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Vandalia Mutual celebrates 125 years

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By Dave Bell

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, when Vandalia Mutual County Fire Insurance Co. began, it protected the important property assets of its policyholders.
Like barns, horses and houses.

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Though the insured items are considerably different these days, and the technology used to deliver that coverage would’ve been unimaginable to the people in the 1880s, the company’s philosophy has remained the same. It’s still all about protecting the property of their friends and neighbors.
“The company started in 1888 when a group of people pooled their money to provide fire insurance,” said John Willms, who serves as secretary/treasurer of Vandalia Mutual Insurance Co. “The mutual philosophy means that you don’t have stockholders; we’re owned by policy holders.”
Sharing the same office in the 400 block of Gallatin Street with Vandalia Mutual for the past 80 years has been Willms & Yakel Insurance, a full-service agency that represents a number of insurance companies. Among those are Auto Owners, Erie, Progressive, Allstate, Founders, Rockford Mutual, The Hartford, Madison Mutual, Safeco, Foremost, Great American, John Deere and Farmer’s Mutual.
 John’s father, Gerald, started with the company in 1955, joining John’s uncle, Herbert Smith. In 1972, Charles Yakel came on board. His son, Dan Yakel, remains with the agency today, serving as assistant secretary/treasurer of Vandalia Mutual Insurance Co. He and Willms are partners in the Willms & Yakel Insurance Agency.  
“The longevity of our people has been a key to our success,” Willms said.
Among the long-term employees are Carol Severns (1964), Willms (1974), Yakel (1979), Teresa Barnick (1990) and Keri Willms Holding (1995).
Staff additions in the past five years include Kyle Anderson (agent) and Michalea Nichols (customer service representative). And, in the past six months, agents Jerry McDowell and Monica Chandler have joined the staff.
Serving on the company’s board of directors are Eugene Petty, Paul Sarver, Marion Bone, Keith Casey, Neal Koberlein, Yakel and Willms. All are policy holders.
To accommodate the agency’s growth, its offices have been expanded and enhanced. The original office at 411 W. Gallatin St. was renovated 18 years ago. The office to the east, 409 W. Gallatin St., was added and renovated five years ago. And just last year, the office at 407 W. Gallatin St. was incorporated into the company’s footprint. All three storefronts are connected on the interior, and the combination includes a conference room, a kitchen and several offices.
“We’re trying to keep the progress going in downtown,” Willms said, noting that the renovations included several “retro” elements, like stamped metal ceilings and transoms above the doors. “We’ve renovated our buildings because we’re here to stay,” he said.
They’ve also made an effort to give back to the community.
“We invested in the naming rights for the Vandalia Community High School baseball field,” Willms said. “That’s now known as Vandalia Mutual Insurance Field. And we’ve also supported many local causes and benefits, including the 4-H auction at the fair. We like to give back to the community that gives to us.”
But even though they’ve experienced considerable growth in recent years – now serving customers in 26 Illinois counties – Willms insists that the basic values of their business remain the same. The key to that is regularly rubbing shoulders with their customers.
“Unlike some bigger companies, we know our customers well,” Willms said. “About 80 percent of the risk that you insure  is the person – not the property. You can’t stop a hailstorm or a tornado, but other perils can be prevented or managed.”
Just like it was with horses and barns in 1888.