Susan L. Combs says it’s important for people to play to their strengths.
Combs, the 2017 BenefitsPRO Broker of the Year, came to that realization at her first real job out of college. New to New York, she had found work at Paychex, Inc., where she sold payroll and HR services.
“Large sales organizations love stats,” says Combs. “They looked at my numbers and told me I was good at networking. I was good at connecting with people.”
What she wasn’t good at, or at least didn’t enjoy, was the “salesy” side of the business.
“Instead of going out and pounding on doors or doing telemarketing — two things I absolutely despise — I spent time taking CPAs to lunch and kind of schmoozing,” says Combs, who was a hospitality major at the University of Missouri.
This more indirect line of sales matched her personality better, and was paying off as well. Her stats from Paychex showed that 44 percent of her business came from CPAs.
When she realized where much of her business originated, Combs decided to double down and play to her strengths. New York is a networking kind of town, after all, and Combs joined groups to further grow those connector skills. She met people at lunch, for coffee, at meetings — wherever and whenever they could meet.
Sixteen years later, her network continues to grow. So does the belief in what works. The night before this interview, Combs attended two events, making new connections and strengthening the ones already in place.
That’s the thing about these connections — their lasting strength. Combs makes an important point about her network: Those lunch buddy CPAs, the ones that gave her those first referrals, continue to give her referrals to this day.
Before the bright lights of New York and the lightbulb moment about networking, Combs grew up in King City, Missouri, a farm community once renowned for its production of Kentucky bluegrass seeds. In the early 20th century, King City claimed to produce more of the seeds than the entire state of Kentucky, and billed itself as “the bluegrass capital of the world.”
These days, the town boasts 1,013 locals, according to the 2010 census.
“It was 986 when I left,” says Combs, who graduated from a high school of 15 students. “I’ll never forget something from our senior trip. Half the people, including the staff, had never been on an airplane.”
Combs wasn’t one of them. Her father served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and owned a plane. Her mother owned a travel agency. So the family traveled. They saw places, and the more places they saw, the more the wanderlust grew in Combs.
“My dad always told me I was too fast for Missouri,” she says. “I tried to come back once. I took a job in Kansas City for six months and I was miserable, absolutely miserable, and my parents told me then and still tell me today, ‘We’d much rather have you far away and happy than close and miserable.’”
But much of that small town life clings to her, remains a part of her DNA, no matter how much she identifies now with the big city life.
“One of my brothers was diagnosed with cancer when we were kids. I remember somebody came over and fixed my hair for picture day because my parents and brother had moved to Memphis for his treatment. That small town community really helped raise us.”
Starting at zero
Combs has often found a helping hand in her personal and business life. After Paychex, she landed at New York City-based insurance brokerage and risk advisory firm, DeWitt Stern, now known as Risk Strategies Co. She spent a little over a year there, learning the business, and being mentored.
“There was this general agent there who really took me under his wing,” says Combs. “He had this great, big Brooklyn personality and one day he just told me, ‘Susan, I’m going to teach you this stuff.’”
Once she had learned enough of “this stuff,” he told Combs she should start her own business. “He gave me the confidence that I could make it work. Without his support, I don’t I think would have tried to start my own business. I mean, I was 26.”
In 2005, she founded Combs & Company, a full-service insurance brokerage firm that focuses on providing employee benefits, life, disability and property and casualty insurance to small- and mid-sized businesses. Today, the firm counts a team of seven and specializes in working with companies that fall into three key niches: entertainment, food, and international companies looking to begin operations in the U.S. market.
According to Combs, the company has a knack for solving “weird and unusual coverage requests and has become a go-to resource for business insurance, especially those businesses that don’t fit an insurance carrier’s typical profile.” A sampling of the client list finds companies that share Combs’ love for the eclectic and innovative.
Hot Bread Kitchen is a bakery with a social conscience and an eye on business incubation programs. Another client, +Pool, is billed as the first water-filtering, floating pool in New York, and its mission is to have clean water in the rivers surrounding Manhattan so the inhabitants can one day swim there. Ultimaker is a Dutch company that develops open source 3D printers and tools — a YouTube video shows Ultimaker using 3D printing technology to create the missing bones of an excavated Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
Combs is also a partner at The Capacity Group, an EPIC Company. The company has over 1,100 employees and Combs is a P&C producer there, working with a team of six.
