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Thursday, Feb 22, 2024

Insuring Success

Danone Simpson, founder of Montage Insurance Services in Woodland Hills, was a shy 18-year-old in rural Texas when she was in an accident that nearly killed her. As she recovered, she resolved to have courage, a sentiment she credits with enabling her to become a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys, a fashion model and a Hollywood actress. She played receptionist Kendall Chapman for a decade on the CBS primetime show “Dallas.” After her daughter was born, she transitioned to business, putting her knack for driving efficiency to use at a successful entertainment production firm and an early internet retailer. She opened Montage in 2006. Simpson holds an executive MBA from Pepperdine University. She was named a San Fernando Valley Business Journal “Trusted Advisor” in 2011 and Montage was recognized by the Business Journal in 2010 for having one of the Valley’s best executive teams. Simpson sat down with the Business Journal to discuss her days in front of the camera, the joys and challenges of the insurance business and the necessity of living life to the fullest. Question: How did you become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader? Answer: My brother called me and asked me to try out, so I did. Out of 2,000 girls, I was one of six that was selected, which was frankly unbelievable to me. I was a simple country girl – boots and jeans and long hair – so that was a whole new world for me. How did you start modeling and acting? (After the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders) I moved to New York and lived there for a couple of years. I was like Alice in Wonderland. I was there during the time of Patti Hansen and Rene Russo, then Christie Brinkley came on the scene with that “girl-next-door” look, which really helped me because I was shorter than them all. Then I came back to Dallas and was dating a guy who worked for Warner Records, so we both moved to California. I ended up with Wilhelmina Models. I was 23 and it was a wonderful, amazing career. How did you handle rejection? I was thrilled at the work I got. If I did not get a commercial out of 200 girls trying out, I realized I was not the right fit and moved on to the next deal. I came always prepared for work – ready to go – and built a reputation for it, so loyal casting agents trusted my work ethic and booked me. The difference was I did not want to be a star. I loved the work.  What is your favorite memory from ‘Dallas’? When Larry (Hagman) looked at me and said, “Never ask for a raise and you’ll always get one.” I said, “OK,” and I always did. He was so funny – he had a collection of hats and would play the character that would wear the hat every day. He was such a playful man. Who were some of the most memorable celebrities you encountered during your time in show business? I loved every one of them; they were all so unique! Ringo (of the Beatles) was so much fun, just a great guy. Johnny Cash was awesome – he was just that country boy, you know? Priscilla Presley was amazing. But I have to say my favorite was Linda Gray, who played such a little brat (on “Dallas”), but she was the sweetest person in the world! I always found that the women who played those kinds of characters so well were the sweetest people. Title: Founder and chief executive ORGANIZATION: Montage Insurance Services Born: Dallas Education: Executive MBA, Pepperdine University PERSONAL: Lives in Woodland Hills with husband of 37 years; has one daughter, Breana, who works in the fashion industry; works with son-in-law Tobias Kennedy, executive vice president of Montage Insurance. Hobbies: Writing, traveling and spending time with family Did you ever consider going back into acting? There were many times I thought about going back into acting, but I’m so business-minded that I wanted to be more on the other side. I didn’t want to be a star – I was supposed to do the Dorothy Stratten life story years ago, but I turned it down because of the nude scenes. Being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader exposed me to what it was like to be kind of a celebrity – everyone knew you. I love my freedom, so when I came into L.A., I always had that in mind. You lose your ability to be amongst the people, and that’s what I love so much. What was your first encounter with nonprofits and fundraising? Being an actress on “Dallas” for 10 years, you get invited to a lot of fundraising events. I loved the nonprofits, I loved helping people. For a while I did both simultaneously, then I got out and just started doing fundraising. I produced the Calabasas Pumpkin Festival for a couple years – that was the hardest job I ever had! I’d just had my daughter, so I was up until 4 a.m. every night so work didn’t impede on her time. What did you do after ‘Dallas’? I got into location-based entertainment with the studios, like Fox and Paramount. We were taking them to Las Vegas, where they were building the Venetian and the other beautiful hotels at the time. We were talking to the CEOs of those hotels, and I was an investor in that. But it was very “pie in the sky.” Then the internet came, so I decided to get into that industry, too. We had an Internet store called “Have to Have” that had pagers that had the stock market, all kinds of ostrich meat, lots of leather goods – insensible, silly yuppie things. I was really into that! What was your first job in the insurance industry? I saw a job listing in the Hollywood Reporter for what I thought was an advertising agency, but it was an