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Ernesta Procope: an insurance pioneer: her agency emerged from a storefront to America's largest minority-owned brokerage.


In 1953 racial minorities had just taken their first few big steps toward equality. It had been only 6 years since Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in baseball, and 5 years since Harry Truman had desegregated the armed forces. But progress was halting. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision outlawing segregation in schools was still a year in the future. Few minority brokers could get standard contracts from carriers; they had to place their clients in the high-priced substandard market.

That didn't deter Ernesta G. Procope, who set up a storefront insurance agency called E.G. Bowman Co. in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that year. Her late husband, Albin Bowman, a successful real-estate broker, had convinced her to get her broker's license so she could learn the business and also insure his properties.


She saw opportunity where no one else did. Bedford-Stuyvesant was full of beautiful owner-occupied brownstones, but hardly anyone wanted insure them. Her firm would fill that void. In 1953, she also married a rising young advertising executive, John Procope.

If anyone had suggested back then that this startup agency would grow to become the nation's largest minority-and woman-owned insurance brokerage, serving some of America's biggest corporations and institutions, it would have seemed as outlandish as the idea that men would walk on the moon.

Ernesta Procope's story is one of a remarkable perseverance that mirrors the changes in American life and the insurance industry for minorities over the past 56 years. The secret of her success is as simple as it is hard to duplicate: "I don't give up," she said.

The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, she was the only female in her family, and having to stick up for herself among her brothers made her tougher, she said. Music was her first love, and she became a piano prodigy who debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 13. But that didn't guarantee her a living, so she went into business.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Procope sold insurance but focused her prodigious energies on real estate development, rehabilitating and selling about 500 brownstones in Brooklyn from 1955 through 1970. In March 1956, she was featured on the cover of Jet magazine, under the headline: "New York's lady builder--The first Negro woman to build homes in New York state."

When the real estate market fell victim to a cyclical recession, Procope redoubled her efforts to increase her insurance business. To convince insurance companies to insure her customers, she hired limousines and ferried insurance executives from Manhattan to Brooklyn to show that property in Bedford Stuyvesant was valuable and insurable. "They didn't know that Bedford-Stuyvesant had substantial, middle-class homeowners, blacks and whites, who needed and deserved coverage," she said. "They were shocked."

But insurance executives changed their minds again after the urban riots of the mid- and late 1960s. They pulled out of the urban neighborhoods en masse and began "redlining" minority neighborhoods. In a single day, E.G. Bowman Co. received 90 cancellation notices for property insurance. Procope realized that banks would foreclose on thousands of homeowners unless they could secure insurance. She personally took this issue to New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and convinced him to support legislation to make homeowners insurance available to all in the state. The successful bill created the pioneering New York state FAIR Plan, which became a model for similar plans nationwide.

The tumult of the late 1960s saw the beginning of affirmative action. Encouraged that she'd have a chance, Procope bid for the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a community development program started by Robert F. Kennedy--and won the account, the firm's first major commercial customer.

But when she decided to go after big businesses in the late '60s, even John Procope thought she was too audacious. It was unheard of for a small black-owned insurance brokerage to insure a giant like PepsiCo. But Procope didn't let that stop her, and the soda company became one of the firm's first big-business clients and remains one today. The firm was also named agency of record for the U.S. portion of the Alaska Pipeline and the Fulbright Scholars Program through the U.S. Information Agency.

None of the E.G. Bowman's successes have come easily. "It's been a constant battle to open doors and get a chance to show what we can do," she said. But once the firm won an account, it kept it by providing top-notch service and expertise.

In 1979, E.G. Bowman moved to its prsent location on Wall Street, becoming the first major black-owned business on the Street, and Procope became known as "The First Lady of Wall Street."

"Here was a black company from Bedford-Stuyvesant coming to Wall Street--that was significant. It showed that we had entered the mainstream of the American economy," she said. "And it opened doors for other blacks."

In the 1980s and '90s, Procope was named to many corporate and nonprofit boards, including The Chubb Corp., Avon Products, Columbia Gas System, New York Urban League and Cornell University. She chaired Adelphi University's board.

Procope has been featured in many national magazines and has received dozens of awards. In 1972 First Lady Patricia Nixon named her "Woman of the Year." She's been inducted into the African American Business Hall of Fame and received the Excellence Award from the New York Chapter of the CPCU Society and Lifetime Achievement Award from the National African American Insurance Assn.

E.G. Bowman today serves companies such as Kraft and Pfizer, major nonprofits, small businesses, government agencies, labor unions, educational institutions and families. Licensed in 50 states, the firm has more than 2,000 clients. Its loss-control and safety-engineering consulting division, Bowman Specialty Services LLP, was incorporated in 2000. Today E.G. Bowman has 25 employees, all in its Manhattan office.

Procope credits her colleagues for the firm's success. Harry Ennevor, the firm's president and CEO since 2003, has worked at her side since 1970. John Procope spearheaded marketing from 1982 until his death in 2005. James Tom, vice president and controller, has been with the firm since 1978.

Today, Procope, now chairman of the board, remains as determined to succeed as ever, and her company continues to offer new, innovative ways to better meet its clients' insurance and risk-management needs.

Minorities in the insurance industry

Many African Americans started their insurance careers as debit-life salesmen in minority communities in the early years of the 20th century. Minority property/casualty agents were basically limited to personal lines, and even in that arena they faced a big handicap because they usually had to work with nonstandard, high-risk markets that charged minorities high rates, regardless of their driving record or condition of their homes.

Things started changing rapidly in the mid-to-late 1960s. After the inner-city riots broke out, insurers pulled out of minority neighborhoods and stopped writing home insurance in the infamous practice known as redlining.

The civil rights movement and the demands by minorities to get their fair share of the America's wealth caused a sea change in the 1960s and 1970s. With the advent of affirmative action, doors began to open for minorities, who also began taking advantage of industry educational programs. America's first black CPCU, Shirley Clarke, worked at E.G. Bowman from 1969 to 1986.

Today, minority employment in the industry is huge. At agencies and brokerages, minorities accounted for 27 percent of all employees and 10 percent of all executives and senior managers in 2007, according to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC). At carriers, minorities made up 25 percent of the workforce and 10 percent of executives and senior managers, according to the EOC.

Several big insurers have won kudos for diversity. At Aflac, minorities represent 40 percent of its nearly 4,400 employees, with more than half in management. Black Enterprise, which rated the 40 best companies for diversity in 2008, named three insurance companies--Aetna, Aflac and State Farm--to that list. Aetna was cited for its Diverse Discoveries Program, which provides career training, mentoring and coaching. Aflac was commended for conducting employee satisfaction surveys after diversity events. State Farm has seen a 15 percent rise in participation in employee resource groups, set up to foster a diverse workforce.

In 2008, Hispanic Business rated the 60 best companies for Hispanic workers. Insurance companies on the list were Prudential Financial, Allstate and State Farm.

Various organizations promote minorities in the insurance industry. The Washington, D.C.-based National African-American Insurance Assn. is dedicated to empowering African-American insurance professionals currently in the industry and increasing their numbers nationwide. Established in 1998, the Latin American Agents Association serves agent who provide insurance services to the Hispanic community and other minorities.

While minorities have made real progress in the industry, the struggle for equality continues. Until minority members proportionately populate the ranks of senior executives and minority-owned brokers have the same access as other firms, there won't be true success.

By HENRY STIMPSON, contributing writer

Henry Stimpson, owner of Stimpson Communications, writes about insurance from Wayland, Mass.
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Title Annotation:80 Years of American Agent & Broker: Profile
Author:Stimpson, Henry
Publication:American Agent & Broker
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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