Building connections for a lifetime

Tom Burns may have graduated from the College of Business at University of Nevada, Reno more than three decades ago, but the bonds formed with friends while attending the University remain as strong as the days when they were first forged.

Burns, president of Cragin & Pike Insurance in southern Nevada, has taken a trip with his college buddies every fall for the past 25 years to watch college football – often returning to Reno to root for the Wolf Pack on game day.

Other bonds formed while a student at University of Nevada, Reno run even deeper. Burns met his wife, Shelly, while attending the university. The two have been married for 31 years and have two adult children.

“I met my wife and my three best friends through my experiences at the University of Nevada, Reno,” Burns said. “We all moved to Las Vegas and moved each other into our first apartments and then into our first homes. Over the last 32 years we have celebrated the birth of our children, mourned the passing of loved ones, supported each other through life’s struggles, shared an occasional adult beverage, and have had many laughs along the way.”

The Burns both graduated in 1985. Tom earned his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting, while Shelly earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. They moved to southern Nevada soon after graduation to begin their careers – Tom Burns attended Bonanza High School and is a Las Vegas native.

Shelly Burns went on to earn her master’s degree in education and taught in the Clark County School District for 25 years as a literary specialist and instructional coach before retiring in 2015. Tom, meanwhile, worked in accounting for six years, including a three-year stint with Deloitte, before landing an entry-level job at Cragin & Pike in 1991.

Burns worked his way up the ladder to become a shareholder in the firm in 1998, and he was tabbed to be the company’s president in 2010. He works with a wide range of clients but primarily specializes in the construction industry. One of his favorite aspects of his job is having a front-row seat to see how his varied clientele make money.

“I really like dealing with people and watching how they run their businesses,” Burns said. “If I meet with 20 different people, there are 20 different ways they have found to put bread on the table. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.”

Burns also is tasked with managing the overall direction and corporate culture of the Cragin & Pike office, which has a total staff of 50.

“I spend a fair amount of time ensuring we have a good, receptive culture,” he said. “I am really big on culture and what it can do for a firm. I work on our culture, and the direction we are going as a firm. I am also one of the main faces of the firm, so I am also very active in the Las Vegas community.”

Burns is chairman of the board for Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada. He’s been involved with the organization for three years, and he also served on the board in the mid-1990s.

“I am really connected to the mission of Make-A-Wish and the power of what it can do,” he said. “It really provides a moment of joy for sick children and their families and helps them with what they are facing in a difficult time.”

Burns also was very socially active while attending the University of Nevada, Reno. He was a member of the Delta Sigma Pi professional business fraternity and the Beta Alpha Psi accounting and finance fraternity. His experiences in both organizations helped greatly when he eventually stepped out of college and began his journey into the workforce.

“Being in a fraternity really helps sharpen your interpersonal skills, which is important in business,” Burns said. “What you’ll find down the road is that you are not the only bright person in the room that understands the product. You have to learn how to differentiate yourself and explain to people why they should be doing business with you and not your competitors.”

Setting yourself apart is just one of the many challenges that comes with working in the highly competitive insurance industry. Burns said his background in accounting often gives him a leg up on many of his peers because they lack his breadth of financial acumen. Acquiring and maintaining talent – and clients – is another big task.

“We are constantly on the lookout for bright, talented people that fit into the way we do business here and bringing them along,” Burns said.

Burns landed at University of Nevada, Reno almost by happenstance. His primary choices for college were in Reno or the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and he wanted to step out of his comfortable environment and leave home. So he made the decision to move north and attend University of Nevada, Reno.

It proved to be a fortuitous decision. Burns credits his dedicated professors at the university for taking an interest in him and helping him succeed during his academic journey.

“Going to the University of Nevada, Reno exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Many of my professors took a personal interest in me and in their other students – and some of them weren’t even my professors. They looked after you and had your best interest at heart if you were earnest in your efforts. I don’t think you can get that same kind of personal experience at a bigger school.”

College, much like work and life in general, is truly what you make of it. Burns said one of the keys to success in life and in business is to always think big and don’t be afraid to fail. Too often, he said, young people place self-imposed limits on their dreams because of perceptions they have about themselves.

“Sometimes we sell ourselves short and underestimate what we perceive we can do,” he said. “Frankly, if you don’t fail sometimes, you are not doing anything.” ■