Past president of PIA National plays to win with hard work, confidence,and common sense
This month we present the third article in our new series, Broken Glass, in which we talk with a woman in the independent insurance agency business about the challenges and rewards she has experienced and the insights she has gained throughout her career. This month we profile Donna Pile, CIC, CPIW, CPIA, a veteran agency owner and a past president of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents.
Although Donna Pile entered the insurance business 40 years ago and was no stranger to discriminatory attitudes toward women, she has never allowed such behavior either to irritate her or to define her. When her sons were ages one, three, and seven, she became a single parent. She went to work in the small home-based agency in Lexington, Kentucky, owned by her father, and she routinely took the boys to the office with her because she couldn’t afford day care. It wasn’t long before she found out that some individuals of the male persuasion took a dim view of meeting with Pile while her sons played quietly in a corner. Although surprised by the negative reaction of one man, a company representative from whom she was seeking an appointment, Pile didn’t take it personally and moved on, securing a contract to represent the next insurer she called.
“I was young and naïve and, until that man came into my office, it never dawned on me that my children conceivably could be an issue,” Pile recalls. “When he said it was unprofessional of me to have my boys in the office, I didn’t get angry or defensive, and I didn’t play the ‘woman card.’ I just said, ‘I’m so sorry’ and called another company.”
Years later, she encountered the chief executive officer of the carrier that had chosen not to give her a contract, and he asked her why her agency wasn’t representing his company. She told him what had happened years earlier; plainly embarrassed, he offered her a contract on the spot. Pile politely declined, explaining that she didn’t need another carrier in her stable.
Upon purchasing the agency from her father and moving it to a commercial location, Pile encountered astonishment and sometimes condescension on the part of men who visited her office. Again, she remained unflappable and, over time, she began to experience a change in attitude from patronizing and judgmental to respectful and accepting.
“What I discovered all those years ago was that this was a learning proposition for both men and women,” Pile says. “The men had to learn that I wasn’t just taking notes and filling out apps, but that I was a partner in the agency. I had to learn that, back then, very few men were accustomed to encountering women in leadership positions. After I bought the agency a man visited me and said: ‘You’re running the agency?’ I said: ‘I own the agency.’ He said: ‘You own the agency?’ and I said: ‘Yes, I do.’ Then he said: ‘You think you can run the agency?’ and I laughed and said: ‘I’ll come to work every day and do my best, and if I find out I can’t do it, I’ll get another job.’”
When challenged or patronized by men, Pile says, she let the comments roll off her back. “I had recently become a single parent, and I never allowed those attitudes to detour me or pierce my spirit. My mission was to do the right thing for my customers, make my companies proud of me, and earn a living, so I could provide for my sons.” That said, she adds: “When I went to present a proposal, I always felt I’d better be 100% sure that I understood everything in that proposal. I didn’t have the option to be less than fully prepared and hope the prospect would like me. Especially on commercial accounts, male customers would grill me to make sure I was knowledgeable about their exposures and coverages. Once I responded appropriately to their questions, they trusted me completely.”
Self-confident and driven to succeed, Pile warmly credits her father for his loving support and encouragement throughout their years together. Her uncle also owned an agency, as did another family member. “I had three World War II-generation men who stood by me and never once faltered in their support, always telling me: ‘You’re going to be just fine.’ They took me to their meetings, introduced me to people, and always encouraged me to believe that I could be successful,” she says. “To me, achieving equality and respect is less a matter of other people’s attitudes than my own attitude and ability to set the tone for how I expect others to treat me.”
PIA: Moving through the chairs
Determined to educate herself about insurance principles and practices, Pile earned the CIC designation from The National Alliance, the CPIA designation from the American Insurance Marketing & Sales (AIMS) Society, and the Certified Professional Insurance Woman (CPIW) designation that now is issued by the International Association of Insurance Professionals. She teaches the CISR program in Kentucky for homeowners and personal auto, and she teaches CPIA in Kentucky. “Teaching is one way I can give back to the industry that has given so much to me,” Pile says.
As she was learning the business of insurance and striving to be a good single parent, Pile refused to feel sorry for herself, and resolved to succeed on her own. She joined PIA of Kentucky and was, she says, “off and running. They taught me so much; I took all kinds of classes and had so many opportunities to network and meet people in the business.”
Pile served on the board of the state association and became president of the group in 2000. From 2000 to 2004 she served as national director from Kentucky on the PIA National board of directors. During her tenure with PIA, she served on a committee of associations with then Kentucky Insurance Commissioner George Nichols; the committee was responsible for implementation of the Financial Services Modernization Act and Gramm-Leach-Bliley standards in Kentucky. Pile became president of PIA National in 2006 and, to date, is the only woman ever to have held that position.
“Right after I was elected president, I met the national directors from PIA affiliates,” Pile remembers. “I was one of only three woman in a roomful of men, most of whom were in casual attire. I always dressed for leadership, as my father did, and could not understand the casual atmosphere of those meetings.”
She adds, “I addressed the group and said, ‘Gentlemen, the next time we meet, I would like you to wear coats and ties. I don’t want you to come to our meetings without being properly dressed for the role you’re assuming.’ At the next meeting everyone wore a coat and tie, and as far as I know, that’s still the custom.”
During her tenure at PIA National, Pile served on the federal affairs, regulatory affairs, and business issues committees. She represented PIA National as Insurance Services Office representative to the commercial lines panel. She also served on the executive committee of the PIA’s political action committee. In 2007, she testified for PIA in support of state regulation of insurance at a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing.
In 2010, Pile won a Gold MarCom Award and a Platinum Hermes Creative Award, both presented by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals, for “Women in Insurance,” an article she wrote for the PIA Connection magazine.
Pile firmly believes that women bring a different and valuable perspective to positions of leadership in the insurance business. “I think the presence of women creates a balance with the energy of men,” she observes. “We need each other. I don’t belong to groups of professional insurance women; I’m in groups with men and women. I’m not intimidated by men, and I don’t try to intimidate them.”
Pile sees almost unlimited opportunities for young women in the insurance business. “I’ve seen young women start agencies and build them into multi-million-dollar operations in short order,” she declares. “I have no doubt that today’s women can achieve anything they aspire to do. I think the missing link is that we as an industry are not inviting women in. We need to do a better job of attracting women and encouraging them to consider insurance as a career choice.
“I came to love the insurance business over time,” Pile continues. “I’ve always been happy and humbled to deliver a claim check, because it proves I wrote the right coverage. The client doesn’t thank the carrier; he or she thanks me, often profusely. That’s how insurance became my passion.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me,” she adds. “I’ve been able to provide for my children, do my best for my clients, and meet some incredible people along the way. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and for my ability to overcome challenges, while staying true to myself and the values I was brought up with.”
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Do you know a female agency owner, principal, or executive who might make a good subject for a future Broken Glass profile? If so, please contact Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, Senior Features Editor of Rough Notes (firstname.lastname@example.org), and provide some details about the woman as well as contact information. We’ll take it from there.