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 on to 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 steelworker.
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 and 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.
Shutan, a former EBN managing editor, is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.
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