Faced with loss, Kate Lyons stepped up to the challenge
By Peter Osborne
Many Delawareans were shocked to wake up April 18, 2018, to the news: “David Francis Lyons Sr. of Henlopen Acres and Centreville passed away suddenly in Sea Island, Georgia, in the company of his beloved wife, Catharine (Kate) Nicolaides Lyons on April 17.”
By all accounts, David was “bigger than life.” He was known – beloved, really – throughout the state. At his jam-packed funeral at St. Ann’s Catholic Church four days later, person after person told Kate that David called them regularly – some every day – just to catch up. Each thought he or she was the only one, but they were learning at the funeral that they were one of many with that personal connection.
Kate Lyons took on that legacy without a second thought. Her husband was the face of Lyons Insurance – the visionary – and she was the detail person responsible for branding and communications. And now – one week after David passed away at age 58 – she walked into the office to take the reins of the independent insurance brokerage firm they had built together.
The rest of this profile is in Kate Lyons’s own words. It tries to capture the emotions, challenges and accomplishments she’s experienced over the past 12 months. We scheduled the interview for one hour; it lasted more than two.
This was a first-time thing for Kate, who admits she has deliberately avoided the limelight over the years.
We opened with what seemed like the obvious question: When somethingthat horrific happens, how does it change you?
The business was in transition. David was assuming a couple of responsibilities outside the office that were going to make him less present in the day-to-day here. The Delaware Business Roundtable. The board at the University of Delaware, which he was thrilled about doing. He was the mayor of Henlopen Acres, he loved doing that. David was a Delaware man. I had one foot out the door myself, so things changed in an instant.
When a crisis like this happens, you ask yourself, what are the first steps we must take and how much time do we have? Once you know that, then you assess your organization and the talent that you’ve got. The day after David died, our No. 2 person resigned and then someone else left two weeks later. I had to assess our capabilities and leverage the talent that we had. I had to communicate with my clients, and I had to communicate with our carrier partners, critical to our organization, what the plan was going forward.
[The day after David’s funeral], I gathered my sons, Dave and Tim, and people I trusted from outside the organization to bounce ideas off and strategize with. They told me what they thought were good ideas and which ones had holes. And then we moved forward very strategically and thoughtfully. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t know what we were going to do. Early on I identified the goal: I will run this company for the next five to seven years to structure it for transition to my sons. David’s plan all along.
[Dave, Tim and I] first communicated with our employees. They needed to know I wasn’t going to be turning
around and selling the company. Right now, mergers and acquisitions in the insurance industry are at an all-time high, so cashing out is a nice option. But that’s not what I wanted to do. And that wasn’t what David would have expected me to do. Eleven months must be the magic date because all the brokers that were contacting me in April and May [of 2018] are now calling again.
After the company meeting, one of our team leaders took me aside and said, “Kate, I really want to help you. We need to get every one of our top-tier carriers in here because they want to know what you’re going to do.” And it was hard. I had to meet with national and super-regional insurance executives who knew David, our sons and many of the people at Lyons, but had never met me. I had made a career of being behind the scenes.
They came in, one after the other and I did my spiel and I told them just what I told you. I will be at the helm for the next five to seven years. I will sell Lyons Cos. to them and then they will decide what direction they want to take it in.
I was surprised by how they responded. This firm has a wonderful reputation. It’s not exclusive to Delaware. We couldn’t possibly be as successful as we are if we were only in Delaware. We have a nice footprint outside this state. They wanted us to be successful. I can’t speak to why that is, other than respect for my husband and the company he built. It’s very rare for a woman to be the owner and the president of an independent insurance brokerage firm. And they seemed to want us to succeed.
At the same time, our clients had to be informed of what was going on and I shared those communications with you. I would go to these big events that David would have loved, and usually took one of my sons because they’re so good at working the room. And then I realized I didn’t have to be there. Dave and Tim have this. Why am I where they should be? I need to be back in the office, running the organization and building it to work for me.
When I met with our staff, I prioritized our goals as retention and growth. It works both ways. We’ve had people leave; we’ve asked people if this is where they want to be. Some people don’t want to work for a woman. Or maybe they didn’t want to work for me. I don’t know. But I can tell you we’ve made some strategic hires that I’m very proud of because this is my management team. We’re interested in people interested in working with us. That’s the way we are with clients, too. We’re not right for everybody.
I’m pretty darn transparent. I’d rather be straight with you. I’m very direct. Maybe that’s a flaw or weakness. I just don’t want to be misunderstood. And I think people appreciate knowing what you really mean. So, I just say it.
How do I want to be remembered? That I did a good job at what I’ve been tasked with, transitioning Lyons Cos. to the next generation. This is a graying industry. You go to any insurance meeting, and one of the very first things they tell you about are initiatives to bring young people into the industry. It’s not a first choice. Training programs begin as early as high school. And I want to feed that pipeline here. David was a strong and charismatic leader. In his absence, many of our people have challenged themselves in ways they might not have had the opportunity to without the need.
I feel that David is always with me, but I don’t “˜feel his presence’ here. I feel like David left the building. I am not going to let him down. It’s like your question about “do I wish I had more time?” Without the immediacy of the need, the urgency, I could not have done as good a job. I can’t think like that – “what if?”
What advice would I give myself a year ago? I would say to myself,” you’ve got this.” I didn’t know I had it in me or that we, or as an organization, that we had it in us. I didn’t know how deep the talent and loyalty of the people at Lyons and our clients was. I just had to organize things a little differently.
I have a very clear vision for how things should work. And the timing. Are there things outside my control? Yes. I try to identify where I need to find talent or skills that are outside of what I’m able to do.
I’m the oldest of six – five girls and a boy. My father felt very, very strongly that each of us should be “good people” and successful. I was educated for 13 years at an all-girls school and then for four years at a women’s college. When I graduated from college, it came as a complete and utter shock to learn that women didn’t run the world, because that had always been my experience. My husband was someone who really didn’t see a difference between having a man or a woman in any particular role. I look back at some of the management team pictures and there was a time when he was the only guy. He never saw that, which was healthy for the organization.
I have an opportunity to build on what David started and to prove myself. I come from a family of high achievers. This is a big thing to be tasked with and I’m going to do it.
Thank God I have this. Really, what changed is how I’m going to spend the rest of my life.
The difficult part is the forever-ness of it. Personally, the painful part is David being gone forever. He was huge. When people say, “you’re always going to have those memories,” I don’t know. I’m not
at the place yet where the memories are satisfying.
To learn more about Kate Lyons, read this lightning round Q&A:https://delawarebusinesstimes.com/lightning-round-with-kate-lyons/