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First lady of Wall Street. (Agent Issues: Industry Strategies).

Ernesta Procope took a small insurance agency in Brooklyn, N.Y., and made it into a full-service broker she believes is the largest minority-owned and woman-owned brokerage in the country. She did it by never giving up.

In the nearly 50 years that Ernesta G. Procope has owned and operated E. G. Bowman Co. Inc., she has steered the brokerage past hard markets, business crises, political crosswinds and racial roadblocks.

The long journey has brought her company from a small personal lines agency in a largely black section of Brooklyn, N.Y, to a full-service commercial lines broker on Wall Street, which serves clients from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and small businesses. Bowman's research and comparisons indicate it is the largest minority-owned brokerage and the largest woman-owned brokerage in the country.

The journey is still unfolding. Pro-cope, who could have retired years ago, is facing one of her biggest challenges yet--choosing the right team to perpetuate the business she loves and keep its momentum going.

Through all of this, no matter what has come her way, this 5-foot-3-inch dynamo has always persevered. "I don't give up," she said simply. It's a quality inherited from her mother who came to the United States from St. Lucia, West Indies. "She had her eye on the sparrow and never took it off," Procope said.

Her mother and her father, who hailed from Barbados, expected their daughter to choose a career in music--after all, she was a prodigy in piano who made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 13 and graduated from New York City's famed High School of Music and Art.

But Procope went in an entirely different direction. After attending Brooklyn College, she married Albin Bowman, a Brooklyn real-estate developer, who urged her to learn the insurance business so that she could handle his properties. She attended Pohs Institute of Insurance, passed the state test to become a broker and lined up the insurance on Bowman's real-estate ventures.

"That's what we did--not that we gave up the real estate that we owned, because we owned quite a few properties--but we concentrated on personal lines in Brooklyn because of the good home ownership community that we had," Procope said. "That's where I learned the basic personal lines insurance."

In 1953, after Bowman's death, she decided to concentrate on the insurance business while continuing in real estate. She also married her second husband, John Procope. A former advertising executive and publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, he joined her firm in 1982, where he has served as chairman of the board and has provided marketing and management expertise.

Fighting Discrimination

In the early 1950s, the brokerage prospered in Bedford-Stuyvesant, mainly through insuring homes and small businesses. Then came the race riots that rocked major U.S. cities in the mid-1960s, prompting insurers to "red-line" certain areas, canceling policies or refusing to write new ones in many minority communities. Procope recalls receiving about 90 cancellation notices over a two-week period. She realized that banks would foreclose on thousands of homes unless their owners could secure fire insurance.

Faced with the loss of a large part of her insurance business, she seized the opportunity to buttonhole then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller during a friend's swearing-in ceremony at Rockefeller's office.

"I pulled him aside--the governor--and told him I was having a problem, a serious problem, and that I had heard of others who had this problem in other minority areas," she said.

Rockefeller "was very supportive," she said. "He had his secretary of state communicate with the state superintendent of insurance, and they held hearings in Albany, New York, Buffalo and Syracuse regarding this problem that I drew to their attention."

The hearings featured testimony from insurers, as well as Procope, other brokers in the Bed-Stuy area and local labor officials. "I had a lot of backup there--not only were the insurance brokers complaining, but so were the union members, the people who represented the police department, sanitation department, fire department," she said. "All those people were present, so it made an impression here in New York City."

Following the hearings, the state Legislature passed a bill in 1968 to create the New York State Fair Plan, which later was adopted by 26 other states. The plan guarantees the availability of homeowner insurance in low-income communities.

The riots and their aftermath helped convince Procope that the brokerage needed to branch Out beyond Bed-Stuy and go into commercial insurance, which promised greater returns. In the years that followed, Bowman acquired commercial accounts that included Fortune 500 companies--Pepsico was its first major commercial account and is still among its top clients--and U.S. government-funded agencies such as the United States Information Agency.

The Move to Wall Street

So in 1979, E.G.Bowman took a great leap across the East River, moving to quarters on Manhattan's Wall Street, making Bowman the first black-owned business there. The change was both symbolic and practical for the firm, John Procope said. "It was so different--here's a black company from Bedford-Stuyvesant coming to Wall Street-and that was significant," he said. "It opened doors for other blacks and made people think."

It also gave E.G. Bowman the opportunity to enter the mainstream of commercial insurance and offer out-of-town clients a more convenient place to visit when they came to New York. These insurance buyers didn't want to go to Bed-Stuy, but Wall Street was another matter. "Even when they were stopping first at AIG, Johnson Higgins, Marsh, we'd be able to say, 'Just come by, stop by and see us, see what we're all about.' That's one of the advantages about being here," he said.

