E.G. Bowman celebrates 50 years of success

E.G. Bowman celebrates 50 years of success

Pillsbury, Dennis H

Putting policyholders first helps build a loyal clientele

Fifty years ago, Ernesta G. Procope formed E.G. Bowman Company, Inc., in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, to provide insurance services to this underserved community. Operating out of a storefront, the agency initially provided auto and homeowners coverage to residents of this predominately African-American community.

Thanks to her energetic entrepreneurship, the agency grew and prospered, but by the middle of the 1960s that growth was being hampered by a limited marketing territory and by insurance company reluctance to write business in the area. In 1966, fearing riots, insurers cancelled 90 of the agency’s homeowners clients in one day. “This wasn’t a neighborhood at risk,” Ernesta comments. “These were well-built, owner-occupied brownstones.”

Ernesta’s response was typical for her. She didn’t give up. She fought for her clients. She went to the top and buttonholed New York Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller demanding a solution. Her efforts led to New York being the first state to enact FAIR (Fair Access to Insurance Requirements) Plan legislation. “As a result of our efforts, 26 states have adopted FAIR Plan legislation,” she adds. At the same time, Ernesta also hired limousines to bring insurance executives into the neighborhood to show them that the properties in Bedford-Stuyvesant were valuable and insurable. She succeeded in finding a company to write the risks.

Towards the end of the ’60s decade, the agency began to add commercial lines to its repertoire. “It was a natural progression for us,” John Procope, chairman, says. “We added loss control services in order to compete effectively for commercial business, bringing loss control and safety engineering experts into the agency. One of our first commercial accounts was the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a community development program started by Robert F. Kennedy.

“Unfortunately, we found that it was difficult for us to expand beyond our community. We started calling on large corporations but had a difficult time getting in the door. Our first break came when we landed some of the business for PepsiCo in the early ’70s,” John remembers. “We made a cold presentation to the risk manager and convinced him we could do the job. We started out with a small piece of their business and it grew from there. They’re still one of our clients today.”

Another major account followed when the agency was named the broker of record for the Northern Pipeline construction project. The project was an enormous undertaking. The Pipeline was a gas pipeline 42 inches in diameter and 800 miles long. It went through five states and connected to the Alaska Pipeline in Calgary, Canada.

By the time the ’70s were coming to a close, E.G. Bowman had succeeded in landing 25 Fortune 500 accounts and had grown to some 40 employees.

Despite these successes, there remained many closed doors. The Bedford-Stuyvesant address proved detrimental to the agency’s efforts to integrate into the mainstream. So, in 1979, the agency moved to one of the most famous streets in America and the capital of the financial world-Wall Street-and it’s still there today.

“Most of the steps we had to take to become involved in corporate America were expensive,” John adds. “In order to prove ourselves, we had to do things that were more expensive. Pioneers have always had to pay more. We figured that if we were really going to get involved, Wall Street would be a door opener, and that made it prudent from a marketing standpoint.” The agency became the first major African-American-owned business on Wall Street.

The move proved propitious as additional Fortune 500 companies entered the Bowman fold. Their impressive portfolio of clients includes IBM, Avon Products, Philip Morris Companies, Heinz, Pfizer, General Motors, and AOL/Time Warner. Prestigious local accounts also came on board, including Dime and Apple Savings Banks, Inner-City Broadcasting, Tiffany & Co., and Con Edison.

John adds that it was “our persistence that led to the capture of these accounts. We were willing to make cold calls and would occasionally get an appointment. We were able to impress them with our services once we got in the door.” He says that the large number of contacts the agency accrued over time also began to help with getting appointments. “Our address on Wall Street also allowed us to invite people in to see us when they were seeing AIG, Johnson & Higgins or other insurance entities in the area.”

Meanwhile, E.G. Bowman never deserted the loyal customers who had been with the agency since its days in Brooklyn. “We have continued to insure and service the people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community,” Ernesta points out.

