Talented team drives agency’s success and carries on a proud tradition
Some of us remember when women’s place in the business world was in the steno pool, running the copier, or at the coffee maker. Much has changed since then, but even today women represent only a small percentage of agency owners and executives.
Breaking that mold is The Flanders Group, an independent agency based in Pittsford, New York, whose four-person executive team includes three women. Founded in 1981 by Chris McVicker, Flanders specializes in workers compensation and offers an array of services to help clients manage their risk and handle injury management and human resources. McVicker, who died in 2014, left a legacy of dedication to excellence that thrives under today’s leadership team. Among many honors won by the agency during McVicker’s lifetime was being chosen as the 1996 Agency of the Year by The Rough Notes Company, Inc.
Nancy Dehm, chief executive officer, has been with Flanders since its inception and held a variety of positions before assuming her current post. She is responsible for daily operations, automation, agency workflows, human resources, and financials.
Heather Dougherty, president, joined Flanders in 1988 in the workers compensation department. A high-volume producer, she is responsible for managing agency growth and the prosperity of the agency’s five safety groups.
Valarie Aloisio-Webster has been with Flanders since 1990, and her role as executive vice president involves creating and implementing client-focused programs that are designed to increase retention through the use of strong relationship management principles. She also directs the agency’s marketing efforts and oversees the injury management and client services departments, which she created to help clients control their workers compensation costs.
Of Flanders’ $10 million in revenue, 80% is workers compensation. “We’re focusing on expanding our book of commercial lines business,” says Dougherty. Niche markets are nursery/landscape, real estate, manufacturing, refuse, RV/auto dealers, and marinas and boat dealers. Among the agency’s high-profile real estate clients in New York City is the Empire State Building, an account of which the Flanders team is justifiably proud.
In October 2015, Flanders was acquired by Acrisure, a national network of agencies and brokerages with expertise in a variety of niche markets. Acrisure partners focus on personal lines and small and middle market clients. Through consolidation, Acrisure is now the sixth largest insurance broker in the United States.
“We receive a tremendous amount of support from Acrisure, and they trust us to make our own decisions about the agency,” says Aloisio-Webster. “With the power of 120-plus agencies, we have opportunities we didn’t have before. We can explore benefits; we can explore different commercial lines opportunities. We can bring our workers compensation expertise to other partners. The relationship has been beneficial in helping us grow and move outside our comfort zone. Acrisure’s leadership assists us in finding markets for our risks, and with their buying power, markets look at us differently now. At the same time, we like the fact that we can still make local decisions about running the business day to day, such as whom we hire or how we spend our consulting dollars.”
The three female executives of Flanders have worked closely together for decades and have established strong bonds and a collaborative style of management in which each person’s input is encouraged and valued. “We like to talk about our successes, but we’ve really learned about each other in the tough times, when there are bumps in the road or we aren’t seeing eye to eye,” says Dougherty. “Sometimes we disagree, but when we leave the meeting we’re on the same page about the direction we’re going to take. From a leadership perspective, we try not to contradict or argue with each other.”
Aloisio-Webster agrees. “I think it all boils down to mutual respect. We each bring something unique to the table. Our expertise and the areas where we excel are very different, and we respect that in each other. For example, if Heather and I are talking about something in the sales arena, I’ll always respect her opinion because she’s the expert. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a conversation, but at the end of the day I’ve never walked away feeling like I haven’t been treated with dignity. Without exception, we have each other’s back all the time, and I think you have to do that to be successful.”
Adds Dougherty, “In a lot of ways, we’ve grown up together. I was 22 when I joined Flanders. My skill set has evolved, and so have Nancy’s and Val’s. We’re here because we want to be here, because there have been times when it hasn’t been easy. I think we’ve all gotten better at leveraging our strengths and pushing and challenging each other. Our goal is always to do our best for Flanders and our employees.”
We asked each woman to describe the strengths her fellow executives bring to the table.
“When I think about Nancy, the first thing that comes to mind is that she never forgets anything,” Dougherty says with a chuckle. “She has a memory like an elephant. She also brings incredible skill in organizational management and brings a tremendous amount of energy to challenging tasks. The question is never whether we’re going to do something, but how we’re going to tackle it.
“Val also brings strong organizational skills to the table,” Dougherty continues. “If we decide to undertake a project, Val can think it through and know the steps we need to take. She holds us accountable; if we get off track, Val brings us back. She also brings impressive creativity to our marketing process, whether it’s putting together an informational piece or making sure we convey our brand appropriately. She’s constantly learning and sharing her knowledge with us. Both Val and Nancy are great at keeping the home fires burning, ensuring that work is flowing efficiently.”
