Business

Insurer has Olympians honking

Rob Thielke, the television face of the eclectic Vern Fonk Insurance company commercials, is actually the company's marketing director and general manager. The company has just opened an Olympia branch on Martin Way.
Rob Thielke, the television face of the eclectic Vern Fonk Insurance company commercials, is actually the company's marketing director and general manager. The company has just opened an Olympia branch on Martin Way. The Olympian

OLYMPIA - Vern Fonk, the name of a regional insurance company with a zany sense of humor in its advertising, has opened an office in Olympia, one of 11 locations the business expects to have open before the end of the year.

The new Olympia office, which put up signs this week, is at Sleater-Kinney Road and Martin Way East.

Up next for Fonk is an office in Burlington, one in Lynnwood and a soon-to-be announced site on the Olympic Peninsula, said Rob Thielke, director of marketing and general manager of the company. Thielke also is the unmistakable face of the company, appearing in the company’s wacky TV commercials and other marketing materials. Thielke, 45, joined the company in 1989.

“I started when I still had hair on my head; it’s just on my back now,” he joked Thursday.

Fonk has made a name for itself by selling auto insurance to high-risk customers, such as those with driving-under-the-influence convictions or too many tickets, or perhaps a customer who has never had car insurance before. Today, though, the business has expanded to include homeowners, life, motorcycle and business insurance products.

Fonk, the founder, started the business in Montana, then moved it to Seattle in the early 1970s. He later focused on high-risk insurance to grow the business, then turned to his employees after Thielke was hired, asking them to write the company’s first TV commercial. Although surprised, they took on the challenge, but Thielke acknowledged that their early efforts were “too boring and too traditional.” Then Thielke, appearing in one of Fonk’s early TV ads, offered to deliver a line in a weird voice. The quirkiness started to pay off.

Thielke said his brother Joel came up with the “Honk for Fonk” tagline, and their funny approach to marketing was cemented with a “Forrest Gump” parody. There’s also “Shapoopi,” a “Napoleon Dynamite” parody and 40 to 50 other commercials that helped make Vern Fonk one of the largest independent insurance businesses in the state, Thielke said.

“It’s definitely a unique approach,” said Olympia office manager Josh Hatley, who said he has worked for Fonk for two years and has been in the insurance business since 1996.

Company growth has caught the attention of Wall Street. The business was recently acquired by Confie Seguros, a nationwide owner of insurance brokerages. Kevin Mulvaney, Fonk’s son-in-law, remains president and chief executive. Fonk commercials also have been shown on Jay Leno, and the company has regular short spots on a new network called Joe TV. One of them has Thielke acting as “Vernobo, the Jungle Boy.”

The arrival of Vern Fonk also has caught the attention of neighboring businesses. Employees at Super Supplements did a double-take when they saw Thielke in the parking lot and said they were excited to have the business next door.

Thielke said Fonk, who died about four years ago, would appreciate the direction the company has taken.

“Whatever makes the phone ring, Rob,” Thielke recalled him saying.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403 rboone@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/bizblog

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