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922 South Morton Street
Bloomington, IN, 47403
United States


Cardinal Spirits is a craft distillery in Bloomington, Indiana that specializes in producing extraordinary spirits from local ingredients.  

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Helpful Hardworking Humans: Jeff Sullivan

Adam Quirk

The people who have helped Cardinal Spirits get to this point are so awesome and enjoyable, we’d shout their names from the mountain tops, if we had such things in Indiana. Instead, here on the blog, we’ll introduce you to our architect, insurance broker, general contractor and other partners on our roster, one by one. We're calling the series Helpful Hardworking Humans.

Today, we’d like you to meet Jeff Sullivan, our commercial insurance guy.

A while after we started working with Jeff at Hylant in Bloomington, we came across a website with 126 questions to ask your commercial insurance broker. It was a crushing list of scenarios that you should plan for, and, ticking through it, we felt pretty good that we’d already discussed most of them with Jeff. The last question, though, was one that only we could answer: If our building were in rubble after a fire, would I be comfortable with our insurance agent by our side? 

Without hesitation, we thought: Yes. Absolutely.

In fact, during the entire time Jeff was getting us insured, he made sure there was never a time when we were sweating it. 

Jeff says the worrying, the stress, all that — that’s his job. That’s on him. Only after we were insured did Jeff let us on to the rejection that came before: 15 carriers said no to us before one said yes. (Thanks, Great American!)

Fifteen no’s! Here’s the deal: A few carriers will insure startups. Some carriers will insure distilleries. Almost none will insure startup distilleries. 

But, it was no cause for shame. “I never looked at it as though there was any option to come back with a ‘no’ for Cardinal,” Jeff says. “There was going to be a ‘yes,’ and we were going to find it.

Let’s back up, because what Jeff just said, it can sound a little like insurance-speak. So, now, imagine Jeff saying it with a giant, genuine smile on his face. We’ve never seen him without that smile. Take whatever preconception you have of an insurance guy and put it aside. Instead, picture someone who is thorough and thoughtful, patient and persistent — that’s Jeff. 

Ask Jeff about life outside the office, and it won’t be long before he mentions his two kids. One of his favorite things to do is take his daughter, who is in college, out to lunch. He fondly remembers coaching his son’s Little League team.  

He even introduced us to another member of the Cardinal family: our commercial real estate broker Dave Harstad, a fellow Helpful Hardworking Human. 

After decades in the insurance business — first as a claims adjustor, then as an agency owner, and now as a commercial broker — the nature of Jeff’s job is to think about doom and gloom, but he does it in the most positive way possible. 

“I like protecting people and I really like helping people,” Jeff says.

We always feel a little safer after leaving his office.

Jeff grew up on his mom and dad’s cattle farm in Solsberry, about eight miles west of Bloomington. You have to zoom in pretty good to get this tiny rural town to show up on Google Maps. Bloomington was The Big City. 

Jeff came to Indiana University and graduated from the business school. The idea was to go into real estate development, but when Jeff graduated, interest rates had spiked, banks weren’t lending and real estate development just was not happening. 

So, he followed a friend’s lead and became a claims adjustor for State Farm in Indianapolis. Jeff eventually started his own agency with American Family, and that’s what brought him back to Bloomington in 1995. 

Insurance wasn’t the plan, but Jeff found his niche. He ran his own agency for 17 years, until he was ready for a new challenge. About two years ago, Jeff became a commercial insurance broker for Hylant, a insurance brokerage and risk management firm with offices nationwide.

During his days doing claims work, Jeff regularly helped people put the pieces back together after a catastrophe. The technical aspects of the job — say, measuring the damage in a home after a fire — made him think about the big picture. 

“The more experience I had working with people who had serious losses, the more I was able to see that the way a good agent could make a difference was to get the coverage where it needs to be before something bad happens,” Jeff says.

Explosions top the list of bad things that can happen at a distillery. We’ve talked with dozens of distillers about setting up shop, but Jeff was the first person to tell us that in order to get insured, we’d have to commit to install explosion-proof lighting and electrical fixtures, a considerable expense compared to the standard options.

His first inclination is to be helpful, not discouraging, even when it would be easier for him to be the latter.

An example: We’d like to allow volunteers to bottle some of our spirits — a fun way for the community to get involved with Cardinal Spirits and vice versa. Certainly not essential to getting up and running, the idea became unintentionally buried in the business plan, like on page 46, line 18.

But Jeff plucked it out of obscurity — we suspect he’s one of the few who truly read our plan cover to cover — and came up with some ways that we could keep volunteers and our business safe if the idea ever became a reality. Without him, we wouldn’t be thinking that far ahead.

He never wants to get in the way of our business plan. He just wants to make sure we’re covered for everything big and small.

We know this is going to be a long-term relationship, not a fleeting one where we don’t hear from him until it’s time to renew our policy. Jeff still checks in with us regularly by calling and visiting the Cardinal Spirits building, and we call him to share our milestones, too. 

When we finally took possession of the Cardinal Spirits building late last year, we admitted to Jeff that we had done some ceremonial demo work with a sledgehammer.

“I just jokingly replied, ‘Make sure you wear your safety goggles.’ Honestly, I said that mostly for fun,” Jeff says. “But, it’s what I do.”

Five parting questions for Jeff:

Are you always scanning the room for potential hazards?
I do. I just see stuff: loose handrails, uneven steps, cracked sidewalks and things that somebody is going to hit their head on. I think it’s just the nature of my job.

What mistake do small businesses make when they’re getting insured?
A lot of times, a person thinks that if they call five agents, they have a better chance of getting a good quote. That’s not true. Carriers will only quote for one agent. What the agents get back from the carriers is, “I’m already working on this quote for someone else.” You realize pretty quickly that someone else is ahead of you.  

What’s a good piece of advice that you’ve given Cardinal?
One thing that wouldn’t always be done right away is getting the work comp in place. A lot of people will wait until they’re through the renovation process and have started hiring employees. My feeling was that it was in their best interest to get coverage in place because things could go wrong in the renovation process. For example, the contractor could have insurance or they could have an exemption that gets canceled. The next thing you know, they’re doing work without insurance. If somebody gets hurt, that could fall back on Cardinal. Now they have coverage in place.

What’s your perfect day in Bloomington like?
It could easily involve dinner at Feast. Part of it might even be some work around the house, and spending some time walking on trails.

What do you like to drink?
I enjoy this drink (holds up his first Hendrick’s and tonic)! Also, there’s a Two Brothers gluten-free beer that I really like.