Says Aloisio-Webster: “In addition to what Heather said about Nancy, I think she has a global perspective. She under-stands our operation and knows what needs to be done. She’s very methodical; she thinks things through, and she’s always in command of the big picture.
“Heather is an amazing sales leader and a great role model,” Aloisio-Webster continues. “She’s also a strong champion of our culture, and she really knows how to rally the troops. When things get busy and crazy, she can step back and defuse situations to bring everyone together around a common purpose.”
More praise for Heather comes from CEO Nancy Dehm. “Heather has a very optimistic attitude about life and about work, regardless of the issue,” Dehm says. “She’s faced challenges both personally and within the agency, and she always says, ‘It will be fine.’ She’s definitely not a Type A. She’s great at problem-solving and negotiating difficult situations. If her team needs direction, she presents the options and encourages them to think about them. We all take this approach. We don’t tell people what to do; we ask them what they would suggest as a solution.
“In my early days with the agency, Chris McVicker would ask me what I would do in a certain situation,” she adds. “Instead of giving me the answer, he encouraged me to offer a solution. All three of us take the same approach with our employees.
“Heather is an expert in workers compensation and excels at building and maintaining relationships with clients,” Dehm continues. “She also makes a significant contribution to the networking groups with which the agency is involved.”
Dehm has equally high acclamation for Aloisio-Webster. “Valarie is always thinking, and she’s always asking important questions. Our management team meets for lunch every Monday, and we can count on Valarie to manage our agenda and move us through the discussion points. She’s tenacious on every issue she gets involved with. She’s an excellent presenter and is highly articulate when she speaks both internally and externally. She’s also very creative and is a great writer. She’s a terrific role model for everyone at The Flanders Group. She doesn’t ask others to do anything she wouldn’t take on herself. She networks with other insurance experts and excels at communicating.”
Then and now
With Chris McVicker at the agency’s helm, the women of Flanders recount, discrimination against women was simply a non-issue. The proud father of triplet girls, he fostered a culture of equality and respect that continues to thrive today.
“Chris gave us titles that reflected his respect for us and the responsibilities he gave us,” says Aloisio-Webster. “I remember being in meetings with him where he refused to tolerate anything but respect.” Adds Dougherty: “His wife, Bernadette, is a strong woman who didn’t change her name when she got married, and I always admired her for that.
“The mantra in sales is that the customer is always right,” she observes. “That’s not what Chris believed, and we don’t allow any customer to show disrespect. We bend over backward for our customers, but they can’t criticize our team.” By the same token, she adds, “If necessary we step in and call out a company rep who has treated one of our employees unfairly. We send the message to our employees that they are always entitled to be treated with respect.”
That said, the women all can point to incidents and attitudes from early in their careers when women were not accorded the respect of male peers. “I started calling on big accounts in New York City when I was 26 years old,” Dougherty recalls, “and I was one of the few women in the room, if not the only one. As I grew in experience and built my book of business, I became more visible and respected. Today my book is worth $3.5 million in revenue, and sexist remarks are a thing of the past.”
What qualities do women bring to leadership roles in the agency environment?
Empathy and communication skills are at the top of the list for Dehm. “To lead an organization, you need people who are willing to commit themselves to the goals you set for the agency,” she says. “We treat our employees well; we foster open communication and are empathetic about personal situations that may be affecting an employee’s work. We ask the individual how we can be helpful and supportive. This is good for our business, and it projects a positive image for our team. We have a wonderful team, and we truly care about each member as an individual. When a task is difficult or challenging, we can get it done because we’ve built trust with our team.”
Adds Dougherty: “The three of us have worked here for almost our entire business lives. We’ve raised families; we have seven children among us, and in those early years we had to do a lot of juggling between work and family life. As a result, we have empathy for employees who are trying to maintain that balance. We don’t like whining, but we do support anyone who’s truly making an effort.”
What advice would the women of Flanders offer to a young woman who is considering a career in insurance?
For starters, Dougherty remarks, “Insurance is not sexy. I think very few freshman start their college careers saying, ‘I’m going to study really hard and become an insurance agent.’ I would encourage young people to realize that there are a vast number of career opportunities in insurance. If you have skill in building relationships, there’s a place for you. The same is true when it comes to creativity; Val is a great example of that. Finance, operations, sales, marketing, IT—all these areas represent attractive options for young people.”
By achieving a solid work-life balance, growing professionally, and building a strong, loyal team, the women of Flanders are both laying the foundation for their agency’s future and honoring the legacy of their inspiring founder, Chris McVicker.
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU