PIA names Donna Chiapperino Young Insurance Professional of the Year
Winner touts—and achieves—a different kind of work/life balance
By Susan R.A. Honeyman
While other people talk about balancing work and family, Donna Chiapperino, PIA National's Young Insurance Professional (PIA-YIP) of the Year, sees the age-old issue differently.
"Forget balance. I don't think it's possible," says the wife and mother of three, whose other full-time job is director of marketing at Jimcor Agencies in Montvale, New Jersey. "I think at certain times, you give one75% and another 25%, and then the next month it changes. I have never been a 50-50 type of person."
For example, she had to decide in which direction to tip her time scale when Diane Fowler, executive director of the PIA of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Hampshire, called to tell Chiapperino that she'd won the YIP award and would receive it at a special ceremony in April.
"I was very honored, very humbled, and I knew so many of my friends would be there," she says. Of course, she wanted to attend. However, her husband Robert (Chip) had surprised her earlier by arranging a trip for the two of them to Aruba to celebrate their 15th anniversary, and the trip was scheduled at the same time as the PIA's awards presentation. The Chiapperinos enjoyed Aruba, and Fowler accepted the award for Donna.
Insurance despite herself
After almost 19 years in the industry, Chiapperino, 41, readily acknowledges that she became an insurance professional despite herself. She is the daughter of an insurance professional—her father is Ken Lee, retired principal at Lee & Hawthorne, a managing general agency in New York City—and like many young people, she had initially intended only a brief stay in the family business before blazing her own path.
"However, once I started working at the agency, I realized why he loved his job and the industry so much. You make a difference in peoples' lives and make a good living while you are at it; what's better than that?" she asked. She got her New York brokers license in 1993.
She spent more than nine years at Lee & Hawthorne as a credit insurance specialist because "I loved being able to work with all different types of clients from all different areas of the country." She'd work with "toy manufacturers, leather distributors, computer wholesalers, food and vitamin exporters—so no two days were ever the same."
Among her agent clients was Rich Savino, a schoolmate of her sister, who brought her to her first NY-YIP meeting. There she met TJ Derella, Mike Loguercio, John Bailey, John Parsons and others who became friends. She became especially close with Coryn Mastowski Thalmann, then president of the NJ-YIP, because they shared a passion for the industry. She was hooked on YIP.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had a profound effect on Chiapperino. Though she was at PIA chapter headquarters in upstate New York becoming president of the NY-YIP when the World Trade Center was hit, she found it increasingly difficult to drive to her mid-town New York City office every day and "see the blank spot on the skyline" where the Twin Towers had been and where a few of her friends had worked. She also felt the need to be closer to her children just in case of another event. In addition, she wanted to see "what I could accomplish without being 'Ken's daughter.' My father was always tremendously supportive of me and was tough on me. But I needed to see what I could do on my own," so she left her father's firm in 2003.
After a brief stint helping young people find the appropriate career path as director of career services with Lincoln Technical Institute in Mahwah, New Jersey, she realized once again that her path lay in insurance.
"Got my job through the PIA"
Like the old subway billboard ads featuring smiling people each saying, "I got my job through The New York Times classifieds," Chiapperino can say she got her position at Jimcor through the NY-YIP. By then she had known Coryn Mastowski Thalmann for more than 15 years, and Jimcor was looking for someone to take over marketing responsibilities from Jim Mastowski so he could join his sister, Coryn, as co-CEO of the MGA their parents founded.
Jimcor is family-oriented, a 15-20 minute commute from Chiapperino's Blauvelt, New York, home, and the agency would permit her to work from home when necessary. It offered the opportunity for her to use the marketing skills she'd studied in college, as well as the insurance knowledge she'd amassed since then. She also liked the agency's philosophy of giving back through involvement in charities and in industry associations like PIA, American Association of Managing General Agents (AAMGA), National Association of Professional Surplus Lines Offices (NAPSLO), Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) and National Alliance of General Agents (NAGA). She noted that staff in her office would be paying to dress down during a forthcoming "Jean Week," "a fun way to collect money for the New Jersey Special Olympics."
During her years with YIP at the state and national level, Chiapperino has been involved in many satisfying activities and challenges. The NY-YIP was in a transitional phase when she became president in 2001, and she had to "get the word out and build relationships with our PIA Board and sponsors and others in the industry." She has also found great satisfaction in mentoring younger or newer members and watching the success of those who have come after her and "taken the YIP's to a higher level year after year. I think any leader knows they have done a good job when the people that come after them succeed. It makes me proud," she says. The chapter now has almost 600 members.
Chiapperino's involvement has extended to other states, as well. She has presented continuing education classes in Michigan, Louisiana and Ohio and is now working with PIA of North Carolina to help generate interest in a YIP program. "I love going to different PIA affiliates and states and learning how they operate, and meeting new people," she says, praising the PIA for setting up a framework "where young leaders in the industry are able to get together annually and share their thoughts, successes, obstacles and just learn from one another."
But it's not just the older professionals giving to the younger ones. Chiapperino is a great advocate for younger people and tells them to "be respectful of people who came before us in this industry and learn from them, but never allow anyone to look down on you because of your age." She credits young insurance people with helping to move the insurance industry along technologically and opening eyes to new ways to do things.
"For years, we have seen articles (some of them I have authored) that talk about the need to listen to the younger generations and that while they may seem pushy and arrogant, they have some great ideas to share that can help make us more efficient and effective while improving our bottom line," she says. "It seems, however, that this is not so much a generational thing anymore as agencies are looking for new ways to do the same old things, no matter the age of the principal. It is inspiring, really."
Everyone makes mistakes and, like any producer, Chiapperino tends to analyze her successes and failures to determine what went right and what needs to be improved upon. "Everything I have done has brought me to this position with my family and my career, so I would take the good and the bad every time," she says.
One of her most significant "learnings," though, involves a tragic event that left her and her entire family reeling: On September 1, 2010, she lost her older sister, Dawn, to suicide.
"I wish I had taken more time to tell her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me," Chiapperino says. "Since that time, I've made a concerted effort to tell people when something is positive, to tell my children they are doing a good job, to tell my husband that I love him. . . ."
She has also learned to appreciate each day. She and her family got through the pain with an incredible amount of support from neighbors, PIA and YIP friends and coworkers, she says. She turned her grief into volunteerism, helping the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). In October 2011, she got50 people together for a team she named "For Dawn" and raised $10,000 for the AFSP at its Rockland County "Out of the Darkness Walk." This year their team will be called "Walkers with the Dawn" taken from a Langston Hughes poem by the same name.
Though chapters differ, in general the YIP and the PIA serve different purposes, with the YIP helping participants improve their individual careers and the PIA more oriented toward helping the agency and the industry, she says. There is no set age to leave the NY-YIP for the PIANY, and many people are involved in both groups.
All of this is a bit confusing to her 12-year-old son Tommy who, upon learning his mother had been chosen Young Insurance Professional of the Year, was convinced there'd been a mistake. Tommy immediately went around telling everyone, "My mom got an award. They think she's young.
Susan R.A. Honeyman is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut, and vice president of Word Hive Communications.