Starting out in the employee benefit business in 1965, Carl Dickerson remembers being among just a handful of black brokers in Los Angeles. From the very beginning of his career, however, he focused simply on being informed, honest, dependable and not afraid to ask whether he could be of service to a prospective customer, regardless of their skin color.
"When you do business with business people, they are really thinking about the bottom line," he says. "They don't care if you come from Mars." That's not to say he hasn't come across racism, politely admitting his share of encounters with people who did not wish him any goodwill in those days.
The founder and chairman of Dickerson Employee Benefits presides over a biracial boardroom in his family run business as well as a biracial home in a multicultural city where ethnic diversity is celebrated. His wife is a white Mennonite, and together, they wanted their children to have "an international experience" and be received as "citizens of the planet." He even joined the University of Southern California's International Students Foundation when his children were young.
One of the two sons-in-law who work for him, CEO Tony Lee, is black, while the other, President, COO and CFO Michael Wolff, is white. "I have been lucky in that my two daughters picked fine men to marry," says Dickerson, who has five grandchildren. "They both now run the business and have taken it to the next level."
With the family patriarch gradually ceding leadership roles to his sons-in-law, Wolff says the transition has proven to be a tremendous learning experience over the past eight years. "During that time, the industry and environment has changed dramatically so that the batons he has passed onto us must be handed off in a different direction at a different speed and on a different route in order for us to stay relevant," he observes.
Wolff describes the brokerage firm as "all about partnership and community integration. In that regard, the company will always reflect Carl's personality and the corporate culture he created over the past five decades."
Expressions of that culture include strong relationships with 1,800 independent agents from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, as well as active involvement with local nonprofits that are among Dickerson brokers' large group clients. In fact, company executives sit on nonprofit boards of directors - devoting tremendous time and money toward their respective missions.
Dickerson was once president of the Black Business Association, vice chairman of the Urban League and chairman of the Rebuild Los Angeles Community Lending Corporation after the L.A. riots in 1992. "I like to always be involved in some type of community activity every year," he says.
Through his work with the Urban League, Dickerson helps train young people from all walks of life in an urban setting to become part of society's mainstream, and more employable in the eyes of employers. "At one time, we had a training center partnership with Toyota, IBM and various companies," he recalls. "It is not only doing the community good, but it is a national necessity for us to compete globally. All Americans have to up their game so that we can compete internationally."
Working and living so close to numerous Hollywood movie and television studios, Dickerson also prides himself on being chairman of a nonprofit called Real Image Inc., the purpose of which is to portray minorities in motion pictures in a more positive light. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, if a black guy was in a movie, he probably was a criminal," he laments.
That same sensitivity is just as important in serving customers, especially in multicultural Los Angeles, where 127 languages are spoken in the local school district. "You need to have an employee benefits business that reflects the cultural values of your potential customers," Dickerson says. Scores of small-business merchants who came to the U.S. from other countries "feel more comfortable when they are talking to someone who understands their cultural uniqueness," he notes.
Most of the 10 different languages through which Dickerson Employee Benefits brokers converse with customers are spoken by people who are employed in the firm's large wholesale department. "It makes it easier, for instance, for someone with a Persian background [who speaks Farsi] to recruit a Persian broker, etc.," explains Dickerson, the son of a Pennsylvania steel worker.
The issue of sensitivity to cultural diversity, of course, reaches far beyond the borders of multicultural California, spilling into many other states. "We're a country that is built from immigrants," says Dickerson, whose firm is licensed in all 50 states.
The need for greater outreach to an increasingly multicultural world "was never more apparent than through this last presidential election cycle," observes Lee, who oversees the firm's large group department as well as its property & casualty division. "I think that most people realize now that the demographic base of this country has really changed, probably forever. And with something as personal and complicated as insurance, businesses must better address the needs of people whose first language is not English."
Lee believes the service sector is largely ignored when it comes to pursuing diversity initiatives with some of the bigger corporations and public entities. "They don't look at minority owned architectural or brokerage firms or law firms," he says. Instead, the focus tends to be on embracing diversity in businesses that make widgets, or supply pencils or carpet.
A winding career path
It's a message that has been ingrained in Dickerson throughout his life. When he and his wife, a former registered nurse, moved to Los Angeles around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he taught at the University of California's Department of Continuing Education in Medicine and Health Science, which had a federal Defense Department contract for civil defense. He coordinated the program for Southern California.
In those days, his preoccupation was with how the U.S. would respond to a nuclear attack. Once that contract expired and the missiles were out of Cuba, he no longer wanted to be part of academia and preferred to do something entrepreneurial. An executive recruiter landed him work as an agent for the New York Life Insurance Company and there was no turning back.
"I liked the idea of talking to people about saving money and how they could plan for the future," he says. "So I became one of their top producers. Then I started to realize that if you sold health insurance, you were able to talk to business owners and have a bigger economic impact. That's when I started to specialize in employee benefits. Later on down the road, I developed a pretty sizeable brokerage firm." Dickerson describes the selling of employee benefits as a relationship business that requires interaction with people. It's also important to have a passion for what you're selling. "We actually like this business," Dickerson enthuses.
