After 10 years in Corporate America, Cesar Pinzon Jr. decided that he needed to be on a different path.
“I found that no matter how hard I worked, I never made as much money as the person next to me because they had been there longer,” recalled Pinzon, who now is the Agency Sales Vice President for American Family Insurance. “I really wanted the opportunity to own my own business, so I started exploring the insurance field. I met with several different companies, and it looked like a tremendous opportunity.”
He embarked on a fact-finding mission, getting more serious about making a move and seeking out contacts who might help propel his plans. His research led him to Madison, Wis.-based American Family Insurance, a diversified Fortune 500 insurer founded in 1927 with a strong presence in the Midwest.
“I was connected with a sales manager named Jaime Mercado, he was out of the Little Village in Chicago, and he highlighted what a career with the agency could do for me and my family,” he said. “So in 1999 I opened an insurance agency in Bolingbrook and started a scratch agency.”
“Scratch” is just what it sounds like – building a business from the ground up. Pinzon was now an agent, but the reality of his situation sunk in quickly. He began networking extensively, building on referrals and generally doing whatever it took to succeed. He even began mentoring other insurance agencies throughout the Chicago area, and that helped convince him that getting into management was the best way to give back to his community.
Rising in the Ranks
This time his hard work paid off. American Family approached him about joining its management ranks.
“I really had no intention of going back into a corporate environment or a Fortune 500 company,” he said. “But I discovered that I was becoming somewhat of an inspiration to Latino families in Bolingbrook. They would bring their kids in, second generation, and they would do the translating, and the message to their kids was, ‘You can do this too, you can own a business.’ I got the bug that I really wanted to do what my manager did for me – give other people that opportunity. So I took over my own district, and that was probably one of the most defining professional moments for me.”
In his first four years as an agency manager, his district was twice recognized as the top district in the state. He was soon promoted again, to Sales Director of the Chicago Metro sales territory, where he had nine sales managers reporting to him, generating over $300 million in premiums. In the late 2000s, American Family consolidated its state structure, and the company once again looked to Pinzon. By 2010 he was responsible for 400 agents, 15 sales managers, and just over $500 million in premiums.
“That was a tremendous experience that really broadened my horizons,” he said.
The next chapter in Pinzon’s journey began in 2013, when after 44 years in the Chicago area – the last 14 with American Family – he accepted an opportunity and moved to Madison, where he served as Life Sales & Support Director. Less than two years after transferring to the home office, Pinzon was promoted again, to Sales Vice President of the East Region, which encompasses Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Georgia.
His success did not come without personal challenges and hard-learned lessons, though. His daughter became ill early in his career, testing his ability to juggle work and family life.
“She went into heart failure, and I remember being in the hospital and having to put ice chips on her lips because they had to intubate her and put her into a coma until they could figure out what was going on,” he recalled. “As I was doing that, one big reflection that hit me right between the eyes was that I had not spent enough time home at dinner. I was eating appetizers at chamber events instead of being at the kitchen table. The lesson I learned was balance. That’s easier said than done, and sometimes you find yourself slipping back. You have to have open, positive communication with your family. If you are stable in your home life, you can be the best you can be in your work life.”
Dedication to Diversity
Throughout his career, Pinzon has focused on organizational diversity, which he says is an essential ingredient in any growth strategy.
“Customers today expect any company they do business with to understand them and connect with them,” he said. “It’s not enough to have satisfied customers – we want customers who are loyal, and the only way we can have that is to deliver experiences that resonate with them. You can’t achieve that if your workforce and your talent doesn’t represent your marketplace. If you don’t have diversity internally, you can’t expect to connect with your customers.”
Even during his early days with American Family, Pinzon took simple but effective steps to ensure that his team embraced diversity.
“I had agencies all the way from the south side of Chicago through the Little Village, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, and all the way to Edison Park on the north side,” he said. “We made sure to have our meetings throughout everyone’s communities and with their customers, so we had Irish agents eating in Puerto Rican restaurants. It gave us all a better understanding of each other and really shaped us as a group.”
Today he approaches diversity from a larger perspective, establishing inclusionary hiring, training, and outreach practices throughout the enterprise.
“At American Family, we bring in local organizations and partner with local charities to help create a collective understanding between us and the community,” he said. “I spend a lot of time educating our sales directors on why diversity is important, and they truly embody it and embrace it. They get shoulder to shoulder with their agents at community events, whether they’re supporting literacy in Chinatown through dragon boat races or participating in housing fairs.”
Although Pinzon has now graduated to the executive ranks, he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to start on the ground floor – to face the daunting challenge of establishing yourself within an organization and climbing the ladder.
“My first advice would be to be true to yourself – I think that’s absolutely critical,” he said. “Be proud of your culture and your heritage. And most importantly, share your cultural experiences in the workplace because it improves the relationships with your coworkers. Sharing drives collaboration, which drives innovation, and certainly relationships help create opportunity for you as you grow. It also helps organizations build better products.”
Pinzon also encourages younger workers to take advantage of the knowledge other generations can offer.
“Be patient and embrace mentors,” he said. “Hispanics have tremendous mentors; we always want to reach out. Do a lot of listening and expand your network but also make sure you reach out to those who have gotten there before you and leverage what they’ve learned. We talk a lot about dreams around here. Every step of the way I have had the opportunity to live my dream; your dreams are unlimited.”