Sheila, queen of Watermark Insurance

There is no CEO at Waterrnark Insurance in Cascade Township, no chairman, no CFO — in fact, no C-level suite at all.

There is, however, a queen.

When Sheila VanZile left big insurance to establish a two-employee insurance agency in Cascade Township in 2005, she had no doubt that her title would be queen of her own business, and it says so right on her business cards.

“Anyone can be president,” VanZile said. “But, you know, not everyone can be queen.”

Today, instead of running Midwest divisions of insurance companies, VanZile operates Watermark Insurance, an independent boutique agency for home, auto, life and other types of personal insurance. She has one assistant.

“We talk about offering concierge-level service but we also like to have fun,” she said, pointing to her royally influenced doorknob décor. “Sales from this perspective is to the consumer, which is very different and way more rewarding.”

The vast majority of VanZile’s work is conducted online.

“We do all of our work online. We issue all of our policies pretty much ourselves here. There is an automated underwriting engine that sort of happens underneath that. If you enter in something that doesn’t meet the criteria, it kicks it out,” she explained.

“You can pre-enter risk characteristics because there is so much in common. You’re not pulling from here and there like you are in business insurance, which is more complex.”

Having her own business means that VanZile can run things her own way.

“My clients have my cell phone number. They can call me 24 hours a day if they need to, and not a lot of agents make themselves that accessible,” she said.

It’s no secret that selling insurance is a competitive game with lots of players. Customers sometimes try to game the laws that require drivers to carry insurance. The state of the economy can deter people from spending money on insurance.

“There is a lot of competition, but there is a lot of market out there, so there’s room for everyone, I think. And we’re still here after almost six years, so we’re doing something right,” she said.

Sheila VanZile
Watermark Insurance
Title: Queen
Age: 53
Born: Portland, Ore.
Residence: Cascade
Family: Son, Scott, 25, of Boston; two miniature long-haired dachshunds.
Organizations: Board president, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts; Cascade Business Association; treasurer, Cascade Community Foundation; development committee, Humane Society of Kent County.
Biggest Career Break: Leaving the corporate world. “It was the break I gave myself.”

VanZile arrived in Grand Rapids in 1999 to lead the northern and western Michigan zones for an insurance company. She joined the insurance business in Columbus, Ohio, shortly after graduating from Kent State University.

“I was born in Portland, Oregon, and have lived in 17 different places since then,” VanZile said, among them Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Louisville and Salt Lake City.

“I’ve been 11 years in the same house, which is two times as long as I have ever lived anywhere. I love West Michigan and I am really delighted that this is really my permanent home.”

VanZile’s father, the late Charles Matson, was a native of Pontiac, and his work led the family to Ohio for her high school years. Her mother, Isobel, emigrated from Scotland, and VanZile grew up with a younger brother. She graduated early, at age 16, from Orrville High School in 1974, after combining her junior and senior years.

VanZile arrived on the northeastern Ohio Kent State campus a half-dozen years after National Guardsmen shot and killed four and wounded nine, all unarmed students who were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. The impact of the event, which prompted a nationwide student strike, still reverberated on the campus when she arrived there, she said.

“What didn’t make the radar as much was when they tried to build a gym on the site of the killing,” she said. “That created another wave of protests there that a lot of people were not aware of. It was really a very interesting time to be there. And it was still very raw and painful there.”

VanZile started both school and piano lessons at age 4. She entered college as a piano performance major, leaning toward Bach and Mozart. One day, she overheard a fellow student in a practice room improvise a lengthy jazz interlude into a sonata.

“It was at that moment I realized that I was out of my league,” she recalled.

She decided against a career as a concert pianist or teacher, became an economics student and graduated from Kent State at age 20.

She went into the insurance business on the advice of a professor and a roommate. “So Plan B was insurance,” she said, adding that she still plays piano, although not publicly.

“(Insurance) was one of the few industries that was really opening up to women in a professional capacity in the ’70s. It was one of the few places where you could go in as a female and be an underwriter, a trainee. Women could actually have a career path,” VanZile recalled.

In her first job, she entered an underwriters’ training program at Buckeye Union Insurance Co. in Columbus. In 1987, she switched to sales and left that company in 1990.

Going into sales and marketing cut VanZile’s ties to the smoky offices of underwriters in eyeshades and gave her outgoing personality a chance to shine.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, it was certainly learning how to do things within the context of a very male-dominated environment,” she added. “We all just learned how to navigate those waters, if you wanted to stay employed.”

VanZile’s sales experience became a stepping stone into a management career that took her through a line of promotions, eventually leading offices in Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan.

“I really had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish on the corporate side. I had gotten to the level I wanted to get. I was making the money I wanted to make. I had the autonomy I wanted to have,” she said.

“The next move would have required me moving away from Grand Rapids, and I really didn’t want to do that. I felt like I could leave the corporate world with my head held high. I always had this vision that there was room for a very service-oriented, personalized insurance agency where you could really give people the level of expertise that they needed.”

As board president for the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, VanZile finds herself in the thick of ArtPrize, whose founder, Rick DeVos, is a fellow board member.

VanZile joined the board in 2003. “It was a really difficult time at UICA,” she recalled.

“There were huge financial issues. There had been a relatively recent turnover of the executive director. There’s a handful of us who still shake our heads and say, ‘Can you believe we came from there to here in only six or seven years,’ which is pretty remarkable.”

For the tax year that ended in June 2008, the latest IRS filing available, the UICA reported that it was in the black with $1.8 million in revenue and $2.7 million in total assets. VanZile said UICA has operated in the black for four of the past five years.

Now located at 41 Sheldon Blvd. SE, the organization is planning to move in March 2011 to Gallery on Fulton, 2 W. Fulton St., the multi-use development under construction at the intersection with South Division Avenue.

“The project came to us. We really weren’t searching for a new home at that point in time,” VanZile recalled.

With the developer’s proposal, the UICA undertook a feasibility study and came to the conclusion that it should consider the move.

“We’ve been raising funds for the new building for four and half years, in probably some of the worst philanthropic environment you could possibly be going through,” VanZile said. So far, more than $9 million of the $16 million goal in cash and in-kind contributions has been raised.

“It’s certainly going to be worth every moment of sweat and blood and tears — phone calls for money,” she added.

In the first phase, the UICA will occupy three floors on the sloped site. It will include the film theater, gift shop, youth gallery, ceramics gallery and other gallery spaces. Office space will go on the fourth floor. Perhaps the biggest change for patrons will be an admission charge for the first time in UICA history.

VanZile credits UICA Executive Director Jeff Meeuwsen with having a vision for the organization that combines his acumen in art and business.

“We appeal to young people,” she said. “We are about what will bring and retain young people to this community. The economic impact of that — not just the social impact — is huge. Everybody’s been talking about how do we get young people here. It’s organizations like UICA that do it.”

After ArtPrize in 2009, UICA saw a bump in membership, she added.

“Last year we had — I want to say it was 80,000 people come through, and for a lot of people that were from Grand Rapids, it was the first time they’d ever been in the building.

“Obviously, it’s helped with our visibility, and … there’s a level of appreciation of what UICA gives to the community that I think didn’t exist before ArtPrize.”

Even as UICA and ArtPrize grow and mature, VanZile said she’s happy to keep her insurance queendom small.

“I have never wanted to be any more than four people,” she said. “What I really love is that I can do the right thing every day. I’m not worried about the corporate profit agenda. … To not have to deal with the politics of the corporate environment and just be able to do the business of insurance has been really important for me, and really rewarding.”

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