“At Capacity, we have a claims manager, attorneys and people that handle marketing and administrative work. I’m the selling face for all the P&C items.”
But, wait, there’s more — a third gig Combs picked up almost two years ago.
“I do expert witnessing on the Affordable Care Act. I travel throughout the country on medical malpractice claims, consulting for reinsurance companies and law firms,” she says. “I fly to Los Angeles on Sunday for a deposition in California and then I have another deposition back in New York next week.”
This new revenue stream came about after she earned her PPACA (Certified Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Professional) certification. “There’s only seven of us in the New York City metro area with that designation.”
Combs says her revenue these days comes from three sources. Around 45 percent comes from employee benefits and individual insurance; 30 percent comes from P&C; and the remaining 25 percent is from expert witnessing. That side of the business has taken off. Just two years ago, consulting accounted for only 11 percent of company revenue.
As you might imagine, the different entities could become overwhelming, so Combs relies on her team to guide her through a given day. But even then, you might wonder, how does she does it all?
“First of all, I’m fiercely organized. Second, I live and die by my calendar. Third, I’ve learned how to delegate. I hired this amazing team; now I have to let them do their jobs so I can do mine.”
“I’ve always taken the consultative approach when working with clients; I also focus heavily on education.”
Many of Combs’ clients are international companies, so the laws and regulations are different, and could easily be lost in translation if she doesn’t carefully walk them through each piece of the benefits and insurance puzzle. By nature, though, she sees inherent red flags in all of her clients’ businesses.
“When I’m working with a client, I can’t help but see risk,” she says. “My husband calls me a dream-dasher because I’m so candid about what can happen in a given scenario.”
To open up communication with clients, Combs has an interesting line she delivers to prospective clients or even existing clients. “Act like you met me in a bar and I ask you what you do for a living. Consider that I have no knowledge of your industry. So tell me, in layman’s terms, exactly what your company does.”
Once Combs has a deeper understanding of a business, she can then paint a picture to the carrier. “I think once you’ve been in this business for a while, you can’t help but see the potential pitfalls in a business.”
With the types of clients she works with, Combs comes across plenty of big dreamers. She wants to dream with them and help them on that journey, but sometimes she has to stop them and say, this is what we’re looking at and this is what you need to be concerned about.
“I don’t want to dash anyone’s dreams, but I know the underwriter is going to look at the situation much more critically than I do, so I want to have those very honest conversations with the client so we can help them succeed.”
Women are another group Combs wants to see succeed, both in business and in the brokerage world. Combs is the past national president of Women in Insurance & Financial Services (WIFS), the only national organization exclusively devoted to the success of women in the insurance and financial services fields. She continues to speak at functions around the country, championing gender balancing initiatives, and mentoring women who aspire to greater business success.
In insurance and financial services, the latest industry numbers suggest women make up only 14 percent of the brokerage community. While that number has held steady for more than a decade, Combs sees women on the verge of a breakthrough.
“Right now, you have so many carriers who are asking the question, ‘How do I figure out the millennials?’ To me, if a work environment is millennial-friendly, then it’s typically women-friendly.”
She points to “flexible work schedules and working towards their passions” as traits shared by millennials and women. She also believes the compensation strategy will need to change to get more women in the industry.
“The eat-what-you-kill mentality can be scary for many women.” She says women might always not race out of the gate, but that’s because they’re wired differently. They want to learn a business and begin building something meaningful, but maybe at a slower pace than what a company allows. Combs says there’s a possible solution. “If there could be a shift in compensation, almost like a training salary, then it would be a lot more helpful to getting women to consider this industry.”
While the issues facing women in the workforce continue to evolve, Combs plans to keep on networking, teaching, inspiring, mentoring and learning.
“I was at an event recently. The speakers were female executives from AOL and Verizon, and one of them said, ‘Stop saying yes to everything, because you’re only going to be remembered for a couple of things.’ And that really resonated with me because it’s so true. It made me remember you have to focus on what you’re good at. Focus on your strengths.”