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Setting the Bar High

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(l-r) Francoise and Pierre LaBadie, and Jackie Mortman and her husband, Jean-Pierre St. Louis, during the awards presentation at NAEC; photo by John Dimaio

Poised, polite and passionate about her profession, Jackie Mortman has earned the industry’s respect.

No one was surprised when Jackie Mortman received the William C. Sturgeon Distinguished Service Award at the 66th Annual National Association of Elevator Contractors Convention and Exposition in Boston on October 1. It was a well-deserved honor, one that Mortman’s friends, Francoise and Pierre LaBadie, drove eight hours from Canada to see her receive. “What great long-term friends we have in the industry,” Mortman remarks.

With an insurance-industry career spanning 45 years, Mortman has made a name for herself in the elevator-insurance niche, building HUB International Northeast, Ltd.’s JM Associates/Burnham + Co. into the go-to provider of insurance to U.S. elevator companies. Today, JM Associates, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, provides a vast array of insurance protection for contractors, consultants, manufacturers and distributors in the elevator industry throughout the U.S. Mortman is a familiar face and welcome presence at many elevator industry events, staying active in not only NAEC but also organizations such as Elevator Conference of New York (ECNY) and the Vertical Initiative for Elevator & Escalator Women. Her agency received the NAEC Contractors’ Choice Award in 2010.

Mortman prides herself on paying particular attention to customer service, often fighting for her clients in a world where the deck can be stacked against them. Says Marc I. Cohen, president of HUB International:

“[Mortman’s] longstanding commitment to serving this industry is extraordinary. When it comes to client service and innovative solutions, [Mortman] sets the bar very high and is a great representation of the talented leadership team we have built at HUB Northeast.”

Mortman was born in Bolton, England, the eldest of five children of a British mother and American father who met during World War II. The family moved to Detroit when Mortman was still a baby, with Mortman’s father going ahead of his young wife and child to start work in the auto industry.

The transition from England to America in the 1940s was not an easy one for mother and baby. In fact, Mortman says, on the first plane trip over both engines failed, prompting the pilot to turn back. When mother and baby finally made it to New York City (NYC), Mortman’s father could not take time off work to drive to NYC to retrieve the pair, so they had to catch a train to Illinois to meet their new in-laws for the first time – alone. “I think I had a pretty gutsy mother,” Mortman says.

A journalist happened to be on the same plane as Mortman and her mother, and he ended up accompanying them to Illinois and to their first trip to a U.S. grocery store, where Mortman’s mother was delighted by being able to shop with no restrictions since wartime rationing had ended. The journalist wrote a newspaper story about Mortman and her mother, titled “War Bride and Baby Have Tough Luck.”

She describes her family as loving and close, so much so that she did not realize until she was a young adult they did not have much money. She recalls:

“My parents taught us manners, we played games and we laughed a lot. We were a very close family. My parents have passed away. However, I miss them and think of them often with a smile on my face.”

Between the two of them, Mortman and her husband, Jean Pierre St. Louis, have beloved relatives all over the U.S. and Canada; including four nieces and nine great-nieces and nephews who live close to them, with whom they spend a great deal of time. She elaborated:

“They are all under the age of 10 and they make us laugh. The little ones are very busy little people and keep us young at heart. At any given time, we have all of them for a weekend sleepover. It’s tons of fun. I could go on and on about family. Everyone needs family to make you laugh and keep you busy. If you do not have a family, look to attach yourself to someone else’s. It really works. With family, Christmas is the best time of year.”

Always a people person, Mortman got her professional start in the mid 1960s selling single-family homes through a film presentation and handouts for a development in Joppatowne, Maryland. Her next job was working as a file clerk for an insurance agency in Baltimore. She enjoyed the work. Reading the files sparked her curiosity, and led her to ask questions and seek out insurance-industry training. “I never looked back,” she says. “I believe I have performed just about every job function in the insurance-agency arena.”

She describes herself as a fearless cold caller in the early days, when she first began to realize elevator insurance was her calling. She states:

“I was never afraid and always looked forward to meeting new people and helping them. I would review their current insurance coverage and sometimes make huge recommendations that they took me up on. That always made me feel terrific. Although I was never afraid of meeting new people, I was scared to death I wouldn’t be able to find my way back home. Today, I use the GPS on my phone, so it’s a piece of cake!”

She drew inspiration from mentors such as Tony Pariso of Captive Planners in Silver Spring, Maryland, who taught her how to properly underwrite an elevator account. “He never looked at the name on the account – only the operations and claims history,” she recalls. “I work the same way today.” Whether it’s a titan of the industry or a young entrepreneur, everyone has the same set of guidelines, she says.

Mortman says she has also learned a lot from her customers, many of whom have been with her since her first year with her own business – 1993. They taught her the value of customer service, which Mortman says is key to getting and keeping clients. She says it’s important to provide individualized attention, because:

“Without customers, where would we be? They are needed. We look forward to helping them every single day, day in and day out, year in and year out. We learn from them all the time.”

She attributes much of her success to the expertise and support of her husband, elaborating:

“My husband, Jean Pierre St. Louis, is French Canadian. Also, he was in the elevator industry as a manufacturer and elevator contractor until he sold his companies to ThyssenKrupp. For the past 15 years, he has worked full time as part owner of JM Associates. He is a huge part of the success of JM. Between his knowledge of computerization and the elevator equipment, his input has helped the carriers and the claims process.”

Elevator insurance can be a challenging arena. Several laws unique to New York have caused insurance carriers to nearly stop writing policies for elevator companies, Mortman observes. Under these laws, contractors and property owners are held responsible, even if the injured party ignored safety rules. In many cases, liability automatically falls to the elevator contractor. Because of this, there are fewer and fewer insurance carriers writing policies in New York for the elevator industry, she says.

The claims process can turn into a tremendous financial burden for insurance companies, Mortman says, elaborating:

“In this country, a person does not have to pay to hire a negligence/personal injury attorney. The attorneys get paid from the settlements. Because of the cost of investigating, many times, the insurance company will decide to write a check and settle a claim, rather than continue to rack up costs, even if [it] did no wrong.”

Mortman has seen change for the better during her years in the industry, however. For example, thanks to state insurance departments implementing regulations, carriers cannot put unreasonable caps on limits and cannot cancel policies in the middle of terms if a claim is made. Further, employers are spending a great deal of time and money teaching their employees about safety, and ever-better technology is making equipment and workplaces safer, she observes.

Mortman divides her time among her insurance office in Fort Lee and homes in Wausau, Wisconsin, and Naples, Florida. She almost always attends the annual NAEC and ECNY events, excited to learn about new equipment, network and take advantage of educational opportunities.

When she is not busy with work or industry events, Mortman enjoys spending time with family, cooking and playing golf – although she admits she hasn’t practiced enough to improve her game.

She and Jean Pierre have taken several cruises which they enjoyed, including one to Alaska where they saw some beautiful scenery. Mortman wishes she had more time to read, as she enjoys it. The last non-industry-related books she read include The Bronze Horseman romance trilogy by Paullina Simons and Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson. She hopes to soon read the psychological thriller The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Despite little time for vacationing or practicing golf, Mortman is a happy person, because she loves her profession. That, she said, is vital to achieving success in any industry, elaborating:

“You must love what you do. If you don’t, people will see through you. Work hard – really hard. Know your product. You only get out what you put in. If you work hard and help people along the way, you will get back what you put in 10 times over. People will remember that you helped them and come back to you. Never think of going to work. Think of going to a new adventure each day.”

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