Editor’s Note: In 2017, WBENC is proudly celebrating our 20th Anniversary year by launching the Legacy of Leaders, a structure established for recognition of Corporate Members and WBEs who have served in a significant leadership role throughout the WBENC network. One of two groups under the Legacy of Leaders umbrella is the Women of Distinction. This exclusive group of WBENC-Certified Women’s Business Enterprises (WBEs) is comprised of 25 women leaders who have demonstrated a deep commitment to the organization and to breaking down barriers for women owned businesses in the corporate and government supply chains. The Women of Distinction program was established to create a strategic role for highly successful and dedicated WBEs as advisors to WBENC, supporting the growth and success of all WBEs. WBENC is honored to showcase the Women of Distinction as they celebrate 20 years of success.
Throughout the year we will be sharing personal stories from the Women of Distinction about their journeys with the WBENC network. Today, we have a guest post from Leslie Saunders from Leslie Saunders Insurance Agency, Inc. on her journey as a women-business owner and how certification has helped her grow her business.
My Business Journey and Lessons Learned
By Leslie Saunders
As one of the first companies certified by WBENC, I have been around a long time. I have devoted a lot of time and effort to building a strong network within the WBENC community. Because I am in professional services, specifically insurance, it is still a challenge to get an audience with Corporate Members. I quickly turned my efforts to helping the WBEs with their insurance needs and over the years have developed a clientele all over the U.S. with some very interesting WBE firms.
More than 30 years ago I successfully auditioned for Jeopardy. In college, we all gathered around the TV to watch Jeopardy at noon and shout answers at original host Art Fleming. It was a lifelong dream of mine to be a contestant. After defeating hundreds of contestants in the tryouts, I made it into the final ten. One small hitch, however. We had to tell our story of who we were and what we did for a living. Six out of the ten finalists would be flown to L.A. to appear on the show with Alex Trebek. The ten finalists told stories ranging from bizarre to unbelievable. And then it was my turn.
“I own an insurance agency that I started from nothing,” I proudly told Alex.
“Very nice,” said our handsome host, and I was quickly eliminated from the six finalists whose trips were fully paid to appear on the program. I could have had the option of paying my way and sitting in as an alternate. I declined and sadly relinquished my buzzer. The week my fellow finalists were on, I got every final Jeopardy question right -- from my living room. Lesson learned: have a story you can tell and make it interesting even if you need to embellish a bit!
Am I disappointed that I am never selected for Matchmakers? Yes, I am, but I realize there is still a lot of work to do to open the area of Professional and Financial Services to more of the certified firms. That is why I still attend everything and try to participate. Maybe that corporate opportunity is right around the corner. Julie Auslander, a great friend and client, once asked me why she still works like it is her first day on the job. We laugh, but the work ethic is ingrained. No does not mean never, it just means not now.
Before the creation of WBENC, the insurance industry was difficult for a woman to navigate. Finding a mentor was difficult. Starting an insurance agency from scratch was a daunting task. I left the corporate world at the same time as two of my male colleagues. They were immediately given contracts to place business for Property and Casualty. I was denied the same contract. It took years for me to get this contract. I had no network, so I decided to build one by becoming active in my professional association. It took a few years, but I became President of Independent Agents of Tampa Bay. I had a network.
When I started working with transportation insurance, specifically car rental, I knew no one. I had a small local client in Florida, and I provided his insurance. I think I made $25.00 a month on the first policy. The company was acquired by Dollar Rent a Car, owned by Chrysler. I was offered an opportunity to provide the insurance in a competitive bid. I won the bid and grew my business from there. Soon I was speaking nationally on “Understanding Women Customers” and “Safety Issues for Women Travelers.” I attracted the attention of the risk manager at Budget Rent a Car and was invited to become their broker. I changed their entire program and made them millions of dollars. I have had the contract continuously since 1994. The former CEO, William Plamondon, is still a mentor.
In 1996, I was introduced to Lynn Boccio, who was newly hired by Avis Car Rental as a Manager and subsequently promoted to a Vice President. Over time, I secured a small training contract with the company and later, I was able to renegotiate the agreement. In fact, the Wall Street Journal wrote about this partnership in an article titled, “The Lure and Danger of Big Company Jobs.” It is framed on my wall.
Lynn and I had a network because of the newly formed WBENC, and the CEO of Avis understood that supplier diversity was and is important to the company and its customers. Today, I’m proud to say that I have maintained -- and grown -- my business with Avis as they are now Avis Budget Group and include a portfolio of mobility brands, including Budget Car Rental, Payless Car Rental and Zipcar, to name a few. And Avis Budget Group is a Top Corporation for Women’s Business Enterprises, honored year after year by WBENC.
At one point, I had 110 certifications, mostly airports and Departments of Transportation. I hoped the WBENC certification would replace the need for all of them, but that was a naïve thought as they are different in their scope. At least now there are only 50 certifications for DOT that are required for my business and, of course, WBENC. My goal before I retire is to have my NAICS codes included in the WOSB.
I will keep working towards that goal, and to be included on the RFPs for all our Corporate Members’ insurance contracts.
It is a lofty goal, but WBEs can do anything!
President, Leslie Saunders Insurance, Inc.
Leslie Saunders has more than thirty years of experience developing innovative insurance products, employee benefits and training services for travel industry organizations, car rental companies and airport concessionaires.
She is a long-time member of the WBENC and serves on the national Women’s Enterprise Leadership Forum. Leslie also currently serves as a Presidential Appointee to the National Women’s Business Council, a bi-partisan Federal government council that serves as an independent source of advice and counsel to the President, Congress, and the U.S. Small Business Administration on economic issues of importance to women business owners.
Leslie earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University Douglass Campus. She earned a certificate from the Tuck/WBENC Executive Management Program. Leslie and her husband live in the Tampa area.
Leslie Saunders Insurance is the only woman-owned insurance agency licensed and certified in all fifty states and Puerto Rico by DOT as well as WBENC. The niche of this company is training and insurance for Fortune 500 companies in transportation, and woman-led companies for Employee Benefits.
Learn more at www.lesliesaunders.com