Marji Guyler-Alaniz is the President of AgriSompo International, and the Chief Operating Officer of AgriSompo North America.
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Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone, Continued!
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade well outside of my comfort zone and I’m here to tell you: that is where the growth, the good stuff, the goal meeting and breaking happens! I started my career at another crop insurance company, working through five different roles over the course of the 12 years I was there. From Communications to Operations to Risk Management, including the SRA, I learned many important things about how crop insurance works and how the companies that deliver it can be successful while doing so. Then, that company was sold (yes, in crop insurance we have ALL dealt with change) and another year later I decided it was time to jump off the bus. I was ready for a change, but I didn’t know exactly what that would mean. I walked away from that career on February 1, 2013 and into a whole new world. Was it scary? Absolutely. Would I go back and change my decision? Definitely not. Was I certain of where I would go from there? Not at all. Getting out of my comfort zone and making a change that I needed was the first step of a new journey.
Shortly afterward I started a media company called FarmHer, to celebrate and share the stories of women who are part of agriculture. I had never started a company before, but I surrounded myself with a team of people who knew what to do including attorneys, accountants, and a few trusted advisors, and we were off and running. I spent the next 8 years forcing myself out of my comfort zone almost daily. Start a business, build a brand, hit the road, network like crazy, get in front of the camera, be vulnerable, negotiate big contracts, navigate strategic partnerships, adapt, adjust, refine, and grow. Was I confident it would work the way I wanted it to? No. Did I fail at some things? Yes. Did I learn and grow from each experience? Absolutely.
When the opportunity came to return to crop insurance I jumped in with both feet. AgriSompo was not just a challenge, but a huge opportunity. It is an opportunity for all of us who are a part of or connected to AgriSompo. It is the opportunity to build a unique, inclusive, innovative, and special culture. It is the opportunity to serve the agriculture community in an extremely important way. I knew that when I joined in the beginning of 2021, and I know it to be even more true today. Every opportunity you could want is here, you just have to go after it. If the path isn’t clear, ask for help, reach out, make a connection, and seek to learn and grow.
Here I am almost two and a half years later, proud of what we have done, but even more excited about where we are going. My latest step outside my comfort zone took me south of the equator on a solo trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Brazil is one of the countries where AgriSompo writes crop insurance, and as one of my new areas of responsibility, I traveled there to meet the team and learn more about our agriculture business and the broader world of Sompo in Brazil. The history of Sompo in Brazil goes all the way back to 1959. Sompo grew into Japan mostly as a way of serving their overseas customers – Brazil is home to the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan. Through a series of investments and acquisitions, Sompo grew into the current company, Sompo Seguros in 2016. Today Sompo Seguros is a well-known name in Brazil throughout many lines of insurance. As they have evolved and adapted, the company has focused on commercial clients and businesses, as well as crop insurance.
My view from the plane in a more rural part of Brazil
My view coming into Sao Paulo – a city of over 12.5 million people.
Our AgriSompo team in Brazil is part of the Sompo Seguros team and works out of the Sao Paulo office to serve crop insurance clients throughout the vast country. Agriculture is a significant part of the country; in fact Brazil ranks as the top growing region for sugarcane, soybeans, and oranges. The country also ranks third globally in the production of corn and bananas.
AgriSompo sells crop insurance primarily in the south, where there are established growing regions and supporting infrastructure. The Brazilian government is supportive of crop insurance, providing premium subsidies annually to farmers who choose to purchase crop insurance. AgriSompo started selling in the region in 2018. Major growing regions of the country experienced a severe drought in the 2021/2022 growing season which has led to some change and opportunity in the market.
In addition to crop insurance, the agriculture team there also has a sizeable book of farm equipment insurance. This book of business is much more mature than the crop insurance book, as it has been in existence longer.
The crop insurance team is led by Marcio Martinanti, who has been working in the Brazilian crop insurance market for many years. The farm equipment team is led by Lidiane Vierira. The broader ag team is led by Felipe Ribeiro. It was great to finally meet the team in person and forge a closer relationship. I look forward to working together to further establish our strategy and focus in Brazil.
Felipe Ribeiro, Director of Agriculture, Marcelo Braz, Commercial Director and me at a reception for all of the brokers who work with Sompo Seguros.
In addition to meeting with our agriculture team and learning about our current and future business goals, I also had the opportunity to join Mikio Okumura, Group COO, President and Representative Executive Officer of Sompo Holdings, Inc., of which Sompo International and AgriSompo are a part. Going forward I will refer to him as Okumura-san; in Japanese business, it is customary to refer to a colleague using their last name followed by “san” (meaning “dear” or “honorable Mr./Ms.”). In my time with Okumura-san I joined in meetings with the Sompo Seguros executive team to better understand their current and future business strategy, and how agriculture fits into that. All the AgriSompo business in Brazil is written through Sompo Seguros, so working together on strategy and communicating with transparency about how we are managing our work is extremely important for the future of our international business.
Similar to Europeans, Brazilians drink small amounts of very strong coffee throughout the day. Meetings start with coffee and meals end with it!
In Brazil the primary language is Portuguese. Many people speak English as a second language, but I was definitely out of my comfort zone in when traveling and in group settings. I quickly learned the essentials: Bom Dia (good morning), Boa Noite (goodnight), Obrigado (thank you) and pequeno (small). Pequeno was important because I found that Brazilians have wonderful traditional food and eat a lot of meat. While every meal was delicious, I quickly learned I need to ask for a small portion!
Having lunch at a steakhouse with the executive team of Sompo Seguros and Okumura-san.
On the final day of my trip I joined Alfredo Neto, CEO of Sompo Seguros, and Okumura-san in a town hall meeting with all the Sompo Seguros employees. The team got an interpreter for me so I could understand what others were saying and so the whole group could also understand me as I introduced myself and shared our broad commitment to agriculture at AgriSompo. As Alfredo introduced me, he said that I was the first woman executive ever to visit the Sompo Seguros team in Brazil. I take this as an honor and a big step in the right direction as we continue building out One Sompo – a diverse organization focused on delivering excellence in insurance around the world and working together across borders.
Headed into this trip I was definitely not in my comfort zone. I was unsure of traveling to a vast and culturally different country by myself. I was unsure how I would manage not speaking the language. I was unsure of meeting many new colleagues and parts of my team. What I found was welcoming, warm, and caring colleagues and what I came away knowing was that we are all better together. We are better when we collaborate, and take the time to meet, talk, understand, and discuss. We are better when we make the effort to understand other cultures. We are stronger as a company because of the diversity in the business we write. Harnessing this power is our true task, today and into the future. So, as you read this, I encourage you to go a little bit outside of your comfort zone. Ask a question you’ve been silently wondering. Engage in a group that you have interest in. Connect with a colleague from another country in Workplace. Commit to something new, something you are unsure of. Let’s grow together!
If you have an interest in finding out more about crop insurance internationally, let me know – I would be happy to connect you with our team of experts!