The Gaudreau Group in Wilbraham is like most other insurance and financial service agencies in terms of the products and services it offers to clients. It is different, though, in the fact that an extraordinarily large number of high-level positions have been filled by women. This development wasn’t exactly planned, but then again, it wasn’t really an accident, either.
Jules Gaudreau has been in the financial services field for more than three decades, more than enough time to know that this industry has moved well beyond that old catch-phrase ‘the insurance man.’
Until fairly recently, it was, in fact, a man who sold you insurance and updated your account when it needed updating, said Gaudreau, adding that while women have been a big part of this business for decades, their roles were generally restricted to service work, especially in personal lines.
That’s were. Indeed one doesn’t hear that phrase ‘insurance man’ much anymore. And this is especially true at Gaudreau, where one might only hear it in the context in which the company’s president used it — as an anachronistic descriptor better suited to another decade.
And also, and this is more important, that phrase wouldn’t in any way be an accurate method of describing the workforce at this Wilbraham-based company.
The firm has what would, by almost any measure, be considered a large and impressive number of women in top positions, with many of them serving as ‘producers,’ as they’re called in this business.
This development wasn’t exactly planned, meaning the company didn’t set out to create this kind of gender balance in such positions, said Gaudreau, adding quickly that it didn’t really come about by accident, either.
Instead, the current situation materialized through an atmosphere that certainly encourages women to consider and then seek out producer roles, said Gaudreau. But more importantly, it developed because of solid role models, effective mentoring, teamwork, and the success of those who have put some non-traditional titles next to their names on their business cards.
“I really believe in a meritocracy,” he explained. “The women in my firm are where they are because they’re really good at what they do. They just happen to be female.”
BusinessWest talked with three of these women, all producers. They have different stories, and took different paths to get where they are, but there are many common denominators — from simple business ambition to a desire to work in a position where they can help people.
Judy Davis, an employee-benefits strategy advisor, was a long-time dental hygienist when she decided she needed something else. “I didn’t want to be in a room looking inside mouths all day — and people didn’t seem to like my bubbly personality,” she explained, adding that she segued into financial services and has spent the past 34 years in the field, never once choosing to look back.
“I answered an ad in the paper, back when there were help-wanted ads in the paper, and was hired by a very powerful MassMutual agent, and worked for him for two years,” she explained. “I was a sponge; I just loved insurance — I really became interested in the field.”
She said she’s been recruited to several jobs within the industry — joining Gaudreau this past spring — and at each stop “wanted to be the boss; I wanted to be in charge, a leader in the business.”
Jenny MacKay, a member of BusinessWest’s most recent 40 Under Forty class, had mostly the same career goals, only she didn’t have to shift her employment focus. She was still a student at Western New England University, majoring in financial services, and not at all sure what she would do with her degree, when she attended a presentation by a panel of speakers comprised of WNEU management graduates.
One of them was working for Northwestern Mutual, and her remarks certainly caught MacKay’s attention.
“He started out in the internship program at Northwestern, and he walked into the downtown Springfield office, saw its high ceilings, beautiful offices, powerful people, and everyone driving a Lexus,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘I wanted to drive a Lexus, so I started an internship there.’ And before the talk was over, I decided I want to drive a Lexus, too, and I started an internship there.”
Moving the story forward, she said she had a license to sell insurance before she could legally buy alcohol.
As for Tracy Goodman, she refers to her present role in personal insurance sales as an “accidental career,” but also “where I should be,” which means this isn’t really an accident.
She started out in human resources, took some time out to raise a family, and, during that time, realized that she needed to get back in the business world. She began at an AFLACK office, and soon after arriving a manager asked what she was doing behind a desk when she should be out selling. And that’s what she’s been doing ever since.
For this issue and its focus on Women in Business, we talked at length with Davis, MacKay, and Goodman about not only their success in this field, but also why women can, and usually do, thrive in these roles and consider them an attractive career option.
To help explain the way things are now (especially at his firm), and why, Gaudreau first did some flashing back 40 or 50 years ago, using his own memory and anecdotal evidence to get his points across.
“When I first came into the business, what women did was serve as service people,” he explained. “Most of it was because that’s where women entering the workforce in the 1940s went — service.
