With the number of millennials wishing to start businesses, I think its imperative that we have conversations around business. How do you run a business? How do you finance a business? What is a stock? How is it valued? I learned these things because my degree is in finance and it was so critical to running my own company. Understanding the market is also an important part of business, but it’s also important for non-business owners.
As a part of our series about “Women Leading The Finance Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Holly Bohn Pittman.
Holly Bohn Pittman serves as Fortegra’s Executive Vice President of Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer. She has over 20 years of Marketing, Brand Development, and Strategic Planning experience, both as a successful Entrepreneur of a multi-million-dollar retail brand, See Jane Work, and later as a Division Vice President in consumer products at Advantus Corp. She is an energetic, forward-thinking leader and a public speaker who is passionate about advocating for female entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?
One of my first jobs in high school was assisting a friend’s mom with bookkeeping for her small business. This was before computer accounting, so I learned on paper ledgers. I quickly realized I could make more money in accounting or bookkeeping than I could in retail or another traditional high school job. The bottom-up way I learned about accounting helped me realize that accounting told the story of what had happened — -the past, while finance looked at the future. So as I entered college I decided to study finance.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
A lot of people wonder how a finance person ended up starting a retail brand, although it seems out of character, it provided me with a strategic advantage that contributed to my success. When I entered accounting and finance there was pressure to minimize my gender. I can’t tell you whether this was external pressure or self-imposed, either way I bought the navy-blue skirt suit and the black desk accessories. This situation was the catalyst for starting See Jane Work. I wanted women to be able to embrace their femininity in the workplace with office supplies designed by women for women. In 2014, I received an award for my contributions to the office supply industry, but I hope I did more than influence an industry, I hope I improved work life for millions of women. Now when I walk in an office and see office supplies that I brought to market I can’t help but smile.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
It took several years for my mentor to convince me to accept a role as Chief Marketing Officer for Fortegra, a specialty insurer. I was hesitant about stepping back into the financial sector, it seemed a little boring compared to consumer goods. But I got it all wrong, helping people achieve their financial goals is very exciting. Surveys estimate that 66% of millennials want to start their own business. To achieve this dream they will need insurance, and not necessarily an off-the-shelf one size fits all policy. Unique business ideas require unique insurance products, that’s where specialty insurance comes in. I like being involved in creating insurance products that help individuals realize the American dream. Insurance takes risk and with less risk, it’s easier to start a new company. As an entrepreneur who has seen success and failure, I understand this first-hand.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What I’ve heard from our clients and partners is that we have a personal touch. Despite our size we’ve been able to maintain personal relationships and deliver individualized attention to each of our programs. Something we recently developed was a concierge claims team. We noticed that many competitors were moving to an online only claims experience with some support from overseas call centers. We did the research to see if we were missing something if we were behind on an important trend. The research told a different story. What we found is that certain demographics prefer an online claims experience, while other demographics prefer to speak with someone by phone. A digital only experience might be good for the bottom line, but in the long run it could hurt relationships and long-term growth. We need to provide the same level of service for all customers, so we added a special team to ensure an efficient and personalized claims experience. Our partners have been thrilled with the results, especially in our service contract business.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
I think there are many factors, but perhaps because of my own experience I see a parallel to the office supply industry. Women understand the unique needs of women. As more women entered the workforce, more women were using office supplies. In fact, more than 80% of all office supplies are purchased by women, even if a woman isn’t the end user. The same can be said about the financial industry. Women have an increasing amount of economic power, if you want them to bank with you, invest with you or buy their insurance from you, then you must understand them.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?
I am leading the Fortegra Network of Women (N.O.W.) an initiative sponsored by our CEO Rick Kahlbaugh. Through extensive research around this initiative, I came to realize the complexity of gender equity in leadership. How do you hire a more diversified leadership team when the only people applying for the job are white males? We used recruiters, we created a leadership development program, but we still struggled. Complex problems require complex solutions and real change doesn’t happen overnight. Through Fortegra NOW we’ve developed career pathing strategy that supports women. We accomplish this through policy, such as maternity leave, so fewer women exit the workforce. Studies show the importance of sponsorship in reaching leadership positions, so we provide opportunities for allyship, mentorship and ultimately sponsorship. We also provide educational support so economically disadvantaged employees can get the education and skills they need to move up.
Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?
Financial literacy must be a required class in high school. I learned cooking and typing when I was in high school, but not financial literacy. We don’t trust parents to talk about sex education, so I’m not sure why we trust them to teach financial literacy. Equal access to financial education would do a lot to change gender and racial barriers to economic growth. I’m not sure I have 3 things, because I think it is so critical that it financial literacy is added to our public school curriculum, but if I had to pick one additional think I would tell parents to speak about financial issues with their sons AND daughters.
You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.
- Basic business concepts such as how to read a financial statement. 2. Explain the stock market and how stocks are valued. 3. Retirement planning 4. Insurance 5. Taxes
With the number of millennials wishing to start businesses, I think its imperative that we have conversations around business. How do you run a business? How do you finance a business? What is a stock? How is it valued? I learned these things because my degree is in finance and it was so critical to running my own company. Understanding the market is also an important part of business, but it’s also important for non-business owners. We have seen the market runs that had nothing to do with the innate value of the stock, this can have negative implications for the market and for investors. I think in general our society has done better with retirement. Many companies offer retirement plans but understanding how much to save or how to invest can be confusing. Studies show that millennials approach insurance very differently than past generations. They often buy auto insurance and other commodity types of insurance online for the lowest price. They don’t understand what they need or what they are getting. My son’s car was totaled after a big car accident. He had no idea whether he had enough insurance to buy another car of equal value, that was an eye opener for me. Finally, understanding taxes is so important. Our tax forms are complicated and the consequences of not understanding them are great.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had many wonderful mentors, but I would have to say that my now CEO, Rick Kahlbaugh has been a big part of my success. A good mentor doesn’t solve your problems, they teach you how to think about them. He’s also been the most open about business liquidity events, raising funds, selling, private equity and other topics you can only learn on the job. There is no book or lecture that can prepare you for standing in front of investors and explaining your idea or business decisions. Rick helped me understand what to expect and how to prepare for those situations. Rick was my mentor for about 8 years before I went to work for him. I realize this is about financial literacy, but I’m going to also provide a little career advice. Who you work for and with matters just as much as where you work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Fear kills more dreams than failure ever did.
After I lost everything with my business, I was paralyzed with fear. It took several years for me to realize that the fear wasn’t protecting me, it was destroying me. I’m not suggesting you move forward without research or a carefully thought-out plan, I’m just saying don’t let fear be the only thing holding you back. You can’t plan for many things, but you can’t plan for everything. The only thing certain in life is death.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m very excited about the work I’m doing through Fortegra N.O.W. There are big things we are doing to shift the paradigm, namely the allyship, mentorship, sponsorship initiatives, but there are also little things we do to help. For example, the financial industry has a stricter dress code than other industries. It makes sense do you trust your money with someone dressed up or in sweatpants? But a well-intentioned dress code can be a barrier to entry because dress clothes are expensive. So, Fortegra N.O.W. works with management and HR to ensure that this is not an issue for our employees. If there is someone on the team struggling, we help.
Thank you for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success.