Susan L. Combs says it's important for people to play to theirstrengths.

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Related: 10 tips for standing out in the benefitsindustry

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Combs, the 2017 BenefitsPRO Broker of the Year, came to thatrealization at her first real job out of college. New to New York,she had found work at Paychex, Inc., where she sold payroll and HRservices.

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“Large sales organizations love stats,” says Combs. “They lookedat my numbers and told me I was good at networking. I was good atconnecting with people.”

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What she wasn't good at, or at least didn't enjoy, was the“salesy” side of the business.

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“Instead of going out and pounding on doors or doingtelemarketing — two things I absolutely despise — I spent timetaking CPAs to lunch and kind of schmoozing,” says Combs, who was ahospitality major at the University of Missouri.

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This more indirect line of sales matched her personality better,and was paying off as well. Her stats from Paychex showed that 44percent of her business came from CPAs.

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When she realized where much of her business originated, Combsdecided to double down and play to her strengths. New York is anetworking kind of town, after all, and Combs joined groups tofurther grow those connector skills. She met people at lunch, forcoffee, at meetings — wherever and whenever they could meet.

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Related: 10 tips to improve your customerservice

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Sixteen years later, her network continues to grow. So does thebelief in what works. The night before this interview, Combsattended two events, making new connections and strengthening theones already in place.

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That's the thing about these connections — their lastingstrength. Combs makes an important point about her network: Thoselunch buddy CPAs, the ones that gave her those first referrals,continue to give her referrals to this day.

King City

 

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Before the bright lights of New York and the lightbulb momentabout networking, Combs grew up in King City, Missouri, a farmcommunity once renowned for its production of Kentucky bluegrassseeds. In the early 20th century, King City claimed to produce moreof the seeds than the entire state of Kentucky, and billed itselfas “the bluegrass capital of the world.”

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These days, the town boasts 1,013 locals, according to the 2010census.

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“It was 986 when I left,” says Combs, who graduated from a highschool of 15 students. “I'll never forget something from our seniortrip. Half the people, including the staff, had never been on anairplane.”

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Combs wasn't one of them. Her father served as a helicopterpilot in Vietnam, and owned a plane. Her mother owned a travelagency. So the family traveled. They saw places, and the moreplaces they saw, the more the wanderlust grew in Combs.

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“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 sixmonths and I was miserable, absolutely miserable, and my parentstold me then and still tell me today, 'We'd much rather have youfar away and happy than close and miserable.'”

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But much of that small town life clings to her, remains a partof her DNA, no matter how much she identifies now with the big citylife.

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“One of my brothers was diagnosed with cancer when we were kids.I remember somebody came over and fixed my hair for picture daybecause my parents and brother had moved to Memphis for histreatment. That small town community really helped raise us.”

Starting at zero

 

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Combs has often found a helping hand in her personal andbusiness life. After Paychex, she landed at New York City-basedinsurance brokerage and risk advisory firm, DeWitt Stern, now knownas Risk Strategies Co. She spent a little over a year there,learning the business, and being mentored.

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“There was this general agent there who really took me under hiswing,” says Combs. “He had this great, big Brooklyn personality andone day he just told me, 'Susan, I'm going to teach you thisstuff.'”

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Once she had learned enough of “this stuff,” he told Combs sheshould start her own business. “He gave me the confidence that Icould make it work. Without his support, I don't I think would havetried to start my own business. I mean, I was 26.”

The entrepreneur

 

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In 2005, she founded Combs & Company, a full-serviceinsurance brokerage firm that focuses on providing employeebenefits, life, disability and property and casualty insurance tosmall- and mid-sized businesses. Today, the firm counts a team ofseven and specializes in working with companies that fall intothree key niches: entertainment, food, and international companieslooking to begin operations in the U.S. market.

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According to Combs, the company has a knack for solving “weirdand unusual coverage requests and has become a go-to resource forbusiness insurance, especially those businesses that don't fit aninsurance carrier's typical profile.” A sampling of the client listfinds companies that share Combs' love for the eclectic andinnovative.

