A college degree is an unspoken necessity in today's job market and business world, right? Higher education is just one little line on a resume, but a crucial one, something that people take for granted that their insurance brokers possess. Or is it?
Sure, it would be close to impossible to land a job today--even an entry-level one--at a brokerage firm without having graduated college first. But the academic demands on executives these days are far greater than those that were placed on the previous generation. Executives in their fifties and sixties grew up in a time where a high-school diploma was required for an entry-level position and a college degree was seen as an asset--not a requirement.
A theory worth exploring is that brokers without a college degree more than make up for their lack of formal education. They may not have the diploma, but they studied hard, worked hard and passed many tests to earn the success that they have achieved. They were self-propelled to rise up the corporate ladder, probably more driven than their traditionally educated counterparts. In many cases, their decision to not attend college or to drop out before graduating was motivated by financial issues and not by the hot-headed ego of a 20-something. In all cases, their business and life experiences have shaped the high-powered broker they've become.
A technology guru who recently joined Aon after a 10-year stint at Arthur J. Gallagher, Michael Lamprecht is known for his passion for errors and omissions, a rapidly changing field that requires constant monitoring to keep pace with the way that technology is being used. At 36, he's on the younger side of the Power BrokerTM age range, which makes sense considering his talent with computers.
Lamprecht followed high-school graduation with a brief stint at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. A unique business model churning around in his head finally led this entrepreneur to drop out of school.
"It's one of those things that you look back on and wish you could change, actually," he says.
Not to say that Lamprecht wasn't successful. He did his homework, sought out capital and opened a video arcade business. Picture the 90s, when the sophisticated video home console systems of today did not exist and arcades were a mecca for pimple-faced teens. Lamprecht raked the money in for the short time he was in business. At 25, he hung up the venture and turned to his father, a lifelong insurance man employed at various Aon legacy companies.
"I realized I had pretty much topped out," recalls Lamprecht, "so I reached out to my father and said, 'Tell me more about what you do.' And he told me, 'It's probably not for you, don't get into it.' And I said, 'Well, I'm definitely getting into it then.' "
Heeding his father's well-placed advice--that it would be a big gamble to sacrifice his entrepreneurial spirit and business management skills to take a major pay cut for an entry-level position in insurance, in a rigid environment that may not suit him--Lamprecht went to work for a six-month probationary period as a telemarketer in the New York office of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.
"I really doubled down," he says. "I didn't just work hard, I really sought out the smartest people that I could possibly find and learned through osmosis. Surrounding yourself with smart people can make you smart too."
Lamprecht had a thirst for knowledge that seemed unquenchable. He set up a rigorous training program for himself that included talking to everyone from the contract attorney that deals with the client, to the information security officer and the software developers to the quality control, procurement and intellectual-property experts.
Then he would return to his office at Gallagher and corner executives, trading their lessons on policy drafting and wording and dealing with underwriters and modifying endorsements with his one major marketable skill--"I would teach them how to use their computers," he says.
After getting that slow start, Lamprecht realized it would be wise to seek out an area that was underserved. Enter the computer craze of the 90s, just the beginning of the dot-com era. At the time, senior brokers shied away from that industry because of its lack of high-revenue companies.
Ultimately, Lamprecht's first customers that brought him a meager $1,500 a year ballooned into a huge book of business of almost unmanageable proportions. With that, he took the reins of the technology leadership at Gallagher and soon worked his way into another underserved niche, errors and omissions.
Lamprecht says his was a long, meandering path to success that he wouldn't suggest anyone try.
"I'm of the opinion that an educational background could have helped me out a lot in some areas, could have propelled me along much further than I am now," he says. "But it's hard to say if I didn't have all those experiences, who would really know where I would end up?"
THE COLD CALLER
The catastrophic property loss that hit hardest for John Purdum, a 21-year veteran of Hilb Rogal & Hobbs, did not belong to the many clients he helped through Hurricane Katrina. It was a much lesser known storm, Hurricane Frederic, that slammed into his hometown of Mobile, Ala., in 1979.
Like many businesses in town, Purdum's father's grocery store took a huge hit. It would have been a straightforward property claim--if the correct insurance had been in place. The insurance agent had failed to secure proper coverage for the store.
"It destroyed the business," says Purdum. "We lost everything. Dad had to go into bankruptcy. That's when I said, 'OK, I have to do my part.' And I did. I sacrificed the education."
One of five children, Purdum had been well into his education at the University of South Alabama when the tragedy occurred. He knew he had to get a job, and he knew he wanted to help people. In some strange twist of fate, Purdum was compelled to enter the insurance industry.
"I knew the incompetence of people doing it wrong, how much impact it could have on people's lives," he says. "Doing it the best way you can and caring about people, you can make a difference. And I have made a difference as a producer. I love helping people."
In another odd bit of destiny, Purdum embarked on his job search by opening the phone book and starting at 'A.' The first number he called was Aetna, and Purdum hit it off with the man who answered the phone. The company lined up Purdum with an interview at HRH in Mobile, and Purdum hasn't looked back since.
