Protecting Your Assets

PayneWest Insurance carries its legendary commitment to personal service into a digital age

Sarah Walsh, COO of PayneWest Insurance, celebrated her 25th anniversary with the company in March of this year. Photo courtesy of PayneWest.

By Katy Spence

On Christmas Eve last year, Keith Schnider, a PayneWest Commercial Insurance Agent, got a call anyone would dread. One of his clients, Ron Harmon, owner of Big Equipment in Havre, was alerted to a fire on his property. Schnider dropped everything and set off from his home in Great Falls in an icy storm to make the two-hour drive to Havre. Schnider arrived to the scene first, just a little before midnight.

The building was engulfed in flames, a total loss.

Schnider accompanied Harmon and his wife to their home after they arrived, working into the early hours of Christmas morning, explaining coverage and next steps for Big Equipment.

Within two weeks, Harmon received his claim check covering the loss. In a letter to PayneWest following the experience, Harmon wrote that he wanted his company to emulate the same values that he felt working with Schnider and PayneWest.

PayneWest traces its roots back to 1921, to a small office in Billings called Hoiness LaBar Insurance. Over the next century, a combination of organic growth, mergers, and acquisitions changed the insurance landscape in Montana.

PayneWest Fast Facts:
– 768 employees (61% in MT)
– WA, OR, ID, MT
– 30 locations (13 in MT)

Terry Payne has been the driving force behind a lot of PayneWest’s formation. In 1972, he formed Terry Payne & Co., which merged with Hoiness LaBar and Montana International Insurance, based in Helena, in 2001 to form Payne Financial Group (PFG). A 2012 acquisition of Western States Insurance led to what is PayneWest Insurance today: the largest privately-owned insurance agency in the Northwest,and a top-40 nationally-ranked firm.

Payne, who lives in Missoula, is the chairman of the board for PayneWest and was inducted into the Montana Business Hall of Fame in Billings in 2016. When PFG was formed in 2001, Payne and his team established a mission value statement which still guides the business today: Clients, Colleagues, and Communities.

Clients – Adapting to a changing world

COO Sarah Walsh said that PayneWest is dedicated to finding the right insurance program for its clients, whether it’s for their business insurance, surety, employee benefits, or their personal insurance. As an independent agency, PayneWest writes policies with many insurance carriers to ensure their clients are getting the best fit.

A good thing, too, as PayneWest employees are often close with their clients.

“Our clients are our friends and neighbors,” Walsh said. “When you live in smaller places like we do, they really are.”

With the advent of new technologies comes new risks for businesses. In addition to traditional insurance offerings, PayneWest helps businesses mitigate their risk in the digital age by offering cyber insurance.

Cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles are just a few of the new areas that represent potential risk for companies who are not prepared. PayneWest encourages companies of all sizes to consider their needs for cyber insurance, as no company is too small to be impacted by this ever-changing risk.

Walsh said any company is vulnerable to cyber attacks, but not every company buys cyber insurance. She pointed to an incident with a client in Oregon, where an accountant received what looked like an email from their CEO requesting company W2s. However, it was a phishing email, and when tax time came, employees ran into trouble when they tried to file. PayneWest was able to help the company respond and cover themselves during the mitigation of the breach.

Walsh said PayneWest is dedicated to being a leader in their industry, both through the insurance programs they help create and through the emerging field of “insurtech.” But Walsh said the company is committed to that customer connection that differentiates PayneWest in the digital age.

“You can’t lose he human touch,” Walsh said. “You have to sit face-to-face to really get to know someone and their needs.”

Colleagues – Helping employees grow professionally and personally

With a background in accounting, Walsh didn’t plan on going into insurance. Now she can’t imagine leaving the industry, where she gets to help people and learn something new each day.

Walsh celebrated her 25th anniversary with PayneWest in March. For each significant workiversary, PayneWest makes donations to the charity of the employee’s choice. For her 25th, Walsh chose the Friendship Center in Helena, a women’s shelter which received $500 from PayneWest in Walsh’s name.

Sarah Bunton is a Client Manager in the Benefit Planning department. She said PayneWest helps her develop professionally and collaborate with other departments across the state. Photo by Katy Spence/MHTBA.

Walsh said a lot of employees are reaching significant work anniversaries, and PayneWest is looking to younger generations to replenish a retiring workforce.

Sarah Bunton, a Client Manager in the Benefit Planning department, has worked for PayneWest for nine years. Originally from Billings, Bunton worked in the PayneWest Billings office for three years before moving to the Helena office. She said these connections have helped her see PayneWest as one big company, rather than as competing offices.

“We have a more cohesive vibe here as far as being able to lean on each other, not only in our offices but in our department as a whole,” Bunton said. “So I definitely take advantage of that.”

Bunton added that PayneWest’s benefits and opportunity for personal growth are robust. She likes that she can travel around the state, including to her hometown of Billings, and work out of one of PayneWest’s 13 Montana offices as she travels.

“People will ask me where I work [when I travel], and they recognize the name,” Bunton said. “I’m proud of where I work.”


Communities – Connecting through volunteering and local events

Founded in Montana, PayneWest has expanded to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and insures clients around the globe. Despite the reach, Walsh said the company is dedicated to its local communities and makes efforts to connect with people and organizations near them.

In addition to charitable gifts, PayneWest emphasizes volunteerism. Each year in the fall, the company celebrates Community Month, during which employees help with different local organizations. At the Helena office, employees have volunteered with organizations like Helena Food Share, Habitat for Humanity, and God’s Love.

Account Manager Ashley Willet used two-thirds of her Volunteer Time Off hours with Hook a Kid on Golf in Dillon, Montana, in 2018. Photo courtesy of Ashley Willet.

2018 marked the second year that PayneWest has had VTO — their Volunteer Time Off program. Employees get 30 paid hours each year to volunteer where ever they want. Ashley Willet, Account Manager, Benefit Planning, used 20 VTO hours to work with Hook a Kid on Golf in Dillon, Montana, this year. She worked with 35 kids ranging in age from seven to 13. Willet said she especially loves seeing young girls get involved with golfing and is grateful for PayneWest for offering VTO.

“We’re committed to  being a strong community member,” Walsh said. “Our communities are really important.”

Walsh feels lucky to live and work in Montana, both for the abundance of natural beauty and for the people she works with.

“I just don’t think there’s any better people  in the world,” Walsh said. “Could you live anywhere more wonderful?”

About the Author: Katy Spence is the Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and has an Environmental Journalism Master’s Degree from the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit


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