Youth Will Be Served
The writer Oscar Wilde once said, “Youth is wasted upon the young.”
While Wilde was making an interesting philosophical point, his words do not apply to the crop of the Risk & Insurance® Under 40 Power Broker® finalists and winners for 2015.
To the person, our Power Broker® Under 40 designees demonstrated that when it comes to succeeding in the commercial insurance business, age is a minor hurdle. Some went to law school; others came from undergraduate internship programs. One even took a temp job that morphed into a permanent position as a successful broker.
Across the board, the group didn’t let age limit their success. The women among the group encountered the dual challenge of age and gender … in a business not historically known for its youth nor its availability to women, though those issues are becoming more extinct with each passing year.
“Insurance chose me, you might say.” — Allison Barrett, senior vice president, Willis
Allison Barrett, 34, a Power Broker® winner in Financial Services, graduated from law school and became a legislative aide in Washington, D.C., before landing in the insurance business. Today, Barrett, a senior vice president in Willis’ New York City office, specializes in financial services.
“Insurance chose me, you might say. I wanted to come back to New York so I reached out to a friend working on the operations side at Marsh,” she said. “I went in not knowing much or having high expectations.”
She hasn’t looked back, saying she now “loves” the business to the point of being a “fanatic about what I do.”
Falling into a Career
Kimberly Mann, 26, a Power Broker® winner in the Environmental category, from Marsh’s Philadelphia office, said like many others, she fell into her insurance career.
Specifically, Mann started as a temp employee in Marsh’s filing department, working for six months before moving to the more high-potential broker side. Within a month, she interviewed in the environmental practice and found her niche.
“I was absolutely drawn to the breadth of clients at Marsh, the different industries and the practices within Marsh,” she said. “Some of the people I work with have been here for 20-plus years and started out doing what I am doing, and that is a good sign.”
Even with the industry-wide understanding of the need to bring more young people into commercial insurance, she said, she still senses the immediate perception of her age when entering a room to meet a client.
“Some might look at me as if to say, ‘OK, where is my adviser, my senior adviser?’ It can be a challenge, but once they see you doing your job well, it becomes a non-issue.”
Tiffany Davis, 36, a Power Broker® winner in the At Large category and a vice president and consultant of client services at Lockton Cos., in Los Angeles, also never planned on working in insurance. In fact, her background was in distressed turnarounds and private equity – at first blush, a far cry from explaining P&C coverages to clients.
Diversifying the Ranks
“Not having an insurance background, I sort of laughed when someone asked me to look into the business,” said Davis.
“I first talked to the person I work for right now, and he said I would be working in a niche within insurance.”
Being both female and African-American has created some trying situations, Davis said, because at its foundation the business remains stocked predominantly with older men.
“Being female and an African-American, I have experienced a little pushback now and then, but things really are changing.”— Tiffany Davis, vice president, consultant of client services, Lockton
“As I sit in front of a CFO or CEO, when they perceive insurance, they perceive an older, white male, or any white male for that matter,” she said. “Being female and an African-American, I have experienced a little pushback now and then, but things really are changing.”
Unlike folks who fell into insurance, Lee Newmark, 27, area vice president in the Chicago office of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., completed the AJG summer internship program while still in college and segued into a full-time job upon graduation.
Newmark, a Power Broker® winner in the Health Care category, actually had the offer prior to his senior year, a rare luxury for today’s millennials (outside the tech industry, anyway).
“I dropped off my resume and nine weeks later, I was done with the internship and had an offer from Gallagher,” said Newmark, who started in 2009 and specializes in health care. “I had known some great people who worked there, so I figured why not give it a shot?”
Adding Youth and Talent
Newmark laughed about his prior insurance misconceptions — that it was only about life insurance, benefits, auto and other personal lines. He’s certain that early perceptions like his are the main reason commercial insurance is challenged to attract as many young people as it needs.
“Insurance isn’t considered very sexy,” he said. “But it’s a great business-to-business industry where you often are calling on C-suite and high-level executives,” he said. “For me, it’s easy to tell younger people how much different the insurance reality is compared to the perception.
“That’s our biggest struggle as an industry.”
Tandis Nili, 34, a vice president at Aon in New York City, much like Newmark, started working as a broker shortly after college graduation, nine days to be exact.
“Even though my only contact with insurance was my car insurance, I had a contact at Aon,” said Nili, who majored in finance and minored in chemistry in college and is a 2015 Power Broker® in the Energy/Downstream category.
“Aon was looking for someone in the financial industry because of the need to understand operations and earnings.”
Since joining Aon, Nili also earned a law degree while going to night school (she is both a part-time coverage counsel and broker).
She reasoned that a law degree would help her be even more effective to her finance clients, mainly Fortune 500 companies. For example, if they are going to sign a lease or contract, she can give it the legal once-over.
In 2006, Nili launched a network of insurance professionals, many of them under 40, to try and help others navigate an industry that had been mostly populated by older male brokers.
“I still sometimes find gender is a challenge, but on the flip side, some of the older men I have met have proven to be great mentors,” she said. “I would say it’s not so much the youth aspect as gender bias. I still see it with clients sometimes.”
Mary Pontillo, 38, a vice president at DeWitt Stern in New York City, came to the industry with a M.A. in art history and a paucity of job offers within the art world.
Despite her advanced degree and an internship at the world-famous Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Pontillo faced the harsh reality of few open museum positions.
As luck would have it, Pontillo, now a perennial Power Broker® in the Fine Arts category, came across a fine arts claims adjuster who needed administrative help and within a few months she started considering a career mixing insurance with fine arts.
“I had no idea this industry segment even existed in undergrad or graduate school,” she said. “What I love about it the most is that my career started off with me knowing more about art and less about insurance. But today, my art background allows me to speak the language with clients.”
“I had no idea this industry segment even existed in undergrad or graduate school.” — Mary Pontillo, vice president, DeWitt Stern
Pontillo said being a broker specializing in fine arts requires a very hands-on, personal relationship with underwriters and clients because every day poses a different challenge.
Looking ahead, she’s secure knowing that her age is a benefit.
“Many of my broker competitors are close to retirement age and there are few people in my age bracket in the industry,” she said. “It’s great to be in a really strong position at a relatively young age.”
Tammy Mission, 27, an assistant vice president at EPIC, in Concord, Calif., also was recruited out of college, St. Mary’s College of California. The school has strong local ties in the insurance business, so Mission figured she would get “into sales” for a year and then move back to the finance track career-wise.
As it turned out, her initial two-hour interview at Heffernan, in San Francisco, was so positive she was hooked.
“They sold me on insurance,” she said. “They knew I was a millennial and they knew how to pitch me.”
Mission’s business acumen kicked in and her client pipeline began to grow. This marks her second year running as a Power Broker® in the Nonprofit category.
“Early in my career, I had challenges. I was so young and naïve,” she said. “But I believe it comes down to personality. My parents are entrepreneurs, so at an early age I received tasks without instructions other than do it fast, keep it moving.”
Listing of Power Broker Winners and Finalists Under 40: