Tim Buzbee Applies His Blue-Collar Ethics to His White-Collar Insurance Firm
Tim Buzbee is a gentle giant with the deep voice of a radio personality. At age 47, the former SDSU Aztecs lineman still looks intimidating after years away from the football field.
Buzbee, who is vice president of Benefit Coordinators Corp., a group insurance firm in Mission Valley, now wears a business suit to fit the industry’s white-collar image. But he never turned in the football jersey nor the ethical values of his Christian blue-collar upbringing.
Words like “dedicated family man,” “incredible boss” and “compassionate community leader” are frequent descriptions of Buzbee. But he’s also known for his directness.
“What you see is what you get,” says Frank Keane, a sales representative at Benefit Coordinators, about his friend and boss.
Buzbee is all about teamwork , playing hard, but always playing fair and winning , even if the odds are against him. And he’ll be the first one to leave the game if his rules are broken.
In 1979, the former high school football coach left his beloved playing field behind because some colleagues refused to back the coaches in a salary dispute with the Grossmont Union School District.
“It was teamwork , that’s what I consider a union,” Buzbee says. “So all the things I had grown up with in football and teamwork and working together for an end was shattered.”
His disappointment led him to answer a newspaper ad for a life insurance sales job. Three years later, in 1982, Buzbee and his partner, Michael Lawton, opened a satellite office of Pittsburgh-based Benefit Coordinators in Mission Valley. Both men have remained with the firm since.
In 1985, Buzbee started a second division called Coordinated Benefits of California Corp., which sells health benefits to large employers.
More Than A Day Job
He’s busy keeping the day-to-day operations of both units running. But his working hours extend far beyond that.
Just last week, Buzbee spoke to the Ramona Rotary Club on behalf of the Alliance Healthcare Foundation’s efforts to drum up support for a needle exchange program in San Diego.
A longtime board member, Buzbee recently became chairman of Alliance’s board of trustees. The San Diego-based foundation provides grants to local communities working to improve the health care needs of the indigent.
As president of the Ramona High School Bulldog Boosters Club, Buzbee helped raise some $80,000 a year for the past several years. The money went toward a new football stadium at Ramona High. Granted, his 15-year-old son, Brandon, goes to school there, but Buzbee’s efforts to better his community seem boundless.
It’s hard to imagine, but Buzbee almost always manages to arrive at the family dinner table by 6 p.m. He says his day starts at 4 a.m. with preparing lunch for his two children, Brandon and 11-year-old Whitney, and dropping them off at school. The oldest, 20-year-old Megan, a communications major at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, is preparing to graduate.
Beyond The Office
Buzbee says his wife, Peggy, who works with handicapped children at the Ramona Unified School District, does the lion’s share at home. It would be a lot easier to “veg out” in front of the television after a long day, he admits. But he just won’t.
“I strongly believe we are put here on Earth to more than make money and if we’re not striving to make the community a better place, I am not sure what we are here for,” he says, adding rhetorically: “There are a lot of people out here who made a lot of money on the Internet. What are you doing? Are you putting some of it back to the community? We don’t see a lot of that.”
Buzbee’s distaste for spoiled behavior is deeply rooted in his upbringing.
The son of a refrigeration repairman, Buzbee and his older sister and two brothers grew up modestly in the lower-income area of Lennox in Los Angeles. His parents, he says, demanded respect and a strong work ethic, but didn’t emphasize education.
Buzbee says he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He arrived at SDSU not by his own ambitions, but on a football scholarship.
“I wasn’t going to go to college,” Buzbee says.
His original plan after he graduated from high school in 1970 was to settle for an associate’s degree from El Camino Junior College in Torrance where he played football.
Luckily, an SDSU recruiter spotted Buzbee during a 1971 junior college state championship game, which his team won.
That year, Buzbee also won the heart of his classmate, an Irish girl named Peggy.
They married in 1973, one year after Buzbee took up SDSU’s offer to play football for the Aztecs. It was an exciting time, he recalled.
“We used to fill the stadium,” he says. “We averaged 45,000 people a game,” adding the Aztecs won a lot , which helped draw the fans.
Mostly, Buzbee remembers his old football coach, Don Coryell.
“He cared about you. He knew who you were and got so excited in seeing what you could do , it was contagious,” Buzbee says.
Coryell also never failed to make his players laugh during speeches.
“He sounded like a duck,” Buzbee says imitating Coryell’s lisp. It wasn’t mean-spirited, he says, but all in fun. All the players loved him.
Buzbee looked up to all of his former coaches. They inspired him to pursue a career as a football coach after he graduated from SDSU in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
One year later, with his teaching credentials in hand from SDSU, Buzbee arrived at Valhalla High School in El Cajon.
What he found was disillusionment.
“It was a different kind of experience, because the kids were from a high-income area, which I was not,” Buzbee says. “The attitudes of the kids were disheartening. Their parents were doctors and lawyers and the kids were always right in the eyes of their parents.”
It didn’t matter if he busted children red-handed with drugs or alcohol, he says. The parents would either blame the teachers or be in denial, he says.
In 1979, after his colleagues failed to back the coaches in a salary dispute with the school district, Buzbee decided it was time for a change.
He answered a newspaper ad placed by Bankers Life of Iowa and within weeks began selling their life insurance.
Buzbee says selling life insurance was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
“I had to work nights at kitchen tables, and was trying to get people to buy something they didn’t necessarily want,” Buzbee says.
The job also offered an ethical dilemma. He often felt pressured to make a sale to feed his family.
A Big Benefit
Finally in 1982, when Buzbee was burned out and yearning for a more stable job, he looked elsewhere.
Benefit Corp. provided the answer.
One of Buzbee’s first employer groups was brought in by the Community Care Network, a nonprofit group of preferred providers created to provide affordable health care to San Diegans.
He liked the idea so much that he took CCN’s offer to be a member of its board of directors. He later became a board member at Alliance, which was established in 1988 by the network to funnel money to the medically underserved in San Diego.
Ruth Riedel, chief executive officer at Alliance, remains deeply grateful to Buzbee.
“He gives a great deal of his personal time to the organization , probably more than any other board member,” Riedel says.
Adds Keane, the incoming president at the Ramona Boosters Club, “Tim has almost single-handedly spearheaded the drive to build the stadium at the high school.”
Besides driving Whitney to gymnastics and Brandon to school, Buzbee plans to raise more money to build a snack bar at Ramona High. It’s only his latest effort to better his community.