From music to insurance

Like others who found themselves in this business serendipitously, including this writer who was a music major at Oberlin College, Ernesta initially was not looking at an insurance career. She was an exceptional student and a piano prodigy, leading to her appearance in Carnegie Hall at the age of 13. Her plans were to become a concert pianist after finishing school, but those plans changed when she married Albin Bowman, a successful real estate developer. Albin suggested that Ernesta study insurance so she could insure his numerous properties. She attended the Pohs Institute of Insurance and received her broker’s license. When Albin died in 1952, she restructured the insurance business to offer personal lines coverages and life insurance and began marketing to the local community. The next year, she founded E.G. Bowman. She also married John Procope, publisher of The New York Amsterdam News. John left that position in 1982 to devote his energies to E.G. Bowman on a full-time basis.

Today, E.G. Bowman continues to grow and prosper by remaining ahead of the curve. Its adherence to strong loss control and safety engineering long before it was “popular” has helped it maintain the impressive list of clients and has resulted in significant premium savings for those clients. “Our goal has always been to do what is best for the client,” John says. “In some instances, that has cost us money over the short-term, but has resulted in client loyalty and long-term relationships that easily make up for the initial shortfall.”

He continues, “We’re not selling a tangible commodity; we’re selling service.”

Again responding to client needs, E.G. Bowman incorporated its well-regarded loss control and safety engineering division, Bowman Specialty Services, LLC, in 2000. The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York had asked for Bowman’s help in developing a loss control program for New York public universities.

The unit provides services that include:

* Loss prevention surveys

* Accident/injury loss analysis

* Hazard communication chemical safety programs

* “Lockout/Tagout” control of hazardous energy sources

* Ergonomics awareness training

* Back-injury-prevention awareness training, and

* Fleet vehicle safety programs.

This year, Bowman Specialty Services introduced a new Crisis Management Program that shows organizations how to create a detailed response plan for all types of crises, including fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, medical emergencies, chemical spills and terrorist attacks. The service covers:

* Emergency evacuation

* Creating the crisis management team

* Defining the organization’s needs

* Assessing vulnerabilities

* Developing general and event-specific plans, and

* Writing, coordinating and testing the plan.

Harry Nolan, Ph.D., a loss control consultant with Bowman Specialty Services, points out that, “September 11 showed that you must have a solid crisis-management plan and be able to evacuate an entire building quickly.”

“Our expertise in safety and loss control has been part of what sets us apart from the competition,” Ernesta points out. “Our staff includes eight full-time safety engineers.”

Involvement

The agency’s success at entering mainstream corporate America resulted in Ernesta being named to many corporate boards, including The Chubb Corporation, Avon Products, Columbia Gas System, and Cornell University. She also chaired Adelphi University’s board. Nonprofit boards on which she has served include South Street Seaport Museum, New York Zoological Society, Queens College Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Governor Mario Cuomo’s Business Advisory Council, New York Urban League, and New York World’s Fair Corporation 1964-1965.

She has received numerous awards recognizing her contributions to the community and her entrepreneurial spirit, including presentation of the “Woman of the Year” award in 1972, which was presented to her at the White House by First Lady Patricia Nixon.

The people make the difference

Ernesta credits the 40 professionals who make up the staff at this rainbow office for the agency’s success. This diverse collection of insurance, risk management, loss control and safety engineering experts boasts several centuries of experience in the insurance industry and related fields, including a retired New York City Fire Chief who recently joined the firm.

“Our reputation as a quality organization that provides strong risk management services has helped us attract the best of the best,” John says. “We’re also proud of the fact that we have consistently hired for talent and have people from nearly every ethnicity on staff. In fact, we African-Americans are in the minority now.”

E.G. Bowman has broken significant ground and has been a leader in the fight for equality in the business world. Ernesta’s persistence has provided hope to both African-Americans and women that it is possible to succeed and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “Unfortunately,” she admits, “there remain vestiges of racism and sexism that continue to make our job more difficult than it should be. But significant progress has been made over the last 50 years.”

“Our hope for the next 50 years is that the doors of opportunity will be opened for all,” John concludes. “We look forward to an America where people are only judged by their abilities and talents and willingness to work.”

E.G. Bowman has been an inspiration to many and is greatly deserving of recognition as our Marketing Agency of the Month. We salute them and join them in calling for a new era of equal opportunity.

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Oct 2003

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