Founders reflect on changes in insurance industry education
The schedules of working full-time and being a mom don’t always concur, but Patty Gibson Carlson and Laurie Zangwill-Infantino have proven otherwise with their brainchild — Insurance Skills Center — which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
ISC has grown into one of the most recognized insurance education organizations in the country, serving more than 5,000 insurance professionals through hundreds of one-day public training seminars and in-house programs; agribusiness and contractors and builders conferences; and Agribusiness and Farm Insurance Specialist (AFIS) and Certified Insurance Specialist in Construction (CISC) designations.
Given that success, you’d never guess that the center began out of the two women’s homes, with just one student.
“Patty and I both retired from the insurance industry because each of us was pregnant and had our children within 10 days of each other,” Zangwill-Infantino recalls. “Prior to retiring, I was vice president of General Insurance Consultants and my prior boss, Lou Alcalay, asked if I could train some of his new people while I was at home taking care of my newborn. I said I would, but I had a friend (Carlson) who also had a baby, and maybe he could send the student to my house for a week, and her house for a week.”
The instruction covered both personal and commercial lines. Earlier in their careers, Carlson had specialized in liability, while Zangwill-Infantino specialized in property coverages. She said Alcalay was so pleased with the results, that from that, he began sending a couple more people to Carlson’s and Zangwill-Infantino’s homes. And as the group of students outgrew the women’s living rooms, they moved the “classroom” to a church in Pasadena, Calif.
“We had a couple of people in there,” Zangwill-Infantino said, and then as their business grew, they moved to legitimate office space, with an office in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and then in Studio City, Calif.
The pair gained notoriety shortly thereafter, when Insurance Journal wrote a story about their training, which started the organization’s growth spurt. Then, the Professional Insurance Agents approached them to do some teaching, which also helped to add students’ names to their rosters.
In the 1990s, states nationwide began implementing a continuing education requirement, which further increased the number of students seeking insurance training, boosting Insurance Skills Centers’ business.
“Certainly, the CE requirement changed the environment a lot because people were then forced to go to classes,” Zangwill-Infantino says. “The requirement helped us grow in a different direction. Back then prior to CE, we were able to have students for two weeks and people really did it because they really wanted to learn. Now, people tend to go for the minimum CE. From that standpoint the requirement kind of hurt us, but on the other hand, it gave us exposure that we had never had.”
In 1998, the business became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Insurance Brokers and Agents of the West (IBA West), which expanded the business’ marketing capabilities.
“Before IBA West, it was just the two of us,” Zangwill-Infantino says. “People referred to us as ‘the girls,’ so IBA West gave us more of a marketing clout and more staff.
Today, the business is thriving, with 11 staff members operating out of three offices — in Huntington Beach, Calif., Woodland Hills, Calif., and San Francisco. Carlson now handles all of the onsite and Web-based trainings. And Zangwill-Infantino is responsible for designing the conferences, designation programs and products, such as Insurance Examinator.
The enterprise is a far cry from what it used to be, when Carlson and Zangwill-Infantino were literally being kicked out of offices as they tried to sell their educational services.
“Back then, there certainly were not a lot of women executives at all,” Zangwill-Infantino explains. “We had a hard sell back then to say, ‘we can do your training,’ because I think most companies expected that it would have been done by a man. We were kicked out of many offices. Every year, we went to Marsh to propose we do their in-house training, and every single time we were escorted to the street.”
Fortunately the male market mindset has changed. As proof, Insurance Skills Center handles in-house training for Marsh in San Diego, Orange County, Calif., and Los Angeles.
The pair says humor is what got them through those difficult times, and also has been key to the popularity and success of their training programs. In fact, the first lesson they learned in building the Insurance Skills Center was to use a light-hearted style when teaching.
“That humor makes it interesting,” Zangwill-Infantino notes.
Another key to the success of Insurance Skills Center’s educational programs are relationships. There are many businesses that fulfill their training and educational requirements with self-study, the women explain. “While some self-study is good, it’s not the same learning experience. The need that we identified 30 years ago is the same need that exists today: basic, comprehensive education on insurance taught in an environment where people can ask questions,” Zangwill-Infantino says. “When it comes to training, there’s no substitute for having the comfort of being able to ask questions,”
Furthermore, as people build relationships in the classrooms, they build resource banks of friends they can turn to when a problem arises. Or, the relationships can lead to future employment.
Penny Conlin, Insurance Skills Center’s first employee who was an administrative assistant in the Sherman Oaks office, recalls Carlson, Zangwill-Infantino and Mark Wells, Insurance Journal’s chairman, running a side headhunter/placement business as well.
“When they knew of someone looking for a job, they would match them up,” Conlin says, who later moved on to become an underwriter herself. “They are very loving, caring people who want to make sure you didn’t feel like just a robot or employee in the cog.”
While the value of relationships in education hasn’t changed, the type and delivery method of teaching has, the women say. “So many people are in niche marketing, and education that is industry-specific seems to be the trend,” Zangwill-Infantino says. Furthermore, she noted that the method in which courses are taught has evolved.
“In the past five years, the major change in education has been in electronic delivery. It’s become a technology issue; there are just a lot of firms that want to go that route,” she says.
Yet Carlson and Zangwill-Infantino say they have been successful by trying to remain on the “cutting edge,” such as being the first to roll out new programs, products or in using technology. “Patty and I continue to be challenged by all the new ways that we can deliver education,” Zangwill-Infantino says.
Despite the technological changes, looking back on the past 30 years, insurance education has not changed dramatically, the women say.
“In some ways I think that nothing has changed, in that I still think for young people entering the insurance industry, it’s really difficult to get any sort of training,” Zangwill-Infantino says. “We may be training people’s sons — we trained their fathers originally and now we’re training their sons and daughters. And I certainly think we have a good perpetuation plan, because we have a good team of people. But Patty and I are not ready to give up all of it yet.”
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