Why Women Are Successful Leaders: Meet Michelle Rupp

RuppMichelle Rupp

President
NRG Insurance
Seattle

Why insurance?

This was a family agency. It still is because my 81-year-old mom works here. I worked for Safeco in surety between high school and college. That’s when I said, “OK, surety sounds pretty cool.” So I went to college and got my degree so that I could do surety.

Then I came back to Seattle, and the economy was terrible. My dad said, “I’d like you to write a personnel manual.” He had this big pile—literally a box full of clippings. It was kind of his philosophy of doing business. And then he also had these volumes called Insurance Agency Management. I remember going through and it was like getting a master’s degree in insurance. I went through those four or five volumes, went through the piles of clippings, and came up with a personnel manual. And then I started in commercial insurance and went from there.

I was working as a CSR and I said, “I’m bored. What can I do?” My dad said, “You’re a girl, so you’ll never be able to be a commercial producer and you’re too young to manage.” I said, “Well, the private college you sent me to was pretty expensive, so I’m out of here.” Then I went back to school and got my degree in interior design and moved to New York. I was working as a designer when my dad died. And then I came back and took over the agency. Those were some tumultuous times. Been here ever since.

Mentor?

My dad, because he had an amazing value system in terms of how you treat clients and how you live in this world: Use a high level of integrity even when it hurts. I think “integrity” is easy to say, but it’s hard execute when it could be painful.

My dad showed me how to staple an ACORD form so it opened like a book, so an underwriter could easily read it. He was an underwriter first, and he moved here, bought this agency. He was a teacher, so he taught me how to not use jargon. He loved his business so much. It really infected me.

What's your leadership strategy?

I’m a collaborative leader. I do a lot of listening. I try to bring out the best in people and revel in people’s success. My agency is very team-oriented. It’s taken me a long time to build this team. Being a woman leader—it’s tougher. I didn’t think it was, but I’m coming to terms with that.

For example, all the past presidents at the Big “I” in the state of Washington have been a few women and hundreds of men, and they’re all in their 50s and 60s wearing golf shirts. This has been a really interesting journey as a woman in this industry. By thinking differently—partly because of my arts background and partly being a woman—it’s important to me that my business is a sustainable place. We changed the way we show up in the workplace because there were a lot of women here who were having babies. We have a flexible workplace and we’ve gotten a lot of awards for that because that’s what’s called for when you have a family. I’m more aware of those issues than a guy of my age. It’s important to me that we have staff with longevity and we flex to their needs.

You have to evolve as you go, not just be in the moment, because moments change. I’m a little ahead of my time, so with millennials, I get it. And they get me. How does work fit into my life? With technology, you’re kind of 24/7 with your job, so how do you strike that balance? Sometimes you have to pay more attention to your personal life, sometimes there are weeks where it’s just work. It’s about paying attention and self-care. We worked on self-care years ago, before it was a coined term. It’s supposed to be fun. I’m all about the fun. I love fun. It’s not worth it if it’s not fun.

Toughest challenges?

After my dad died, things got dicey because we had some guys offer to buy the business at a super reduced rate—ridiculous. They just started to take all the business. I called one of my dad’s friends who was one of his mentors and told him I needed his help. You know what he said to me? “Don’t you have a brother?” That’s the kind of stuff that happened.

People would come into town and they’d say, “That’s a woman’s agency now.” Last year, I had a really nice meeting with one of the senior marketing reps and they said, “Let’s face it—it’s definitely an old boys club.” It’s my perspective from a small agency. It’s going to be different if you’re a woman in an insurance company. As an agency owner, it’s been really tough because occasionally you’ll have some affinity, but most women are low level. They’re not in upper management.

On the flipside, part of the reason I’ve had amazing experiences is because the Big “I” gets it to a degree. I was on the Trusted Choice® Board because of my unique perspective. I’ve been very underground about who I am because it felt like that was what I needed to do. I’ve got to quit pretending that I’m this Republican. It’s not who I am. I have not been this fervent feminist because I didn’t think it was going to serve me. I always wanted to be a bridge. I grew up in this family where we were always so respectful of clients: Never have a bumper sticker because you don’t want clients to be uncomfortable. You don’t want to push your agenda on people who pay your salary.

I get that, but at this point I’ve never even mentioned women in marketing. We’re women working for an agency that doesn’t have a woman face. This is silly. This feels very important to not only women, but all kinds of marginalized communities. I’m talented and I can’t shut up anymore. I love the insurance business, but it doesn’t float my boat to just sell more and more insurance. That’s not how I drive. It’s more about making a difference in people’s lives.

Goals?

People are so confused about insurance. How do we make insurance more accessible to people? Not only in commercial insurance but in personal insurance. We have done a bad job. I still have this image of doing so much more education around this. Educating people about what it means and making people covered in times of need is an eternal quest for me.

I’m going to be in insurance until I’m not. It’s always continually motivating to change and grow and see what evolves. I used to have a hard time seeing the agency separate from me. I overworked and I didn’t find any separation between my identity and the agency’s. Now I have achieved that place where this is our agency, and everyone works as if it’s their own. That gives me more freedom to pursue what I want to do.

I’m involved with International Women’s Day. We’re getting revved up for some concerts across the country. We went to D.C. for the Women’s March, and I think I handed out a 12-page itinerary.

There’s been such a separation between the nonprofit world and the for-profit world. So we’re having a big nonprofit fair and we’re bringing in for-profit booths. Women need to vote with their dollars. We need to educate women about buying from women, or if not women, marginalized communities. Understand what the value system is and what you’re buying. We decided we’d do this theme: How do you spend your money? Your time? How do you spend your heart? We’re all in this together.

Another one of my things is buying local. I think there’s going to be a lot of return from this. People should buy from us. Women should buy from us. We want to give back, and this is how it goes. This is how we support one another.

This article is the second in a series that profiles women leaders who are thriving in the independent insurance industry. Keep an eye on IAmagazine.com and upcoming editions of the News & Views e-newsletter for more.

Jordan Reabold is IA assistant editor.