Procope, Ernesta 19(?)(?)–
Ernesta Procope 19(?)(?)–
Wall Street Contender
Ernesta Procope is the founder, president, and chief executive officer of E.G. Bowman Co.—the nation’s largest African American-owned insurance broker. Through her boundless determination and business savvy, Procope has grown her business from a tiny insurance company into the first and only minority-owned brokerage firm on New York’s Wall Street. Annual premiums for the firm average over $35 million.
Together with her husband, John Procope—the former publisher of the New York Amsterdam News-Procope has worked tirelessly to grow the company and support minority constituencies. The Procopes have mentored scores of African American professionals, participated in an array of community organizations, and, in Ernesta’s case, sat on directorate boards for numerous governmental, educational, corporate, and civic entities. Among her many achievements, awards and honors, Procope is credited as the driving force behind insurance reforms that abolished the discriminatory practice in the insurance industry known as “red-lining.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Procope was the sole daughter among the four children of West Indian immigrants Clarence and Elvira Lord Foster. Although she showed great promise as a young musician, playing at a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 12, Procope ultimately sought a more business-oriented path. She married real estate broker Albin Bowman in the late 1940s. Bowman was looking for a way to handle the property insurance for his holdings, because insurance companies were reluctant to cover dwellings in poor, African American neighborhoods. With Bowman’s encouragement, Procope attended the Pohs Institute of Insurance and Real Estate, and received her license in 1950.
Before Bowman died in 1952, Procope had mastered the ropes of the insurance game. She formed E.G. Bowman in 1953, and specialized in home coverage and other personal lines in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. During the turbulent years of the late 1960s, concerns about large-scale property destruction spurred many big insurance companies to cancel many of the policies Procope had written.
After Procope’s first efforts to counteract the insurers’ practice of “red-lining” proved fruitless, she appealed
Born Ernesta Gertrude Foster, Brooklyn, NY; married Albin Bowman, (deceased 1952), married John L. Procope, 1953. Education: Brooklyn College; Pohs Institute of Insurance and Real Estate.
Career: Founder, E.G. Bowman Co., Inc., 1953, president and CEO, 1953-; established Bowman-Procope Associates, 1970; chairperson, part-owner, Bond, Procope Capital Management, early 1990s-; developer, Brinkerhoff Homes, Jamaica, NY.
Selected memberships: Chubb Corp.; Columbia Gas System, Inc.; trustee, Cornell University.
Selected awards: Woman of the Year, Tuesday magazine, 1972; Entrepreneurial Excellence, Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, 1992; Crain’s New York Business All-Star Award, 1993; Small Business Person of the Year, U.S. Small Business Administration, 1993; Helen Garvin Outstanding Achiever Award, National Association of Insurance Women, New York City, 1995; Woman of the Year, Police Athletic League, 1995; Parren J. Mitchell Award, Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Reeducation Fund, 1996; Heritage Award, Executive Leadership Council & Foundation, 1997; Honorary degrees from Howard University; Adelphi University; Marymount Manhattan College; and Morgan State University.
Addresses: Business —E.G. Bowman, 97 Wall St., New York, NY 10005.
to then-Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller launched hearings that resulted in The New York State Fair Plan, which guaranteed homeowner insurance to low-income families. This insurance reform breakthrough has been adopted by about half of the states in the country since then.
While continuing to provide coverage to minority individuals and institutions—including many churches—E.G. Bowman branched out into commercial and government accounts. The company began to capture large business accounts, such as Avon Products, and Bowman’s client base eventually came to include roughly 75 Fortune 500 companies. Among Bowman’s long-term clients are IBM, Philip Morris, Time Warner, Tiffany, and General Motors. While affirmative action programs helped Procope get her foot in the door, her company’s professionalism and top-notch service clinched the deals.
Procope always faced enormous odds in an industry dominated almost exclusively by well-heeled white men. However, she has never allowed obstacles to undermine her drive to succeed. As Procope remarked in National Underwriter Property & Casualty-Risk & Benefits Management, “I feel that I have an advantage because I am a black female. I don’t let being a minority or being a woman deter me. I have no complexes about being a woman or being black. I turn that around.” Procope is unfazed by the often second-class status accorded to woman in business, but rather is determined to work for change. As she asserted in the New York Amsterdam News, “While a few women have broken through the ‘glass ceiling,’ it is imperative that the insurance industry be made aware of the talents, credibility, exceptional training, and experience of women who are ready to move forward with all deliberate speed.”
Procope has encountered her share of frustrating situations and tough experiences. Her path to success was not an easy one. As she told Fortune magazine, “I bumped around and hit my head on stone walls.” Despite Procope’s personal fearlessness, her company still has had to surmount the challenges faced by a small minority-owned business in a world dominated by giant, white-owned companies. “We’re handicapped in a sense,” John Procope acknowledged to Black Enterprise in 1993, “because the person who sells us their business can’t guarantee that their clients will stay on with us. Not because of our competence, but strictly on a racial basis. White firms don’t have to worry about that…. We’re disappointed that in our 40th year, we’re not handling a billion dollars worth of [premiums]. Were we white, I know we’d be doing a minimum of half a billion.” Procope added, “We are underestimated in our ability to compete. Sometimes we win bids against the large white insurance companies, and they are embarrassed. They wonder, ‘How could this happen?’”
What particularly disappoints the Procopes is the reluctance of African American companies to give their business to Bowman. Procope voiced his disappointment in the Network Journal, “We’ve done everything we can to induce black entrepreneurs to consider our company, but they seem to prefer the large white firms.” In the same article, he remarked, “We are not so rich or so successful that we are not interested in providing insurance for our own people.”
Procope’s firm suffered a serious blow in 1982, when a New York City agency cited Bowman for supposedly mishandling some of the city’s insurance funds. Consequently, Bowman was cut off from city business and forced to layoff 16 staff members. Throughout these difficult days, the Procopes always proclaimed their innocence. In 1984, the city admitted its mistake and cleared the company’s name.
In the early 1990’s, the Procopes moved to diversify their business interests by establishing the Bond, Procope Capital Management, an investment advisory firm. They teamed up in this venture with Alan Bond, a brilliant young African American securities manager. Within the first two years of its existence, the fund attracted over $315 million in assets.
Procope and her husband are conscious of the legacy that they would like to leave behind. She told Black Enterprise in 1996 that “it is imperative that succession planning be our first agenda. We are searching from without and developing from within the finest expertise in the areas of sales, marketing, and administration.”’ As Procope professed to Black Enterprise in 1993, “You have to grow your own.”
Black Enterprise, December 1993, p. 100; August 1996, p. 68.
Fortune, August 4, 1997, p. 82.
National Underwriter Property & Casualty-Risk & Benefits Management, February 15, 1993, p. 9.
The Network Journal, July/August 1999, p. 15.
New York Amsterdam News, June 10, 1995, p.20.
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