Sheri Alexander bumped up against the glass ceiling. Then she shattered it.

Among the first women in employee benefits to make the leap from service — where most positions were traditionally held by women — to the male-dominated world of sales, some 35 years later Alexander has become one of the industry’s top sales execs. Along with a lot of grit, smarts and perseverance, she did it by emphasizing service.

“Sales incorporates so much service,” Alexander says. “We women started in support, taking care of clients and supporting sales. So when it was our turn in sales, we knew how to do it.”

Alexander broke into the industry back in 1980, working as a disability claims processor at brokerage and benefit consultants Gardner & White. After a decade with the Indianapolis-based firm, she joined the Marsh & McLennan insurance and benefits agency, taking her first job in sales. At Marsh, Alexander excelled, quickly becoming her division’s top salesperson two years in a row. Then, in 2005, after 15 years with Marsh, she joined Gregory & Appel Insurance, a privately-held Indiana firm, where she is president of employee benefits. Under Alexander’s leadership, the group has increased its revenue seven-fold over the past 11 years, quintupling its staff in the process from 8 people to 40.

Along the way, Alexander faced some formidable challenges. “Back in the day, it was unheard of for a woman to even be in sales,” she says. “They were support people.” Fortunately, Alexander worked for managers who recognized her abilities and believed she could succeed in what was then a boys’ club. “I’ve got a lot of male DNA in me.” she says.

Yet not too much, adds Susan Ferrin, a long-time client of Alexander’s and currently interim HR director at Hendricks Regional Health in Danville, Ind. “Sheri worked hard,” she says, “but she always did it in a kind manner. And she’s always looking after her clients’ best interests.”

‘On the shelf’
In 2003, while still at Marsh, Alexander faced a challenge of a different sort, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She got the news via cellphone, just as she was parking her car to attend a big client event. “It was bizarre, surreal,” Alexander recalls. “We have an expression in our household, ‘Put it on the shelf.’ So that’s what I did. I put it on the shelf and entertained our clients for the next three hours.”

She began a course of treatment, taking some time off from her job. Then, in another twist, just a couple of weeks after she had returned to work, Alexander received a call from Dan Appel, CEO of Gregory & Appel, wondering if she’d like to join his firm. “I was honored,” Alexander remembers, “but I told him I couldn’t do it now. But I also said that now doesn’t mean never.”

The timing was better a couple of years later. Appel was again looking to fill a position and Alexander, now fully recovered, had tired of working for a publicly-held company. At the time, Marsh was laying off employees and imposing hiring freezes. “Things got hairy,” Alexander recounts. “I lost some people to layoffs and few others to retirement, and I couldn’t replace them. That meant we couldn’t take care of our customers the way we needed to.”

A woman of influence
Accepting Appel’s second job offer, Alexander quickly climbed the brokerage firm’s ranks, becoming its first woman board member. In 2011, she was included in the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Who’s Who in Healthcare & Benefits, which also featured her among its Woman of Influence in 2012. Earlier this year, Alexander was named to the National Association of Health Underwriters Principal Council, a posting which has led to meetings with Congressional leaders to discuss the Affordable Care Act.

Now Alexander is helping other women make the leap from service to sales. A couple of years ago, she hired a young woman for a service position, but then quickly saw in her a budding saleswoman. “Talk about a diamond in the rough,” Alexander says of the woman. “Last year she was the top producer for our whole agency.”

What’s next for the benefits executive? Alexander is currently restructuring her group “to free me up a bit to do what I do best: create new relationships to grow the business.”

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