“MassMutual had these giant typing pools, huge rooms filled with women,” he went on. “When you needed something typed, you’d hit a button, and one of the people who didn’t have anything to type came up and grabbed what you needed done. It was very random.”
Things changed, he went on, because the modern consumer changed, he told BusinessWest, and so did selling methods to a large degree.
“It’s not about telling and yelling and selling anymore, which was the traditional optic of what the insurance guy was like — the insurance man,” he went on. “Telling people and then selling them — that’s what’s he did. Today, it’s much more consultative, and I think women have much more ability to listen, to learn, build rapport, and solve problems. What people are looking for is servant leadership; they’re looking for people to listen to them and solve their problems, as opposed to telling people things.”
Davis agreed, and, without stereotyping either gender, said women, by and large, possess more of the qualities customers are looking for in a salesperson, especially those related to listening and solving problems.
“I have a very large book of business in employee benefits and passion for my clients,” she explained. “I think my clients feel that, and this is what helps us become successful women in business.”
She said employee benefits has become a very complex matter in recent years, especially for smaller companies that lack their own, dedicated human resources department, and must navigate a sea of products, programs, and corresponding acronyms, themselves.
Such firms need a partner, she said, and women possess many of the skills required to serve in that role.
“We’re an extension of a human resource department,” she explained, “and people value our input.”
MacKay concurred, noting that early on (remember, she got her insurance license at age 20) she decided she would rather work with business owners than a husband-and-wife team gathered around the conference room table.
“Business owners just seem to get it and understand why insurance and financial services is important,” she explained. “And this led me down the path to employee benefits, because I could then work with business owners on a regular basis. My problem was I didn’t know anything about health insurance.”
Suffice it to say, she’s learned, first while serving the accounts of producers, and then becoming one herself.
Summing up her career to date, she said she always possessed an interest in financial services — and in selling — but needed some direction when it came to determining that this is what she should be selling.
Goodman’s story is somewhat similar. When she was told that she shouldn’t be behind a desk and should instead be out selling, she had her doubts, to say the least.
“I laughed and said ‘that’s ridiculous,’” she recalled. “I went home, and every single person in my family and personal world said ‘thank God you finally realized that you’re supposed to sell.’
“I started winning trips, doing great, and meeting all my numbers,” she went on, adding that she was recruited by another insurance company to grow personal lines before joining Gaudreau last April.
She said that while her story is unique in some ways, there are many women who don’t believe they should be in sales or financial services, for whatever reasons, and they are possibly overlooking a career option that enables them to put their strengths to work in a way that’s rewarding on many levels.
She summed it up by relating a recent meeting with a client that speaks to not only her acquired talents, but the basic skills possessed by many women — whether they know it or not.
“I sat down with a business owner and we walked through all of his insurance, and the end, he said ‘I have been waiting for years for someone like you to help me understand what I have, what I need, and what kind of coverage I should own.’
“I like that challenge,” she went on, hinting strongly that other women might, as well. “Every case for me is different, and I like solving the problem and closing the sale.”
MacKay echoed those thoughts, adding that sales work is, in many ways, entrepreneurial in nature, and many women have such tendencies — again, whether they know it or not.
“I came from a family of all entrepreneurs,” she said, noting that they all own different court-reporting operations. “So I grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit of freedom of work, working for yourself, making your own decisions about how you spend your valuable time.
“This role here allows me the best of both worlds,” she went on. “I get to work for an employer where there’s training and there’s leadership, and someone to hold my hand and teach me new things, so I’m not completely out there on my own. But as a producer, I’m in charge of my own income destiny, I’m in charge of my own time, I can make my own decisions about what I want to be and what I want to do. Many women would thrive in such situations.”
The Bottom Line
MacKay actually eschewed the Lexus in favor of a BMW. But the point to the exercise hasn’t changed, even if the hood ornament has.
There are rewards in sales and across the broad financial services sector, she and the others we spoke with said using one clear voice. Sometimes women get into this field by accident, but success doesn’t come accidentally.
It comes from hard work, listening to the client, and working in a partnership to solve a problem. These are talents that most women possess or can attain, and therefore they should not close the door on this career option.
By being proactive — and entrepreneurial — they can further retire that phrase ‘insurance man.’
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org