Two years after he’d graduated from Hofstra University as a history major in 1983, All-American athlete James Metzger—the future chairman, CEO and founder of The Whitmore Group, Ltd., in Garden City—was still tending bar in Bethpage when his determination to dress for success finally paid off. His friends had thought he was nuts when he spent the money he’d saved from serving drinks to buy thousand-dollar Brooks Brothers suits, but the last laugh was on them.
That Metzger would later launch one of Long Island’s leading insurance brokerage firms was the farthest thought from his mind the day he stood on line at Brooks Brothers. He had already landed a sales job in the insurance industry but was making more money tending bar one night a week, so he was reluctant to give it up. In that same line of customers he saw one of his largest potential clients, whom he’d already pitched, and here they had something in common.
“We were both buying the same tuxedo,” Metzger recalls, with a laugh.
Within two weeks, he’d landed the account.
But it was what happened next that ultimately changed his life. It was a typical, busy Friday night, and Metzger was working behind the bar, when he spotted the same client come walking in. Thinking fast to create a favorable impression, Metzger vaulted over the side to greet him.
“Jim,” said the surprised client. “What are you doing here?”
Metzger explained that he was part owner of the bar and checking out some inventory. Still improvising to keep the ruse going, Metzger quietly asked the other bartender if he wanted to work alone that night; he readily agreed, since he’d clear $500.
From a payphone near the bar, Metzger then called his boss and said he had to see him tomorrow. For the finishing touch, he bought his new insurance client a drink, still posing as a part-owner of the establishment. When he met his boss the next day, Metzger told him why he had to quit:
“I said, ‘I’m making a lot more money tending bar, but I got a job in the insurance business, and one of my largest clients came in.’ That was the last night I ever tended bar.”
He says he’s still friends with his former boss, he still buys suits off the rack at Brooks Brothers—and he claims he’s still the same size, 42 Regular.
“I was fortunate that I found a profession for which I was well-suited, literally and figuratively,” he tells the Press.
When Metzger launched The Whitmore Group in Roslyn Heights in 1989, he had three employees. Now his office is in Garden City, employing almost 90 employees, handling $140 million in premiums annually, and insuring $3 billion worth of fine art in private collections, to highlight a few noteworthy benchmarks.
“My business is 30 times the size it was when I started,” Metzger says, adding that his company is now licensed in 48 states. When he began, the funeral industry was 95 percent of his firm’s commercial property and casualty insurance offerings, but today it’s about 15 percent.
“We have a very large niche in personal insurance, health insurance, life insurance and estate planning,” he explains.
The Whitmore Group has also expanded into real estate, construction, and the hospitality industry. Metzger chose the name for his company when he stopped one day at a pharmacy in Westchester during a business trip upstate, and happened to pick up a list of the 400 richest men in America.
“I liked three names: Cambridge, Hamilton, and a guy named Jerome Whitemore III,” he recalls.
The first two were already taken by corporations, so he selected the third and changed the spelling to Whitmore. He added “Ltd.” to the company, he says, “so it sounded British!”
To anyone who asked about its origins, Metzger would explain that Whitmore was “the name of a gentleman on the board of a Fortune 500 company who was from Liverpool, England, and that he was my financial backer!” Metzger laughs. “That’s the story I tell people.”
Metzger grew up in Melville and first made his mark in sports as a star athlete at Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills, where he was the school’s all-time leading scorer and rusher as a running back on the varsity football team. He also started for the varsity basketball team when they were in the county playoffs. In 1977, the year he graduated high school, he won the Lt. Ray Enners Award as Suffolk County’s outstanding lacrosse player. In further recognition of his prowess, he was the only high school athlete picked to play in both the North-South All-Star Football game and the North-South All-Star Lacrosse game. As a sophomore at Hofstra University, Metzger was named to the 1980 Division 1 All-American lacrosse team.
He claims that he weighs today what he weighed when he played lacrosse at Hofstra.
“I think if I put my uniform on today I would look the same, but I wouldn’t have the same results!” he says, admitting that he’s cut back on working out and is focused more on maintaining a healthy diet, although he insists his knees are still “perfect.”
As for the business outlook on Long Island, he’s bullish.
“We’re in challenging times, but there are a lot of opportunities on Long Island,” says Metzger. “But you better be up for the game, because it’s ultra-competitive. You’re in the major leagues here.”
Metzger says that The Whitmore Group is one of the last privately held firms of its size, and for now, he’d like to keep it that way.
“One of the keys to the relative success I’ve had is that I hire people smarter than me…who have expertise in areas in which I don’t,” he says. “I rely on them and I get out of their way. I respect them and I appreciate them, and I’m willing to suffer the consequences if I’ve misjudged them. I trust my instincts, and my instincts have been good to me.”
Metzger says he’s made many mistakes in his career, but he’s benefitted from them, too.
“You learn more from your mistakes and your losses than from your victories,” he says. “I truly believe that!”
And James Metzger has the winning record to prove it.