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Hot Bread Kitchen is a bakery with a social conscience and aneye on business incubation programs. Another client, +Pool, isbilled as the first water-filtering, floating pool in New York, andits mission is to have clean water in the rivers surroundingManhattan so the inhabitants can one day swim there. Ultimaker is aDutch company that develops open source 3D printers and tools — aYouTube video shows Ultimaker using 3D printing technology tocreate the missing bones of an excavated Tyrannosaurus rexskeleton.

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Combs is also a partner at The Capacity Group, an EPIC Company.The company has over 1,100 employees and Combs is a P&Cproducer there, working with a team of six.

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“At Capacity, we have a claims manager, attorneys and peoplethat handle marketing and administrative work. I'm the selling facefor all the P&C items.”

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But, wait, there's more — a third gig Combs picked up almost twoyears ago. 

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“I do expert witnessing on the Affordable Care Act. I travelthroughout the country on medical malpractice claims, consultingfor reinsurance companies and law firms,” she says. “I fly to LosAngeles on Sunday for a deposition in California and then I haveanother deposition back in New York next week.”

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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 metroarea with that designation.”

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Combs says her revenue these days comes from three sources.Around 45 percent comes from employee benefits and individualinsurance; 30 percent comes from P&C; and the remaining 25percent is from expert witnessing. That side of the business hastaken off. Just two years ago, consulting accounted for only 11percent of company revenue.

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As you might imagine, the different entities could becomeoverwhelming, so Combs relies on her team to guide her through agiven day. But even then, you might wonder, how does she does itall?

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“First of all, I'm fiercely organized. Second, I live and die bymy calendar. Third, I've learned how to delegate. I hired thisamazing team; now I have to let them do their jobs so I can domine.”

The producer

 

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“I've always taken the consultative approach when working withclients; I also focus heavily on education.”

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Many of Combs' clients are international companies, so the lawsand regulations are different, and could easily be lost intranslation if she doesn't carefully walk them through each pieceof the benefits and insurance puzzle. By nature, though, she seesinherent red flags in all of her clients' businesses.

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“When I'm working with a client, I can't help but see risk,” shesays. “My husband calls me a dream-dasher because I'm so candidabout what can happen in a given scenario.”

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To open up communication with clients, Combs has an interestingline 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 aliving. Consider that I have no knowledge of your industry. So tellme, in layman's terms, exactly what your company does.”

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Once Combs has a deeper understanding of a business, she canthen paint a picture to the carrier. “I think once you've been inthis business for a while, you can't help but see the potentialpitfalls in a business.”

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With the types of clients she works with, Combs comes acrossplenty of big dreamers. She wants to dream with them and help themon that journey, but sometimes she has to stop them and say, thisis what we're looking at and this is what you need to be concernedabout.

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“I don't want to dash anyone's dreams, but I know theunderwriter is going to look at the situation much more criticallythan I do, so I want to have those very honest conversations withthe client so we can help them succeed.”

The advocate

 

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Women are another group Combs wants to see succeed, both inbusiness and in the brokerage world. Combs is the past nationalpresident of Women in Insurance & Financial Services (WIFS),the only national organization exclusively devoted to the successof women in the insurance and financial services fields. Shecontinues to speak at functions around the country, championinggender balancing initiatives, and mentoring women who aspire togreater business success.

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Related: Forward-thinking advisors focus onwomen

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In insurance and financial services, the latest industry numberssuggest women make up only 14 percent of the brokerage community.While that number has held steady for more than a decade, Combssees women on the verge of a breakthrough.

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“Right now, you have so many carriers who are asking thequestion, 'How do I figure out the millennials?' To me, if a workenvironment is millennial-friendly, then it's typicallywomen-friendly.”

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She points to “flexible work schedules and working towards theirpassions” as traits shared by millennials and women. She alsobelieves the compensation strategy will need to change to get morewomen in the industry.

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“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'sbecause they're wired differently. They want to learn a businessand begin building something meaningful, but maybe at a slower pacethan what a company allows. Combs says there's a possible solution.“If there could be a shift in compensation, almost like a trainingsalary, then it would be a lot more helpful to getting women toconsider this industry.”

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While the issues facing women in the workforce continue toevolve, Combs plans to keep on networking, teaching, inspiring,mentoring and learning.

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“I was at an event recently. The speakers were female executivesfrom AOL and Verizon, and one of them said, 'Stop saying yes toeverything, because you're only going to be remembered for a coupleof 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. Focuson your strengths.”

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