SBU channels a steady stream
of business students to
local insurance company
The Iroquois Group, an insurance agency network that started in 1977 and has branched out to 37 states, is relatively unknown in its hometown.
“I think it’s fairly safe to say most people in the Olean area don’t have any idea what we do, nor did they know where we were located until our move to Allegany last year,” said Laurie Branch, president of The Iroquois Group.
The townsfolk can’t really be blamed. For years, the company’s office building in the city’s downtown business district never had a sign on the wall. Iroquois never advertised for business.
That’s because any publicity led to the misconception that people could walk into the office and buy insurance for their homes and vehicles. They can’t. Iroquois provides services, support and advice to independent insurance agencies, but it doesn’t sell insurance. The more invisible Iroquois remained in the community, the fewer insurance shoppers it had to turn away. As a result, Iroquois quietly grew into a business behemoth, bursting at the seams in its Olean office without passersby even knowing it.
But in a strange twist, the temporary Allegany residents who attend St. Bona-venture each semester all seem to know about Iroquois.
That’s because the insurance company and the university have a well-established business connection — a pipeline of business, finance and marketing students who work as interns at Iroquois headquarters.
Branch can be credited as the architect of that pipeline. Not only is she president of the company and a prominent member of the Olean City School District Board of Education, Branch is an adjunct professor in the School of Business and just completed her ninth year on the Board of Trustees at the University.
During the academic year, there are usually more than 20 SBU students on the roster of interns at Iroquois. It’s a relationship that benefits both parties.
The students fulfill their academic requirements and learn more about the business world, while The Iroquois Group benefits from the high quality work performed by the students.
A Room of Their Own
Iroquois moved into a new building on Sept. 17, 2010. The top floor of the two-story structure is, for the most part, one big open room.
Fifteen full-time employees sit around the periphery, with the SBU students occupying Intern Row — a section of desks, computers, scanners and printers in the center of the room that can accommodate 12 workers.
Much of their duties include scanning documents, filing, inputting data onto spreadsheets and mailing documents to Iroquois member agencies.
Iroquois also employs more than 50 people who work in different parts of the country, and interns sometimes deal with them directly via email.
Working alongside the people who are in it for the long haul, the interns learn more about workplaces in general — and life — than they signed up for.
Cameron Smith, a graduate student from Hamburg working toward an MBA in general business, spent six months working at Iroquois, helping in public relations and marketing.
“They treated me great, and I would definitely say I grew very close to many of the people,” he said. “It got to the point where I had mentioned in the office that I had car troubles and before I knew it, I was eating dinner at one employee’s house while her son was fixing my car.”
“I feel I learned a lot working at Iroquois,” Smith said. “I developed skills and learned about working in a small business atmosphere and I learned more about teamwork, having close interactions with co-workers on important projects.”
But by keeping his ears open in the office, Smith was able to pick up more than just how to start a Google AdWords account or prepare an activity report for a field representative.
“In addition to the business lessons I expected to learn at Iroquois, I also developed an understanding of how important family is to everyone,” Smith said.
“I always knew family was important, but it seems to have a lot more significance now. We all worked in such close proximity to each other that everyone can hear each other and talk was often focused on what happens in their families. Family … it’s a strong focus here. I can say that when I first started, I was really nervous, but now I’m leaving as part of a family. In fact, now I’m not sure I want to leave.”
Having to train a couple dozen new employees every half-year is a hurdle that Iroquois’ regular employees have taken in stride.
“We’ve got it down to a routine now and it’s a painless process,” said Sue Massaro, Iroquois’ licensing administrator. “Having a couple of interns available during our busy stretches really helps because it enables us to give the attention that’s needed to essential parts of the process. And when you’re dealing with sensitive documents like licenses, you need to be able focus on them enough to get everything right. Our interns take care of other parts of the process and allow us to focus as we need to.”
The interns’ conduct in the office has been exemplary, she added.
“They all come well prepared to be inserted into an office setting. They’ve obviously been instructed to be respectful, polite and business-like,” Massaro said.
The Value of an Internship
The School of Business has long recognized the value of internships. Its intern program, which began with fewer than a dozen interns in 1970, now draws more than 200 students yearly.
Internships are required for accounting and marketing majors, and are strongly recommended for finance, business information systems and management sciences majors. Most interns are paid and can earn up to six academic credits; some participate solely for the experience.
Internships can lead to full-time careers upon graduation.
“Certainly our accounting majors have found positions from local accounting firms to national firms … and our students have had marketing internships, management internships and business information system internships that all have led to full-time jobs,” said Michael D. Kasperski, internship coordinator and a faculty member in the School of Business.
“Our on-campus recruiting through the career center really helps in giving students access to companies right here on campus,” he added.
Olean resident Andy Trass, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in finance, has been an intern at the Iroquois Group since May of 2010.
“Iroquois has me ready for the job world by providing me an opportunity to develop my skills through a meaningful internship,” Trass said.
He said lessons he learned in the classroom had extra meaning when they were taken into the office.
“By giving me the responsibility to perform a wide variety of tasks, I have been able to utilize the skills and knowledge acquired throughout my college career. The hands-on experience is very important because it let me gain a better sense of what the work environment is really like.
“During my internship, I have also had the opportunity to work and build relationships with many other interns and employees. This is beneficial with my job search by providing valuable references and networking through the people they know,” Trass said.