is a definite plus, Söderberg said. Her practice serves Spanish-speaking clients who came to the area from places such Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Colombia, and she is now serving the second generation of clients.

“Our clients value the fact that we can explain technical insurance and financial issues to them in their own language,” she said. “I am blessed that I learned the language at a relatively young age and have been able to use it so successfully in our agency to create growth that I never dreamed of.”

For someone who wants to develop their practice to serve a particular ethnic population, Söderberg advised “get your foot in the door and go above and beyond.”

“Spend time with that population, be responsive to their needs and prove your credibility.”

The Hispanic market has been a somewhat untapped market in terms of all their insurance needs, Söderberg said. “It’s rewarding that we’re able to help this market and it comes back to us many, many times over.”

Söderberg said her clients — particularly her Hispanic clients — have become like family.

“They share very personal stories with us,” she said. “They are appreciative and even bring us gifts over the holidays. They invite me to very personal events like weddings, christenings, birthday parties. I have become part of their families, as they have become part of our family.”

A Father’s Wisdom

Douglas and Frances Söderberg founded the insurance agency in 1968. When he was 24, Douglas was the youngest general agent appointed by Aetna Life and Casualty.

Frances died two years ago, and 84-year-old Douglas still visits the agency’s long-time clients. He also participates in agency meetings, serving as a sounding board for various issues that arise.

When Söderberg takes her father to visit with long-time clients, she usually takes a photo of him with the client. The photo gets placed into a collage on the wall of her agency.

She said her father taught her to always put that extra bit of effort into whatever she does.

“He would say it doesn’t cost that much more to do things first class. Spend a little extra to do something the right way, put more effort into what you’re doing and the payback comes back many times over.”

Frances was an avid tennis player. Söderberg also loves the sport, and has been a competitively ranked tennis player for many years.

Douglas and Frances were the parents of a daughter, Karen, who was born with Down syndrome. Karen worked in the agency until she died. She inspired the family to devote much of their efforts to fundraising in support of the special needs community.

“Karen was the star of the agency,” Söderberg said. “Everyone loved her. She worked at McDonald’s for 18 years and she came here and helped us with photocopying, handling the mail.”

Söderberg also has a brother, Craig, who works for a nonprofit organization in Indonesia.

Where She Should Be

Söderberg may not have ended up at the United Nations, but she is convinced she is where she was destined to be.

“I think it’s almost like it was preordained,” she said. “Back when I was college and dreaming of being a linguist, I didn’t realize the best situation for me was using the language and helping the community and growing this business as a tribute to my parents.”

She continues to appreciate the contributions that her Hispanic clients weave into the fabric of the community.

“Whether they are from Central America, Mexico or South America, there are different cultures even though they speak the same language,” she said. “There is such a richness of culture that they bring to their community. Once we gain their trust, they bring us referrals.”

Looking ahead to the future, Söderberg sees only good things for her agency.

“I want to make good opportunities for the people who work here. And I want to serve the next generation of clients.”

Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan. Contact her at [email protected].

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