By JULIE LIEDMAN, a Philadelphia-based author who writes for national magazines
Can you picture it? Can you picture an apple-cheeked schoolgirl reading this homework assignment to her first-grade classmates? "What I Want to be When I Grow Up," she reads solemnly. "When I grow up, I want to be an insurance broker because I think it would be awesome to meet clients' needs no matter what market conditions are."
Or can you picture this? An earnest high school senior writing on his early-admission college application: "I want to matriculate at your distinguished Ivy League university because ever since I was a little boy I have dreamt of becoming an insurance broker and your school will help me best to develop the skills I will need to negotiate risk and liability wraps some day."
Clearly, these are not the likeliest of scenarios. Rather, if our list of 40-Under-40 brokers is any indication, most people came to the industry at least somewhat circuitously. "Everyone's got a story about how they fell into this business by accident," says Hilda M. Batlle, 29, vice president of Aon Risk Services in New York City. "There's always a story. It's always by accident."
If ever there was someone who conceivably might have planned to go into the insurance business, it would have been Batlle herself. Her father had a brokerage firm in the Dominican Republic, where she grew up.
Yet no one was more surprised than she when she did become a broker. Batlle had studied economics, both as an undergraduate and graduate student at Florida International University in Miami, and was planning to have, as she calls it, "a professional experience" in New York.
It was right after grad school finals. She came home to the Dominican Republic to attend a cocktail party celebrating the opening of her father's new office when she met an Aon broker in town visiting a client and who came to the party as well.
"We hit it off right away," Batlle recalls, "and she said, 'You know, there's this group you'd be great for. You've got to meet Eric Andersen (who now is CEO of Aon Risk Services in New York).' She invited me to lunch with him, and the rest, as they say, is history.
"That's how it happened. It was totally random."
Random also is the word that would describe how Rob Schumann, 29, assistant vice president, national accounts, at Hamilton Insurance in Fairfax, Va., got into insurance.
"I was a business major in college," says the University of Connecticut graduate, "and my wife and I wanted to move to Boston when we graduated. Beyond that--any job in business would do.
"The best offer I got, by far, was from Lexington (a subsidiary of AIG). They had a year-long training program, they coached me in underwriting, there was some travel and some classroom work, and it was a great place to start."
So Schumann started--and has no intention of ending.
"Most people I know got into insurance by accident," he says, "and chances are they stay a very long time."
And why not? There's more to insurance than many think. Sometimes there's fun and games too.
"I get paid to lose money in casinos," says Christian Ryan, 30, senior vice president, Willis HRH in Dallas, with a twinkle.
Well, not really. But his gaming clients--including the Seminole Tribe's casinos in Florida and the Oneida Nation's in Upstate New York--give him the opportunity to practice his skill at the blackjack tables. It's one of the casual perks of the job.
"I'm not saying I'm good at it," says Ryan. "Actually, I'll tell you, I'm not good at it."
What he is good at, he says, is becoming a trusted business adviser, rather than a vendor who merely performs transactional tasks, for his clients' businesses.
"I love the fact that every client is unique, every risk is unique," he says. "Native American clients are particularly challenging because sovereignty issues need to be taken into account in addition to their particular business issues.
"They're self-governing bodies," says Ryan. "Carriers need to understand sovereign immunity and how it applies.
"That's why I never get a client based on just a transaction," he says. "The most important thing is getting to know my clients' businesses--and them, personally--so I can provide value. And as a result, some of my clients have become some of my best friends."
Like Ryan, Mary Pontillo, 32, assistant vice president at DeWitt Stern in New York City, gets to mix pleasure with business in her job.
A studio-art major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., Pontillo taught elementary school art for two years before returning to school for a graduate degree in art history. While in graduate school, she interned at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and envisioned a career in museums. And then she did a reality check.
"Part of the problem with grad school art history," she says, "is that most professors have a scholarly focus. They know where and how to get a Ph.D., but if you want to make money and have health benefits, they're at a loss."
So Pontillo did some research on how to combine her art history bent with her need to eat and pay rent, and stumbled upon fine-art underwriting.
"I fell into it," she says, "and I was lucky to fall into my niche."
Among Pontillo's clients today are commercial dealers, museums and private collectors.
"The people I talk to care about art as much as I do," she says. "I wouldn't be doing insurance if it didn't involve art. Everything I do starts with a fine-arts policy. Eventually, I get to things like workers' comp.
"I like to help people who have a more art-oriented brain. What I bring to them is very technical and necessary. I'm helping them protect their culture."
Best of all, she gets to see a lot of art.
As a fine-arts specialist, she constantly engages in art events, attending art fairs and gallery and museum openings in the New York City area. And because she has a reliable income, she even has been able to start to collect, herself.
Despite the bleak economic news these days, says Pontillo, "people are still buying art. Pieces that are exceptional will bring high prices and a lot of galleries are working hard to stay open"?which bodes well for her.
"I'm so lucky," says Pontillo. "I get to pursue my love of art, but I'm sitting here wearing a suit and I have benefits!"
While Pontillo got into the insurance business through her personal expertise, Geraldine Kerrigan, 33, senior vice president of Beecher Carlson in Boston, developed her personal expertise through her work in the insurance industry.
Kerrigan is responsible for implementing service standards and procedures for Beecher Carlson's National Energy Practice and is a national resource for other Beecher clients regarding power generation and environmental contractor and impairment liability coverage.
She had planned to become a teacher, but got a job at a brokerage firm and "got hooked," she says.
Her expertise in energy and utilities developed originally simply because she worked with someone who focused on them. Now, she likes that focus because it's constantly challenging.
"Insurance in general--what we do is not brain surgery," says Kerrigan. "It's not like we're saving lives, and a lot of what we do is repetitious.
"Yet the energy industry is constantly going through changes, and keeping up with that stuff helps overcome the 'mundaneness,' " she says.
"Plenty of people have the same book of business every year, but our accounts are always changing. There are new regulations, new equipment. Somebody's always poking their nose into what our clients are doing, and we're constantly trying to keep up with that."
Keeping up with quickly changing regulations and expectations is what keeps David Garrett's juices flowing too.
Garrett, 32, is managing director of John L. Worthan & Son in Houston, where he specializes in directors' and officers' liability for public, private and nonprofit organizations.
In the post-Enron world, public companies are constantly trying to comply with the likes of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which establishes new or enhanced standards for all U.S. public company boards, management and public accounting firms, and that keeps people like Garrett on their toes.
"Coming from a financial background and using the underwriting knowledge I got at one of the top D&O underwriters in the world, I'm able to help clients navigate the many choices and issues that exist in our market," he says.
That ability to help meet clients' special needs is what appeals most to Kevin Orphan, 32, principal of Integro in San Francisco.
A real estate and construction specialist, he recently put together a very large builders' risk program for a hotel project in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
"It's literally in a hurricane zone, and they needed a 40-month policy term," says Orphan. "That's three hurricane seasons this project is going to be built in, and we were able to get full coverage, even for the golf course and garden. I negotiated a great deal for my client."
Orphan's pride is palpable, and echoes the sentiments of other, we spoke to as well.
"When I can solve a problem for my client and my client is successful and everyone is happy," says Orphan, "that's the reward for me."
(To see the complete list of our 40 Under 40, click here.)
February 20, 2009
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