REACHING THE TOP
From file clerk to agency owner
Decades ago, a young man (it was rarely a woman) could join a company as a mail clerk, work his way through the ranks, and eventually become president. These days, not so much. This month we’ll meet a woman who started at the very bottom of an agency and a few years ago bought out two partners to become the firm’s sole owner. Join us to learn about Susan Ralston’s journey from part-time file clerk to agency owner.
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Let’s face it: No one dreams about a career in insurance. In fact, the very mention of the word has been known to cause rooms to empty.
As a 16-year-old high school student in Angola, Indiana, Susan Ralston certainly wasn’t entertaining visions of entering the glamorous world of insurance. In 1977, in her junior year, she started working as a file clerk for Jacob Insurance Service LLC, attending school in the morning and spending afternoons at the agency.
Forty-one years later, Ralston owns the agency and explains that it just seemed natural to stay with the firm after high school graduation. “Like most young people, I had no idea what insurance was until I went to work for JIS. Over time, as I learned the business, I grew to love insurance and was thoughtfully guided and mentored by the agency owners.”
After assuming positions of increasing responsibility, Ralston bought a one-half interest in the family-owned agency upon the retirement of one partner in 2013 and acquired the remaining half when the other partner retired in 2015.
Jacob Insurance Service is an all-lines agency that writes personal and commercial lines, including agricultural coverages and workers compensation. Every member of its five-person staff is a licensed property/casualty agent; Ralston also is licensed to sell life and health insurance.
“We have a fantastic staff,” Ralston says enthusiastically. “Everyone is bright, motivated, and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
Angola is a small town tucked into the corner of northeastern Indiana, about 40 miles north of Fort Wayne and close to the borders of Michigan and Ohio. “We write business in both of those states, and people can take one of two interstate highways to reach Angola,” Ralston says.
“During the winter, the population of Steuben County is about 35,000,” she notes. “In the summer months, because of our 105 lakes, the population triples. Many people own vacation homes here, and that accounts for a significant portion of our business. It’s kind of a nightmare trying to get around town, but we’re happy to welcome vacationers and appreciate the opportunity to provide insurance for the home owners.”
Then and now
From the perspective of her long career, Ralston can remember a time when women in the insurance business tended to be taken less seriously than men. “Back then I noticed that when customers called or visited the agency, they wanted to talk with one of the owners, who were men,” she recalls. “The principals were male, and the CSRs were female. The customers were never disrespectful, but it was clear that they wanted to speak with a man. Of course the principal told the customer exactly the same thing I would have told him, but that’s the way it was and we just accepted it.”
Over the years, Ralston observes, attitudes toward women in business have changed markedly “because women have become such a presence in the workplace. Very few families do not have two adults who work outside the home. The traditional role of women as stay-at-home mothers and housewives no longer predominates, and I think men are becoming much more involved in child rearing and household responsibilities. This allows us as women to enjoy more freedom to pursue our careers and outside activities.”
In the workplace, Ralston continues, “Women have made their presence known, and we have earned the respect that I don’t think we enjoyed in earlier years. Clients and the public at large generally have come to accept that we really do know what we’re doing. We’re working hard, educating ourselves, and achieving success, and we have excellent opportunities to advance.”
Women as leaders
As a friend of mine once observed, “Men are not women in different bodies.” Most people agree that significant differences exist between men and women with respect to motivation, competition, and approaches to conflict resolution, to name just a few. What unique qualities does Ralston believe women bring to leadership positions in the insurance business?
“Women tend not to shy away from doing what needs to be done, even if it’s sweeping the office floor or emptying the trash,” she responds. “Especially in a small office like ours, everyone needs to pitch in and do some of the boring but necessary chores. I don’t delegate those tasks; I do them myself because I don’t expect my employees to do what I’m not willing to do.”
Other qualities that women bring to the table, Ralston says, are diligence, persistence, and just plain hard work, as well as empathy, patience, and a willingness to help others. When contemplating a course of action, she says, “I always ask myself if I’m doing it for the right reason.”
For young women who may be considering pursuing a career in insurance, Ralston suggests that they research the business to learn about the varied opportunities available.
“Insurance offers many career paths on both the company and the agency side,” she asserts, mentioning underwriting, sales, claims, risk management and loss prevention, finance, and legal. “In insurance, as in any business, your success depends to a great extent on what you put into it.” To anyone who is laboring under the misconception that insurance is boring, she says: “To this day, after 41 years, I still find the business absolutely fascinating.”
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 (email@example.com) and provide some details about the woman as well as contact information. We’ll take it from there.