Susan Combs didn’t grow up thinking she wanted to work in insurance. Not many do, frankly.
While earning her degree at the University of Missouri, she worked in hospitality, catering to the likes of big-name musicians who would hold concerts at the school. After graduation, in May 2001, she moved to New York with a job lined up as banquet manager for Marriott World Trade Center, a building that was demolished in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In what would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, Marriott contacted Susan two weeks before her start date and told her the New York position was being eliminated but she could move to Detroit or New Orleans where the same job was waiting for her. Dead set on staying in the city, she started interviewing for other hospitality positions. Nothing was working out in her favor.
Short of desperate, she reached out to a headhunter who eventually set her up with an interview at Paychex, the payroll and HR services firm.
“My first response was, ‘Payroll? I’ve worked with Destiny’s Child, Kenny Rogers and Bob Dylan and you want me to sell payroll?’” Combs recalls.
But she went to the interview and fell in love with the company. She started her job with Paychex selling payroll, auditing companies and learning about a brand-new product the company was offering: workers comp insurance.
“When they came out with it, no one know how to sell it,” Combs said. “I learned all about it and then they had me start teaching other reps and offices about it to help gain exposure with that product. So, when I would get brought in to explain workers comp and sell it, the client would ask me about other insurances. I partnered up with a firm and would bring them in on appointments and then the light bulb went on that they were making a lot more than me and they didn’t start at $0 each month. I ended up going to work for this same firm, followed by employment with the largest entertainment brokerage in the U.S.: DeWitt Stern Group.”
But Combs wouldn’t stay working for another firm for long. Her passion for the industry led her to start her own company, Combs & Company, in June of 2005.
While at DeWitt Stern, Combs developed a mentorship relationship with a gentleman in the industry named Jim Cosares, who encouraged her to make the move.
“He’s got this great big Brooklyn personality and he believed in me,” she said. “I came to a crossroads at DeWitt and it was either go into a management trainee program or jump. I owned my book of business from day one, so Jim took me for coffee and we did a ‘pros and cons’ list. Needless to say, the pros list of going out on my own won out and it’s still the best thing I ever did.”
There are several reasons Combs has stayed in the insurance industry as long as she has, one of them being the fact that it’s all about consultative selling.
“You aren’t a used car salesmen,” she said. “You get to really explore clients’ companies and learn about their passions and then help them to protect it.”
Combs’ passion lies in working with startups and companies moving to New York from other countries, as it gives her the opportunity to educate them on how insurance works and help them navigate setting up a company in the U.S.
But her true joy, she says, comes from being like family to her clients.
“We are on the shortlist for announcements about every baby that comes into our clients’ world,” Combs said. “We have dads that have emailed us from the delivery room saying, ‘Joseph is here!’ or we get mothers that email us with a picture a day after the baby is born so that we can get them added onto the health insurance plan. We get to have an intimate connection into their lives that many of my business colleagues don’t get to have.”
Women in insurance
Combs, who served as the 2015 President of Women in Insurance and Financial Services, sees the insurance industry as a great fit for women. One reason, she says, is that there isn’t the infamous gender wage gap that exists in many other industries.
“Commission is commission,” she said. “Carriers don’t care if you are male, female, green or purple. If I sell an Aetna policy in New York, I’m making the exact same percentage as my male counterparts down the street.”
She also enjoys the flexibility and the fact that everyone in the insurance industry is the maker of their own destiny.
“When I talk to colleagues, we all seem to agree that three years is the magic number,” Combs said. “If you really bust your ass and make great connections with networking and do right by people, the phone will just start ringing.”
And Combs has made sure the women that work for her have the flexibility they desire — making sure they know they can bring their kids to school and pick them up every day without any issues.
“Work can be done at any time,” she said. “Having this flexibility allows women to be mothers if they choose to travel that path.”
As for advice for women in the industry, Combs is candid.
“When you start out you feel like you have to take everyone as a client and you are not allowed to be selective because you need them. Have confidence in yourself: The sooner you realize that they need you more than you need them, that confidence will shine through. There comes a time where you will see a flip, where you’ll be able to be more selective in who you take on as a client. We have a phrase in the office, “If they are not the type of person you would want to ‘friend’ on Facebook then we do not want them as clients.” About seven years ago, I saw that certain clients would have what I call the cringe factor: You see their number on caller ID and you do not want to pick up. We got rid of all those clients and we are quick to see the writing on the wall with prospects and decide before we take them on if we want them to be our friend.”
- SEE ALSO: Meet Susan Combs