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WNY insurance exec succeeds with his own kind of vision

Turns out you didn’t have to watch the Buffalo Bills and Sabres to have experienced the disappointment of recent seasons. You could have just listened.

“It definitely is painful,” said Patrick J. Engasser, who hasn’t let his blindness stop him from becoming a big – and eternally hopeful – fan of his hometown teams.

Over the years, he’s counted on radio broadcasters to give him a sense of the action.

“Through Van Miller, then John Murphy, and growing up listening to Rick Jeanneret as long as I can remember, is really how I learned,” he said. “Rick Jeanneret is an absolute legend and one of the main reasons I wanted at one time to get into sports radio. Not announcing, obviously, but I wanted to get into something where I could give a piece of that back to the community.”

Engasser hosted a sports talk radio show, “Insane Sports Platter,” for four years at WCCG, “the Wire,” the Canisius College radio station, while studying for his bachelor’s degree in communications.

Like lots of others, he took a different career path when his dream job didn’t pan out. His limitations helped teach him that you can make the most of anyplace you find yourself – by embracing the experience and working hard.

Engasser – who went to preschool at the Olmsted Center for Sight before attending grades K-12 in the Kenmore-Tonawanda school district – has worked with the supplemental health insurance company Aflac since late 2010. He has won two Founders Awards, which exemplify the principals and ethics of the company founders. In 2014, he was the health insurer’s top agent in new business generation in New York State. For the last two years, he has served on the Olmsted Center Board of Directors.

Last year, he won the Milton J. Samuelson Career Achievement Award from the National Industries for the Blind.

Pretty good for someone who recently turned 30.

Engasser became a district sales coordinator, primarily training other Aflac agents, about a year ago. He spends much of his work life in his Amherst office with his leader dog, Elvis, a yellow Labrador.

Q. Have you talked with your parents, Elaine and Jeffrey, about how and why the decision was made to put you in public school?

They raised me as much as they possibly could like my older brother and older sister (Scott Engasser and Laura Weakland). They might not have been as quick to run to me when I fell, because they had two older children they'd raised … but in terms of raising me differently because I couldn't see? There was none of that. It was helping me find other ways to do things. The decision to have me go to public school was one of those decisions, that vision, to have me end up an independent adult just like my older brother and sister. That's something they wanted to try. They weren't sure how it was going to work out but they knew that if they continued to stay in contact with agencies like the Olmsted Center for Sight that they would help them walk through that process and help get me to where I needed to go. If they hadn't made that decision, I don't think I'd be where I am today.

It was important for me to go out into the world and learn from my own mistakes and I think that it was great my parents put me in that situation and allowed me to learn. My parents taught me at an early age to not let challenges limit what I could become. That made it easy for me to dream. They encouraged me to dream about what I wanted to do in life, and college was the first time I was really able to experience that.

Q. How did you experience Canisius sports?

I had a friend who was very into Canisius sports and he used to go with me to a lot of the games and he used to kind of announce to me. Canisius basketball was always on radio, so when I used to cover Canisius basketball as a columnist for The Griffin, the college newspaper, a lot of it was through his commentary, and I drew my own conclusions and pictures about what was going on with that the same way I used Van Miller and John Murphy and Rick Jeanneret.

Q. How did you end up in the insurance business?

"My parents taught me at an early age to not let challenges limit what I could become," Patrick J. Engasser says. "That made it easy for me to dream."  (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The same way just about everybody gets into it – falling headfirst. I don't know anybody who grows up as a young child saying … I want to be an insurance rep. I had the experience of a close family member go through cancer treatment and I saw what that does to a family financially. That really changed my perspective on health care – and the false belief that everything was covered because you had health insurance. That developed my purpose for getting into this industry.

I met the former regional coordinator, Greg Mazurowski, who's retired at this point. We met at Get Fit, a private gym on Main Street in Williamsville, and I had graduated from college not long before that. I was working in collections and was not a big fan of my then-job and he asked me to come in and talk. At the time, he was recruiting me to do recruiting calls for him and inside sales calls to set up appointments for the agents in the office. I found out about three months into it that the real fun is going on out in the field. I wanted to be a part of that.

