WALKING THE WALK
Undaunted by personal challenges, an inspiring leader rebuilds her life and career
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Life has a way of throwing us curves, and it’s hard to figure out why some people are forced to endure what seems to be more than their share of pain, loss, and heartbreak. Not everyone who is dealt such bitter blows is able to absorb them, let alone overcome them and build something extraordinary from the ruins.
Someone who is gifted with the ability to dig deep and find the courage and resolve to forge a new path is Phoenix agent Nancy Walker, managing member of American Insurance Professionals, LLC (AIP), which specializes in placing title agents errors and omissions coverage. AIP is the exclusive title agents program manager for excess-surplus and specialty provider General Star.
In the early 1970s, when many of her contemporaries were heading off to college, Walker chose another course. She followed her boyfriend to a small town outside Phoenix, married him, and at age 18 began her insurance career.
“My first job was in a small personal lines agency, where we rated everything manually,” she recalls. “Then I moved to Phoenix and went to work for the life insurance unit of USF&G. They didn’t really want to hire me because I was married and they assumed I was going to have a baby—and that’s exactly what happened,” Walker says with a laugh. “It’s amazing to think about the atrocious questions male managers used to ask young women, like ‘Are you on birth control?’ and ‘When do you plan on getting pregnant?’ I stayed home for about a year after the birth of my son and then went to work for the firm where I was to spend most of my career.”
After her marriage ended in divorce, Walker fell in love with the man she had gone to work for, and eventually they married and had two daughters.
“His agency specialized in contractors and surety, and he had purchased a big book of homeowners business,” she says. “A large contractor we worked with arranged to pay for homeowners policies for the people who bought the houses he built. I would type the policies and run them over to the lender so it could give them to the home buyers at closing. We built a pretty substantial personal lines agency out of providing homeowners insurance for that builder, and then we began to offer auto and other coverages. I moved to the contractors surety side of the agency and enjoyed the challenge of learning how to arrange bonding for our clients’ projects,” Walker says.
The agency insured a small title underwriting company, and Walker established a relationship with its risk manager. “He called me one day and said his company wanted to start an E&O program for its agents and asked if I knew anything about E&O,” she says. “I told him I’d figure it out. I did, and we started writing title agents E&O.”
In addition to learning about E&O, Walker had to acquire an understanding of how E&O insurance protects title agents. Today, more than 30 years later, she is a respected authority on the intricacies of title agents’ exposures and coverages.
The years between
Between her first foray into title agents E&O and the success she achieved in this demanding specialty, Walker faced a series of personal and professional challenges.
Her younger daughter was born with severe physical and mental challenges, and caring for her put an intense strain on Walker’s marriage. She and her husband divorced, and they continued to work together for another 10 years while living separately. For several years Walker worked out of her home so she could care for her daughter with disabilities.
“It was always my understanding that I owned 50% of our book of business,” Walker says. “After our divorce my ex-husband began to pay me 50% of the commission after expenses. I worked hard to build our book, and it grew substantially. I reached a point where I decided I wanted to be on my own and stop working out of my house. I moved into an office, and my ex-husband and I continued to split the profits from our business.
“When I decided that I wanted to take my half of the business with me, he told me I had no ownership interest because we’d never put anything in writing. I didn’t see this coming; it never occurred to me that he would do this to me,” she says ruefully. “I was working long hours, nights and weekends, and I would have left much sooner if I had known I was working so hard without ownership. I was forced to hire a lawyer, and in the end I got one-third of the business while my ex-husband kept two-thirds along with the agency’s name and the employees.”
Looking back on those times and the years that followed, Walker is proud of the way she and her ex-husband reconciled. They always wanted to put their children first, she explains. “We both went to all the birthday parties and other events, making sure that it was about our kids and not us.” Today their children are grown with families of their own, but Walker is glad that she and her ex-husband still stay in touch.
Thanks to the knowledge and skills she had developed through years of hard work, Walker says, she was well positioned to grow her book of title agents E&O. Her future looked promising … and then the housing market collapsed amid a tidal wave of bad mortgages and foreclosures.
“My third of the business shrank dramatically, and we spent more time canceling policies and issuing refunds than writing new business,” Walker remembers. “It was at least 18 months before we started to write new policies. During this time the market was in flux. I had developed good relationships with company underwriters and was able to follow them as they moved from one carrier to another, and over time we recovered and started to grow again.”
During this extremely stressful period, Walker was coping with the death of her younger daughter in 2005. She still feels the pain of the loss but observes: “She needed to go, and I’m happy that she’s free from her suffering. At the same time, her passing freed me and her father to move forward with our lives.”
Reaping the rewards
In 2006, Walker established American Insurance Professionals, LLC. “I kept plugging away, and I was enjoying success and having fun,” she says. “For decades I had been doing this work for someone else, and suddenly it dawned on me that I could do it for myself. It’s sad that so many women buy into this myth that they can’t succeed on their own.”
Last July, Walker reached an agreement for the Norman-Spencer Agency to acquire her agency. “It’s been such a breath of fresh air,” she says enthusiastically. “The principals are young; they think outside the box and are using technology in innovative ways. We’re outsourcing back office work to ResourcePro in China, and they’re amazing. I send them submissions at the end of the day, and the next morning they’re in my accounting system. Now they’re issuing policies, with the same overnight turnaround.”
Having decided to sell her agency, Walker says, she carefully considered her options. “I didn’t want to sell to any of my competitors that are owned by big brokerages,” she says. “I didn’t want to work that way. I was so happy that Norman-Spencer found me because they have other programs with our carrier, General Star. The transaction paves the way for me to make the transition to retirement. I’ve been working since age 18 and will be close to 70 when I retire, and I want to enjoy life outside of work. I’m so grateful that everything is falling into place as that time approaches.”
Being acquired involves an array of changes, some of which are more challenging than others. Relying on the persistence and flexibility that have been hallmarks of her career, Walker resolved to be open minded and receptive to a new way of doing things. “I knew there would be a lot of changes, and I tried to embrace them, to accept that I was no longer the top dog. At my stage of life that’s a relief rather than a threat,” Walker remarks.
While she’s still working, Walker routinely puts in 12-hour days as she’s done throughout her career. “When I choose my retirement date, I want to leave this business better than when Norman-Spencer bought it,” she asserts.
From this dedicated, determined professional, we’d expect no less.
Do you know an 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.