The business at No. 97 Wall Street occupies the space that used to house a coffee exchange, and the interior has a dramatic mezzanine-level balcony extending around all four walls. In the boardroom, the walls are covered with awards, plaques and framed magazine covers from 11 publications, including Jet, Black Enterprise and Insurance Review, all of which have featured stories on Procope and her firm.

Over the years, Procope has also been honored by Grain's New York Business, Turner Broadcasting, the city of New York, CNBC, Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, the National Association of Insurance Women, New York, and other groups for her contributions as a businesswoman and community leader.

Joyce M. Roche, president and chief executive officer of Girls Inc., a national nonprofit youth organization, said Procope has been her mentor since the early 1980s, when Procope was serving on the board of Avon Products Inc. and Roche was a director of the company.

"Ernesta did great things as a member of the board," Roche said. "She requested to meet with African-American women in middle- to upper-management in the company. She wanted to know who we were, and she wanted to send a signal that there was high potential among these women of color As a member of the board, she tried to make sure that diversity in the company was a fact."

Even after Roche left Avon, she called Procope to ask her advice on career moves. "She knew how to manage in the tough world of corporate America" when there were few women, let alone black women, serving as top executives, Roche said. "At the same time, she was a real person. She had a wonderful demeanor, was very bright, engaging and approachable." Procope was someone she could look up to, a role model, someone who had been there, Roche said.

Building the Company

When it comes to hiring staff, Procope said she naturally looks for competence, but considers loyalty just as important as anything else. "I have found that through the years, loyalty has paid off for this company because our people enjoy long tenure here," she said.

Harry Ennevor, for example, has worked there 32 years. "I think the numbers speak for themselves," said Ennevor, the firm's executive vice president and chief operating officer. "I met her in 1969 and I've been here ever since."

He left Continental Casualty Co. to go to work for Procope--no small step, considering he was the first minority hire at the insurance company. "I have no regrets; I'd do it all over again," Ennevor said. "I've learned so much from her. But I'm not saying it's always been smooth. She's a tough taskmaster."

Procope, in turn, is loyal to her employees, Ennevor said. Anyone who complains about a Bowman staffer might as well be complaining about the boss, too. "You don't mess with her employees--she'll take after you," Ennevor said. "But once she's done that, she takes after us," he said, chuckling.

Ennevor, who lives in Freehold, N.J., drives into lower Manhattan weekdays, reaching the office by 7:30 a.m. Procope is always in ahead of him, working the phones. "She lives, sleeps and eats this business," he said. "She knows exactly what goes on every day."

When he joined the firm, he was the first male to break into what he calls "this bastion of femaleness" at Bowman. "Back then, if one of the ladies was sick, someone would take her grapefruit juice at Mrs. Procope's urging," Ennevor said. "And Mrs. Procope put a couch in the conference room so that if the girls got sick, they could go in there and rest."

He also recalls dark days for the business when Procope never drew a salary, but made sure her staff did. "Whatever she has today," Ennevor said, "she earned it."

Despite the significant inroads she has made as a woman, and as a minority, in the traditionally white, male-dominated brokerage business, Procope expected her firm to have grown far bigger by now. She is grateful for the business's success, but decades ago, she dreamed of greater things, including having a longer list of Fortune 500 clients and a robust business from black enterprises that, despite Bowman's many efforts, still favor white-owned brokerages as a matter of habit and cultural preference, she said.

She and John Procope blame much of this on the racism they still see in corporate America.

"It's hard for us to get a serious appointment with major risk managers," John Procope said. "What happens is that we've been around a long time, we know a lot of people and sometimes we can get to a CEO who wants to do business with everybody. He wants a good image, from a public relations point of view. Then he tells his risk manager to see us."

Snaring that appointment hasn't always led to a deal, however. The two recalled how, after a CEO intervened and Ernesta Procope finally got to see a risk manager, the risk manager flung her coat on a desk and never offered her a chair during the entire presentation. "That was his reaction: 'I'll show you who's boss in my department.' And we run into a lot of that," John said.

After years of these frustrations, Ernesta Procope is sometimes bitter. Racial discrimination is "an evil that will exist with us in the insurance industry, corporate America, private sector, public sector, until all people understand that in order to live peacefully in this world, all persons must be given an opportunity to exist," she said. "It is a disgrace that a company with a nearly 50-year record of existence, such as ours, has not been able to achieve its goals and objectives to further enter the economic mainstream of America."