It took him a little while to build his foundation in the industry. Propelled by the memory of his father's loss, he moved full steam ahead, learning everything he possibly could about the insurance business. He studied forms and books and policy and technique, anything he could get his hands on. Although he had fully intended to graduate college, Purdum says some of the most important skills as a broker can't be taught in school. Client service is what counts, and it's something that must be learned on one's own.
Purdum recalls the days of working in his father's grocery store, beginning at the very young age of 7. He learned how to deal with people by observing his father as he handled tough customers and dear friends in the store. He says his dad always went into motion after receiving a complaint, immediately concerned enough to find out what happened, solve the problem and make sure it was handled properly. The fact that he genuinely cared is what made all the difference.
"Learning from my dad was probably the basis of developing a culture of customer service," he says. "Customer service nowadays is horrible, we all know that. But my dad, the customers knew they could count on him. Sincerity is the No. 1 thing an insurance agent's got to have. You can't fake that."
When the 2005 hurricane season blasted in, Purdum was dealing with many clients who suffered major property losses. One client, a family-owned shrimp processor, Sea Pearl Seafood Company Inc., had been totally destroyed. The morning after Hurricane Katrina hit Bayou La Batre, Ala., Purdum left Mobile and navigated the muddy roads to assess the situation. Buildings, machinery and processing equipment had been destroyed. With its refrigeration units knocked out and fuel in short supply, Sea Pearl also faced losing millions of dollars in shrimp.
Purdum arranged for another client to move 30 tractor-trailer loads of shrimp into cold storage. And he kept an eye on the claim so that Sea Pearl received a $1 million advance in two weeks and another $4 million soon after.
"I learned there's no satisfaction from delivering a policy and charging a bunch of money, but in being there when something happens," he says. "I want my clients to rely on me, and I take that very personally, taking care of them. Because I know the pain of not doing it the right way."
This 2008 Power BrokerTM in the real estate category says his natural instincts when it comes to client relationships have paid off. In 21 years, he says he's lost three or four accounts to the competition. His clients also rarely shop; perhaps one account a year checks out the available alternatives.
"You can't learn these qualities in a classroom," he says.
THE MAILROOM MAVEN
Born and raised in Southern California, Ann Stephenson has been at Marsh in Los Angeles for the last 12 years, most recently as a senior vice president and workers' compensation practice leader. She reached that position only one way--hard work.
Stephenson says that, as she reached adulthood, a high-school diploma was considered necessary for an entry-level position. She attended college for a few years while working full time, "and the paychecks just kind of took over," she says. Stephenson dropped out of school to focus her attention on a career.
In 1984, she started working in the insurance claims division mail room at American Medical International Inc., a self-insured, self-administered organization that owned acute care facilities. Promotions every six months for the next couple years finally landed her in a medical-only claims adjusting position.
"I was lucky that I got in the mailroom, and I worked very hard, long hours, whatever it took," Stephenson says. "I had managers that recognized that I had capabilities beyond opening and sorting mail, so they gave me opportunities."
Great timing had a lot to do with her rise up the ladder, she says, as well as her relationships with numerous mentors. At each stage of her growth, it seemed like someone else would round the corner to help her learn the ropes.
After working the post-injury side of the game for six years and making the transition to loss prevention, Stephenson found one key mentor while she was visiting hospitals to assess their programs. To be fair to her other mentors, Stephenson doesn't want to name her, but the woman taught Stephenson to hone her interpersonal skills and not be so intimidated by the CEOs and chief financial officers of hospitals. Having that experience in her early 20's really helped her adapt to the professional environment, she says.
"You can go through and learn the books, but the practical application of that stuff is oftentimes very different," says Stephenson. "So having that life experience early on in my career, having people I worked with that helped me along the way, helps make up for a whole lot."
It took another five years before Stephenson had an opportunity to join Marsh. She spent half that time at regional third-party administrator Keenan & Associates handling California workers' comp claims, and the latter half at Gallagher Bassett managing the office responsible for California workers' comp.
Stephenson won't admit to being bored per se, but says that after a long stint in adjusting, "I was just looking for more." In the next 12 years at Marsh, she's become a major resource for the firm when it comes to negotiating California's workers' comp reforms.
The lack of a diploma hasn't stopped her from finding success, but it's something she's still coming to terms with.
"Early in my career, I was extremely confident and probably very cocky as well, so I didn't shy away from going out and interviewing to test the waters and see what was out there," she says. "But for a long time, I really felt that lack of a degree, and even now sometimes when I have to send my resume or bio to somebody that educational bar is fairly blank."
With two decades of experience in workers' compensation, working with public and private employers on various pieces of their programs, working with a broad spectrum of TPAs and carriers, "that experience over time more than makes up for it, I think," says Stephenson.
Her satisfied clients would probably agree.
ERIN GAZICA is associate editor of Risk & Insurance®.
April 1, 2008
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