Q. How did you go about outside sales?

I already had the appointment side down because I was used to calling people to set appointments. That’s what I was brought in originally to do. In the beginning, my district coordinator would go with me on those appointments. Once I started doing them on my own, I used NFTA Paratransit to get to and from the majority of my appointments. Some of them, I used a taxi cab. It was a matter of planning. If I wanted to get there at 10 o’clock, the Paratransit window might be 8:45 to 9:15 to be picked up. I had to be flexible and see that as something I incorporated into my day. I had work-related things planned while I waited and made sure I had things to do while I was on the van, so I wasn’t wasting that time. I let employers know when I made the phone call that I might run a little bit early. I wasn’t going to explain the whole thing up front but when I show up with a dog, people can usually do the math. Most business owners were very accommodating.

Q. What are some of the key tools you use that are different?

My computer is a standard Aflac laptop. I use JAWS for Windows, a screen-reading software program … that talks to me and gives me voice feedback to let me know exactly what's on the screen. I can read my email, go online and do research on companies and do things everyone does. I also have a Braille notetaker. It has a pin display on the bottom. The pins pop up through the holes and create the Braille letters and numbers so that I can read. It has a word processor in it and a planner where all my calendar information is. It has an address book for contacts and internet access. I type into it. I also can type quickly on a regular keyboard. If you ever took a typing class years ago and the teacher told you that you could learn the keys without looking at them, then they'd take that goofy thing and cover up the keys and say, "Don't peek," there was no peeking for me.

Q. Talk about how your leader dogs have helped you.

Patrick Engasser has an advertisement on his service dog Elvis’ handle. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

I've worked with leader dogs for the last 12 years. I got my previous dog, Rupert, when I was 18 years old, right out of high school. He went to college with me, all my classes. He was a yellow Labrador, too. I've had Elvis about a year. It's incredible. People think leader dogs are trained to see that the light is green or red. They're not, but the things they can do are pretty amazing. They'll lead you to the curb if you use phrases like, "Find the curb," commands like "Find the door," "Find the chair," "Find the stairs," "Find the elevator." They're trained to do those things.

If we're approaching a corner and I can hear the traffic, I'll say, "Find the curb." Elvis will lead me to the curb, stop and put his front paws on the curb. I'll line myself up, check the traffic by sound and I tell him, "Elvis forward." If it is safe to cross, he will proceed to the other up curb. If it's not, he's taught (to observe traffic and) disobey me and back up, or not go; if there's a car turning right, for instance. It's called "intelligence disobedience." He helps me find the top of the stairs, the bottom, leads me around objects, tables. Also, you can pattern a dog to a certain location where you've trained them to go: "Find the store," "Find work," "Find the office."

It's amazing what you can teach a Labrador with food.

When he's in my office and I'm by myself, the leash is off and the harness, and he is sleeping or wandering around. If I call him and put the harness on, he knows it's time to go to work.

Q. What does Aflac do?

Health insurance pays the doctors and treatment facilities. We pay the individual, make sure you have cash in pocket if you have an illness or injury so you can continue to live your life, and take care of daily living and out-of-pocket medical expenses. There are so many gaps in insurance. Now people have high deductible plans. Some $3,000 to $5,000. This fills in gaps.

We also sell disability insurance. Nineteen of 20 of our policies are written through the workplace and are group rated. The average policy in this state operation is about $500 a year. If you could pay $9 or $10 a week to protect your income, most people would.

Q. What are the favorite parts of your job and the biggest challenges?

Number one, helping people who need the policies that we have. Because I've had a family member go through diagnosis and treatment of a serious illness like cancer, I know the financial effects that causes and how that can affect a family's everyday life. One of my biggest goals is to help people protect themselves from a diagnosis of cancer. It's made a huge difference for several of my policyholders. I'm also very passionate about helping other people reach their goals. I love the coaching aspect of the business and being able to help people dream big and reach for those dreams. I was taught by my parents at a young age that if I wanted something badly enough and was willing to work hard enough to get there, and follow a plan of action, that dreams turn into goals and goals turn into reality.

I try to focus more on the goals of my agents than on my own because I firmly believe that you can have anything you want in life if you help enough people get what they want ...

My biggest struggle is that sometimes I want people's dreams for them more than they want it themselves ... They call me the dreamcatcher. At first I thought it was a really hokey nickname. I've come to like it and I have friends who buy me dreamcatchers as gifts. I have them all over my house.

I'm probably never going to be a good race car driver … but anything that's realistic, if you have a plan of action and are willing to put in the work, I believe that you can get there.


Twitter: @BNrefresh

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