Battling the State and City Hall

In addition to her many boardroom skirmishes, Procope has known political--and more public--battles. In 1982, the New York Investigations Department named Bowman in the mishandling of the city's Human Resources Administration insurance funds. The Procopes say the action was politically motivated, triggered by John Procope's newspaper editorial criticizing the Koch administration for its handling of discrimination in New York City.

By centralizing 1,600 city agencies under one insurance program, Bowman had saved the city million of dollars, the Procopes said. But as a result of the department's actions, Bowman lost most of the city business and had to lay off 16 employees. The business was given to Marsh, while Bowman retained a small amount of New York disability benefits coverage, the two said.

Ernesta Procope decided to fight. "I had to prove that we were innocent," she said. At her urging, the department chairman sent his deputy to spend more than two weeks poring over Bowman's papers. The city later admitted its error in an article in the New York Times.

Another publicized battle raged in February 1997, when a long-simmering dispute between faculty and administrators boiled over at New York's Adelphi University, The New York State Board of Regents ousted Procope, who was the chairman, and 17 other trustees on grounds that they had paid the university president too much, failed to keep track of his compensation and did not review his job performance.

Procope recently praised former Adelphi President Peter Diamandopoulos for "his devotion to his students, discipline, and unusual intellectual, cultural and educational skill." Because of that, she said, he was able to take the university from bankruptcy in 1989 to a $50 million surplus in 1995. "In an attempt to destroy the president and his accomplishments, a disgruntled faculty, plus several members of the State Board of Regents, sat in judgment of the outstanding members of the board of trustees and its president," Procope said. "We were impotent to defend ourselves from the start."

According to news reports, the Regents also raised questions about Mrs. Procope for profiting by doing business with the university. Diamandopoulos had designated E.G. Bowman as Adelphi's insurance consultant and broker, and most of its policies were issued by Chubb, a company on whose board Procope also served.

Procope said there was nothing untoward about the arrangement. At an open meeting of Adelphi trustees in 1989, then-Chairman James Byrne authorized her firm to review the university's coverages, after he realized that Adelphi had a severe problem with its insurance program.

Procope said her firm conducted the review and worked with Adelphi's management in presenting a property/casualty insurance proposal with a loss-prevention plan, which the university severely needed, Procope said. "E.G. Bowman was awarded the business," she added.

Yet again, Procope and her firm had weathered the storm.

A New Direction

These days, the company is focusing more on its promising loss-control division, which employs nine safety engineers. "We see that as an area where we can expand," she said.

This subsidiary, Bowman Specialty Services LLC, provides loss control, safety engineering and training services. Bowman Specialty also does all of the safety inspections for universities and colleges and other entities under the jurisdiction of the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. "Our goal is to expand by offering similar services in neighboring states," Procope said.

While this is developing, the Procopes, who have no children, have hired a consultant to help them determine who should take over the running of E.G. Bowman. Several key members of the firm are leading candidates. The perpetuation of the company is very much on her mind every day, Procope said.

"This is my baby," she said of the business, "I have to make sure it's well taken care of."

But even when a successor is designated, she has no plans to drop completely from the scene. "I'll be willing to work on a consulting basis," Procope said.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ernesta G. Procope

Birthplace: Brooklyn, N.Y

Title: Founder, chief executive officer and president

Company: E.G. Bowman Co. Inc., New York, a full-service commercial lines insurance broker and loss-control firm, licensed in all 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. Specialties include employment practices liability insurance, group travel accident and directors and officers. Serves Fortune 500 companies, financial institutions,. educational institutions and other nonprofits.

Achievements: Established the nation's largest minority-owned and woman-owned insurance brokerage, now 50 years old. Broker of record for the New York City Housing Authority and the U.S. portion of the Alaskan pipeline; won the bid to write the insurance for the Fullbright Scholars program through the U.S. Information Agency; appointed by President Ford as a special ambassador to The Gambia; fought to implement the New York State Fair Plan, which created an insurance pool to guarantee homeowners insurance in low-income communities. With her husband, John Procope, rehabilitated more than 500 brownstones in poor sections of Brooklyn, N.Y, and developed the Brinkerhoff Homes, a low-income community in Jamaica, N.Y.

Nickname: "The First Lady of Wall Street."
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Comment:First lady of Wall Street. (Agent Issues: Industry Strategies).
Author:Bowers, Barbara
Publication:Best's Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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