Susan L. Combs founded Combs & Company at the age of 26 and has since established the brokerage as an expert in unique risks.
IBA: How does Combs & Company stand out from other brokerages, particularly in your focus on unique risks?
Susan L. Combs: I started my brokerage when I was 26, so I didn't know what I didn't know, but I knew how to service clients, and I always treated the client's business how I would’ve treated my own.
Every single time we look at a risk, we think about what would help us sleep at night. We're very much bottom-line people and strategists, so when people call us and say, “I have a clown to insure,” we don't say, “I don't know what we should do.” We take a step back and say, “Let's look at this risk and what's going to be the best thing for the client” and talk through their fears.
We get a lot of brokers who call us from all across the country, any time they're throwing their hands up because they don't know how to handle a risk, so we have a very good reputation.
IBA: What challenges did you encounter in starting your own brokerage?
SC: To be honest, I lied about my age until I hit 30. I started getting gray hair at 14, so that worked to my advantage. I think the biggest hurdle for me when I started was when I was sitting across from clients as a [young] female. I had to build some credibility, find mentors and do some networking, and I also had a mentor who believed in me and my knowledge and pushed me to take a chance on myself.
One of the things that I didn't prepare for was that I started the brokerage from my home, and I didn't anticipate the loneliness factor. I had worked in big sales offices before, and I was used to the hustle and bustle. When it's just you looking at the wall and saying, ‘OK, I have to get this done today,’ but you don't have the camaraderie, that can be difficult.
IBA: What significant moments can you pinpoint that altered the direction of the brokerage and led to its success?
SC: We've always been innovative and open, and I think that is the biggest key when it comes to brokerages, because in our industry, everything has to fit in this little box … [but] if you're open to different opportunities, I think that's when you can really excel.
Also, around 12 years ago, I partnered with another brokerage called ARM that has since been acquired, and now we're part of the EPIC family, [one of the largest privately held insurance brokers in the US]. I was open to these opportunities because I said, “I can't do it all myself, and I need to partner with people who are going to service our clients as best as possible.”
The same thing happened with expert witnessing, which started in 2015. That was very much a pivotal moment in my career because somebody believed in me and said, “She's a strategist, she knows the Affordable Care Act, she's on her game, and she would be a good person to take a look at some of these legal cases.” That has shifted our brokerage firm yet again.
IBA: In 2014, you became the youngest national president in the 80-year history of Women in Insurance & Financial Services (WIFS). What did you gain from the experience?
SC: That was one of the best experiences of my life – the friendships and people I connected with through WIFS were pivotal in my career. One of the biggest benefits that I got out of my time at WIFS was the value of peer-to-peer mentors. Everybody knows about the standard mentor-mentee [approach], but Juli McNeely of NAIFA was one of my biggest peer-to-peer mentors. She and I used to have monthly calls, because she was the national president of NAIFA when I was national president of WIFS, and it enabled us to connect and bounce ideas off each other … and we still have that relationship today.
IBA: What do you see coming for the insurance industry and your brokerage in 2021?
SC: I think we're going see a new [insurance] product come out because of COVID, like we saw after 9/11. There was never terrorism coverage until 9/11, and then a new product came out, and it's been built into all the policies going forward.
I also think there will be interesting ways to do business and that we're going to see a lot of clients expand their workforce beyond just their backyard, because they've seen that their employees can work from home – and we're very open to these new opportunities.
About Combs & Company
Susan Combs founded Combs & Company under the mantra of “Do more, better.” Combs put her background in hospitality to good use, keeping service front and center in all client interactions. Today, the brokerage serves as a go-to resource for niche insurance coverages, focusing on the entertainment and food industries, as well as international companies looking to set up operations in the US.
Combs also holds a Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act designation and is a highly sought-after speaker on the Affordable Care Act, regularly advising law firms, reinsurers and organizations across the country.