FROM “GIRL FRIDAY” TO AGENCY OWNER
Rising through the ranks, this agent turned a part-time college job into a fulfilling career
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Younger readers may be wondering: What is a “Girl Friday”?
The phrase was likely coined during World War II when women were joining the ranks of office workers in droves to do the jobs left vacant by men who were serving in the armed forces. It is a term of art for the resourceful, resilient, and unflappable woman who runs an office behind the scenes and attends to the thousand tiny details that bore or baffle her male boss. If you’ve seen the 1980 hit movie Nine to Five starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman, you’ve witnessed the uprising staged by two spunky Girl Fridays who are tired of doing all the work and getting none of the credit or money.
This month we meet a real Girl Friday who started working for a local agency part time while in college and today, thanks to her diligence and dedication, is the majority owner of M.J. Schuetz Insurance Services, Inc., in Indianapolis.
“I’ve been with the agency for 41 years,” says Vickie Wolcott, who now serves as president of the firm. “I was given the opportunity to work here on a part-time basis during my senior year in college and was able to arrange my hours around my class schedule. The college was a 25-minute bus ride to downtown Indianapolis where the agency is located, and I used the time to study.”
Wolcott started as a part-time receptionist. “I answered the phone and welcomed visitors to the office,” she says. “At that time we were a small agency with two producers and five service and support employees. I helped everyone in the office with typing, preparing outgoing mail, filing, and whatever else needed to be done.”
Looking back on those days, Wolcott recalls, “I was just so happy to have a good job—one that didn’t involve flipping burgers—that I always went the extra mile and did more than was asked of me. Thanks to my willing attitude, I was given more and more responsibilities as time went on. After graduating from college I was offered a full-time position with the agency. I went from Girl Friday to typing (on a typewriter) certificates of insurance, to assisting the ‘girls’ in the office with taking care of customers.”
Wolcott next moved to the accounting department and subsequently was promoted to office manager. She joined the executive ranks when she was appointed assistant corporate secretary and then was named corporate secretary, corporate treasurer, assistant vice president, and vice president.
Becoming an owner
“When the owners of the agency were ready to retire, they started looking into selling the firm,” Wolcott says. “At that time I talked with David Linthicum, an employee I had hired while he was in college, and we decided to approach the owners with an offer to buy the agency on contract. They accepted, and once the transaction was completed in early 2012, we decided that I would be president and secretary and David would serve as vice president and treasurer.” Today Linthicum is senior vice president of the firm.
Wolcott proudly explains that because she is the majority owner, the agency is a Certified Women’s Business Enterprise. “This means that our commercial customers who do business with local, state, or federal government can put the insurance and bond premiums they pay toward any requirements they may have to work with minority-owned businesses,” she says.
Today the agency employs more than 20 professionals with a total of 200 years of insurance experience. Established in 1943, the firm last year celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Changes in attitudes
When Wolcott joined the agency in 1978, attitudes toward women in insurance were pretty much in the Nine to Five mode. In those early days, Wolcott remembers, “I was referred to as ‘a little girl who didn’t know very much.’ I was always in a position ofhaving to prove myself. When big challenges came up in the office, such as a personnel issue or a major claim, I had to beg for the opportunity to handle the situation. I was told: ‘Little girl, you don’t know what you’ll be up against.’” They were right, she acknowledges, but “how was I going to learn unless I tried?” Wolcott took some missteps and wrong turns, she says, “but I learned and grew from each one.”
The “little girl” attitude also was prevalent when prospects, clients, or carrier reps visited the office, Wolcott recalls. “They didn’t want to deal with me because they assumed I didn’t know anything,” she says. “The owners of the agency had to politely ask them to give me a chance.”
Even when she became a manager, Wolcott says, the owners weren’t completely confident in her ability to rise to challenges. “When a tough situation came up, like having to fire a male producer, I was asked if I needed help. I always said ‘no’ because I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do what was needed. Looking back, however, I’m grateful for the obstacles I encountered because they helped make me stronger and become who I am today.”
Over recent years, Wolcott has seen attitudes toward women in leadership positions have changed significantly. “I am now treated with respect, regarded as an equal, and taken seriously,” she remarks. “Now people listen to what I have to say and appreciate my input. It was a long time coming, but it was worth the struggle. I am now more self-assured than I have ever been, and I really enjoy being in our industry.”
We asked Wolcott what unique qualities she thinks women bring to leadership roles in the industry. She mentioned three: “Patience, organizational skills, and compassion. Nothing against men, but I think women are better at dealing with employees and customers. We’re willing to take the time to get to the core issue. I also think we tend to prepare more thoroughly, especially those of us who in the past were questioned as if we didn’t really know what we were doing.” Wolcott adds that she makes a point of keeping in touch with customers’ interests and family events “because I truly care.”
Advice to young women
What advice would Wolcott offer a young woman who may be considering a career in insurance?
“This is a wonderful industry with infinite opportunities,” she responds. “In an independent agency you interact with coworkers, customers, and company representatives as well as fellow members of associations you may join. A young person can pursue one of several tracks: sales, underwriting, claims, data analytics, or administration and management. Throughout my career I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to learn about each of these areas, so as an owner I have a complete picture of the areas and how they interact.”
Summing up, Wolcott says: “I was very lucky to ‘fall’ into the insurance world, and I encourage young women to work for the achievements and rewards I’ve enjoyed.”
Do you know a female independent agency leader we should feature? If so, please email details about her as well as contact information to Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, senior features editor (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’ll take it from there.