Published February 22, 2005
Volume 13, Number 2

Mike Darby is Following in His Father's Footsteps - And Making Even More of His Own

By Jay Hipps

“The apple doesn’t fall farm from the tree,” or so goes the old saying. Sometimes, however, the apple falls just far enough away to develop in its own way, succeeding on its own merits. Or at least that’s the case with Mike Darby, an independent Farmers Insurance agent in Hacienda. There are a lot of similarities between Darby and his father, but the differences that exist between the two make all the difference.

Darby grew up on Alameda, in a family that was well-known in the city and took a circuitous route to finding his eventual career path. His experience in college was largely shaped by his athletic ability. He had played football in high school and junior college and found himself trying to make the team as a walk-on at San Jose State one spring. “I wasn’t recruited by San Jose State so my heart wasn’t really there,” he says. “I was only there because the defensive backs coach at Merritt College knew one of the coaches at San Jose State.”

He quickly learned the difference between himself and the other players trying to get on the team. It had more to do with desire than ability.

“There were four scholarships and seven guys competing for them,” he begins. “I mean, my parents could afford to send me to state school; not a problem. These guys were playing because their parents couldn’t afford to send them there and it’s either they get a free ride or they go back home. And the level of motivation for them was huge. I just kind of looked around and said, ‘You know, my heart’s just not here and these guys are serious.’ So I just figured it was time for me to go a different direction.”

He remained in school, with an eye towards a degree in Administration of Justice, but after a lot of contemplation he began having second thoughts about a career in law enforcement. His father was one of the most successful State Farm agents in Northern California, but he knew, too, that he didn’t want to follow that path.

“I remember telling my friends growing up, ‘I’ll never do insurance – that’s the worst thing. People call you at home, it’s horrible. I’ll dig a ditch before I go into insurance.’ But you come to the realization that you could get shot being a cop,” he says.

Time passed and, still undecided on a direction, Mike’s father eventually offered him a job. Despite some misgivings, he accepted. He laughs a bit about it now.

“With the insurance thing, I kind of approached it from an adult view,” he grins. “I saw my dad walking around—he was a bigger-than-life character in Alameda—and I saw him run into people who’d say, ‘Let’s go have lunch.’ After a while it dawned on me, ‘There are worse ways to make a living.’”

He worked with his dad for a year but, despite repeated attempts, was denied the chance to become an agent himself by a variety of State Farm guidelines. “State Farm was throwing all sorts of road blocks in front of me but Farmers was advertising in the paper for new agents,” he says. “I went and interviewed with a guy in San Leandro and he was from the South like my dad, I saw a lot of my dad’s qualities in him and he was your father, your brother, your mentor, your priest, everybody rolled into one, and I started with Farmers.”

After a few years there, he opened his own agency in Pleasanton in the mid-1980’s. “I think Pleasanton is very similar to Alameda when I was growing up. The pro-family, pro-sports, neighbors-looking-out-for-each-other atmosphere was a huge attraction to me.” He met his wife here about the same time.

Over two decades later, he takes great pleasure in the service he provides and the role he plays in the community. “I was raised with the idea that you give back to the community—you buy locally, that sort of thing,” he says. “I played football and was very fortunate to do that because it gave me a good work ethic and discipline. I coached Pop Warner football for years, I was head coach of Amador JV’s for a year, I’m involved in the Pleasanton North Rotary. I just believe in giving back, so I’m a person that does enjoy helping people and insurance is definitely one of those things.”

He particularly likes being someone that his clients can rely on in tough situations. “I’ve gotten phone calls from clients when their house is on fire—I can hear the sirens. ‘What do I do?’ I get a phone call Saturday night when I’m watching TV, ‘I just had something happen.’ Knowing that you’re there, that you can put these people at ease and tell them that the world is going to be OK, the house will be rebuilt, it’s a very rewarding thing.

“Nobody likes to pay for insurance and I’m one of them, but it’s necessary and it does provide a service: I’ve got someone in my corner to help me when tragedy hits, who’ll help me pick up the pieces and be there for me. It’s a local person, I can put a face to that person’s name, he’s like a family member or even more appropriately, a family advisor. I have a CPA, I have an attorney, I have an insurance professional who helps me navigate through all the problems that are existing now.”

Despite the fact that he spent a lot of time and energy trying to take a greater role in his father’s business, only to be denied time and again by State Farm, he sees the silver lining in the situation now.

“If I would have been able to take over my dad’s business, people would have thought, ‘Oh, Mike’s successful but his dad built the business—all he had to do was take the ship and not run it on the rocks.’ With Farmers, 25 years later, I think I’m pretty successful, and it’s all because of Mike Darby and my clients. Now my dad helped me—there’s no question I could not have survived without the financial and emotional support my parents gave me—but it’s been great. I gave him business, referred him business I couldn’t write, and he referred me business he couldn’t write, and it has worked out real well.”

Although his father passed away several years ago, Mike continues to encounter his legacy.

“The gentleman who owns Danville Bowl was in the Navy, insured with my dad, and years later I ran into him and he said, ‘I remember you from when you worked with your dad.’ It’s funny how business comes full circle.”


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