Gillian Perry from Zurich tells workingwise.co.uk her working life story, why she loves insurance and why she rails against the assumptions behind ageist attitudes.
Gillian Perry hated school “with a passion”. Her parents wanted her to go to university, but she said no. Her father was an insurance broker and helped her get a job at Commercial Union, now Aviva, as a claims clerk. She was converted and despite a brief foray to Scottish Enterprise, where she worked with the Prince’s Trust, she has never looked back. “I loved it from day one,” she says.
Her heart is still in claims. “I still think it is the best job in insurance by a country mile. I loved the fact it was customer facing and that it is about problem-solving. Every claim is different. Even after 40 years every week brings something new. I don’t want to do anything else in insurance,” she states.
Gillian adds that the pace is fast and admits that sometimes she has to give people bad news, that they are not covered for a particular issue, for instance, but she says she has got better at doing this. The nature of the claims is changing too. Emerging risks include issues related to climate change, such as greater fire damage risks from fires in homes with solar-panelled roofs, flooding and hurricanes. Claims from extreme weather incidents are growing.
Gillian headed down to London with Commercial Union at 19 and worked her way up until she started her family. She then took around six years out, intending to be a stay at home mum, but when she got divorced she had to get back to work.
She moved back to Scotland to be near her parents and they helped out with childcare for her three children. After a stint at Scottish Enterprise, she got a job with Cunningham Lindsey, now Sedgwick, as a loss adjuster and after around five years she took a role as commercial operations director. She says the experience was really valuable in building her knowledge of the operations side of the business. Her line manager recognised her potential and took her under his wing. “He was honest with me and gave me a kick up the backside when I messed up. I learned so much. It was pivotal for me,” says Gillian. “It allowed me to reach my potential.” Gillian grew up in quite a traditional family set-up. She says: “It made me realise that I was as good as if not better than most men.” She would have stayed but for organisational and cultural changes to the organisation.
She was headhunted for a role at a Glasgow-based corporate. She stayed for four years, but says the corporate culture did not encourage innovation or collaboration. “It was everything that I am not,” she says. “It was not what I had signed up for. I had no emotional engagement. I would have left sooner, but I was encouraged to stay on and I don’t like to give up. It was soul-destroying. I eventually left because it was beginning to affect my mood at home too.”
Gillian got training in Six Sigma and started her own insurance consultancy business, Aptum Ltd. “I didn’t want to be in the corporate world any more,” she says. It was hard work, but she loved being her own boss. One of her contracts involved going to the Bahamas to assess claims after Hurricane Dorian in 2019. “It was an amazing and humbling experience,” she says. “People had had their homes blown into the sea. They had nothing, but they would give you their last bottle of water. It was the first time I was in a minority as a white woman. I learned so much.”
She was doing some work for Zurich in the months leading up to Covid and the role she is doing now, Regional Major Loss Property Claims Manager, came up. Someone suggested she should apply. She went into the interview feeling very relaxed and was totally herself. To her surprise she got the job and has been working virtually almost ever since. Having had a bad corporate experience in the past, she thought it would be a temporary role, but she found that she loved it. What’s more it meant she had a stable role through the different lockdowns. “Zurich is a brilliant company,” she says. “It is the complete opposite of the other company. Innovation and collaboration are encouraged. It almost feels like being self employed. There are all the benefits with none of the stress.”
Gillian is also very excited by Zurich’s commitment to diversity and equality. At 60, she is annoyed by the assumptions she knows people her age face, such as that they are not ambitious because they are easing into their retirement. Gillian has no plans to retire. The idea that she is less useful because she is older also frustrates her. “There is not much I haven’t seen. I have made my mistakes and learnt from them,” she states. “Of course, we have to invest in young people, but we should not focus development exclusively on them. Older women are so resilient. They are a huge benefit to business. I see people getting jobs that I could do with my hands tied behind my back, but they are not offered to me because I am simply not seen.”
She also finds the “invisibility” of older women generally in society difficult to cope with. “I am very gregarious. I feel like shouting ‘don’t you dare not see me’. Treat me with respect. I love my grey hair – many younger women pay a fortune to have their haired coloured like mine!” she says. “A lot of people talk to me about being a granny [she has one grandchild]. They like to put you in a box. I am so much more than that.”