In the end, it's about delivering comfort and peace of mind to working Americans who buy employee benefits through his company. An ability to ask questions from an informed broker enables customers to "feel better about the purchases they made, whether it's life insurance, health insurance, or other products or services," he says. He believes access to such expertise is extremely important considering, for example, that a lifetime of health insurance premiums far exceeds the cost of a car and is much more difficult to shop for, comparatively speaking.
Shutan, a contributor to Employee Benefit Adviser, is a Los Angeles freelance writer.
STAYING ACTIVE OUTSIDE THE BOARDROOM
The leaders of Dickerson Employee Benefits can't sit still when they're not in the office.
CEO Tony Lee loves to hit the links whenever possible. "I don't take phone calls on the golf course. No one can reach me," he quips. "It is very important for my mental and physical health."
Founder and Chairman Carl Dickerson enjoys traveling with his wife, maintaining half a dozen old cars and following professional boxing, which he describes as a poetic metaphor for self-reliance. "You get knocked down, you get up," he explains. "You have to depend on no one but yourself. And it is sort of like the old saying, 'Every morning a gazelle wakes up knowing that he has to outrun the lion. The lion wakes up knowing that he has to catch the gazelle, and if not, then one doesn't live and the other one doesn't eat.'"
Dickerson did some boxing in his youth and managed some fighters with a friend. He actually turned away opportunities to help several world-renowned pugilists he wouldn't name "because they did not want to live on a salary and did not believe in putting their money away for future delivery. If I'm going to help a youngster in his athletic career, he has to agree to my rules, and one of my rules is you must save your money."
INSIDE DICKERSON EMPLOYEE BENEFITS
Carl Dickerson's initial product focus shifted from life insurance to health insurance. Years later, he assembled a suite of strategic services and enthusiastically embraced the Information Age.
Dickerson Employee Benefits is now poised to help customers navigate their way through California's state-run or private health exchanges established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "There is no other brokerage outfit in California that has the footprint we have throughout the state," explains Dickerson, the company's chairman. "... We have great hopes and aspirations that we will be one of the GAs that cover for the health exchange."
CEO Tony Lee says the firm is creating private health exchanges modeled after the public exchange with support from carriers that "will allow a defined benefit for employers."
At a time when the formation of strategic partnerships has never been more important to brokers and advisers than it is now, Dickerson Employee Benefits has sought to become a business solution provider for clients.
One such example is a foothold into the professional employer organization space. Also mindful of its small-business moniker with a staff of just 54 employees, the firm decided to increase its capacity for blockbuster contracts through a partnership with Aon Hewitt, which provides large-scale, backroom capacity. "On the flip side," Lee explains, "Aon Hewitt sees the need for diversity, since many of their clients have diversity requirements, and now they have a place they can come to."
Dickerson and his crew are always on the lookout for fresh new products. Case in point: the application of telemedicine in South Africa and other parts of the world. The firm was an early adopter of this technology about six or seven years ago, and has since become an authority into the ins and outs of that business. The aim is to make access to medical care more convenient and help consumers demand more from their physicians.
Career development also is a huge priority, with the emphasis on continuing education credits. "We help brokers to satisfy insurance licensing requirements by holding live monthly classes in the training room on our campus," reports Michael Wolff, the firm's president, COO and CFO.
Subjects include anything from responding to health care reform to transforming into a business-solutions provider. The workshops have proven to be highly popular, providing an opportunity to network and learn from one another. Also, TheBrokersGa.com (as in general agent) provides Dickerson brokers access to quoting tools, as well as all the necessary forms and carrier information they need to sell health insurance.
Although Dickerson Employee Benefits is located minutes from Dodger Stadium, the company does not have any formal ties to the baseball team, but would like for that to happen one day. A former employee was very close to one of the trainers, and the son of a current employee pitched on a team that the Dodgers supported. Dickerson also met team owner Earvin "Magic" Johnson when he served as vice chairman of Town Hall Los Angeles.
With a showbiz background prior to entering the brokerage business, it's easy to see how Lee survived the cutthroat entertainment industry. His charisma and good looks could be seen as an asset in stints as a casting director and screenwriter.
The London-born Lee, whose father was in the Air Force and mother is a senior member of Congress who worked closely with President Barack Obama on PPACA, sold 10 screenplays in 10 years, three of which were actually made. But then came his true calling. "One day I was in between projects and Carl said, 'Why don't you come and hang out at the office, see what I do.' And literally I never left."
Wolff's previous experience in banking and insurance, along with bigger firms, showed him "just how important structure, defined workflows, delegation and synergies are for growing organizations."
Adding new accounting and sales management has helped track leads, sales and revenue, while developing a powerful intranet has allowed the firm to track each step of its on-boarding process for new groups.
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