insurance brokerage firm. So I went in there and I helped them with their advertising, PR and marketing. I sold 50 accounts within the first year and a half, which is unheard of in our industry, and I loved it. It’s such an exciting career, and people don’t realize it. Why is insurance important to you personally? At the time of my accident when I was 18, my dad had just lost his job. I didn’t have insurance, and COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which extends insurance benefits under certain circumstances after employees lose their jobs) wouldn’t be enacted until the next year. I was working as a dental assistant, and after the accident, I would go to a patient’s insurance plan and ask myself, what can we do for this person? How do we create a plan so they can get all of their work done for the best price? I studied the insurance. Now I look back and it really is the golden thread. We all have a path in life – a mission, a purpose – and I believe that this is my purpose. How else did the accident change you? I realized how precious life was, and I started thinking toward the future. I started living my life in decades: My 20s were fun, the years to really establish who I was and find my way. In my 30s it was family. Luckily the job on “Dallas” lasted up through into my 30s, and at that point I was doing more fundraising and raising my daughter. I got very involved in the community – in Calabasas they wanted me to be the mayor, but I didn’t want to be in politics so that was a very good decision. My 40s were a lot about building my career; in my 50s I started my own business. I’m in my 60s now, and this decade is a lot about running my business while also going back to the love of my life, which is writing. How did you know you wanted to start your own business? Being an independent contractor my whole life, I found being an employee hard for me, because I’m an innovator. I’m an entrepreneur. I found that I always wanted to go in and see how the company ran. Were they running efficiently? Were they making their profits and treating their employees well? I loved culture and learning and I found that a lot of the insurance brokerage firms I worked for had questionable business practices. One of them terminated all of the women aged 50 years and older, and while I wasn’t one of them, I just thought that was wrong. At what point in your career did you start Montage? I had been a partner at a Pasadena insurance firm for two years, and my clients were begging me to start my own agency. A president of one of my manufacturing clients helped me move my furniture, which the CFO of another one of my clients had helped me find. They literally helped me start my business. It was small – only three offices and one bathroom. The coffee pot was in the hallway. Why was providing services to nonprofit clients important to you personally? Being part of the nonprofit world for so long and having been a fund developer for 17 years, I love my nonprofits. I always fundraised for the elderly and the youth, and now it’s doing the same thing, but instead of fundraising we’re fund-saving. We’re able to help our clients save money on property, casualty and business by helping them find the right plan for them, because insurance is expensive. What are the biggest challenges clients struggle with when it comes to insurance? Being an employer in California. That is one of the hardest challenges we have, especially with the government trying to get into the world of insurance. It has changed our insurance programs, especially on the benefits, so much. We now have these watered-down plans. I think the Affordable Care Act brought in some great things, because now people who are ill can have plans. Everybody needs to have insurance, but it’s tough – it’s a big burden on employers. I sympathize with them because I’m an employer. How does your firm help deal with this issue? As an insurance broker, we protect the assets of our clients and try to help them find the right programs rather than paying for all this insurance that maybe they don’t need. I see that a lot. And for workers’ comp, you want to keep those workers’ comp costs down so you can put that money back in the benefits. What are some of your success stories? Last year we saved one client – a nonprofit – $40,000, which they were able to put into their benefits. Another one had an employee who wound up in the hospital for a month while she was on vacation in France. (The company’s) pricing was just going out the roof, so we went and met with her when she arrived back in the U.S. Turns out she was on Medicare but had been telling her doctors to bill Cigna first. I ended up saving them $900,000 within the first two weeks that I was this company’s broker. Then we went on the road to their other locations and talked to their employees about how their benefits work. Their prescription drug coverage went down by $1 million and some change. Last year their renewal came in as a flat renewal. What satisfies you most about your work? What I love the most is handling a claim where the carrier said no, then turning that into a yes. I am a bulldog – we will not let it go until it’s done. Helping the people has always been my thing. I know what it was like to not have insurance – it took me until I was 25 to pay off my medical bills after the accident, and I had to work three jobs to do it. But I think that’s why I’m so passionate now about claims management and helping people understand their benefits. What’s most challenging about your work? Being “little miss CEO” – I tell my clients and employees not to tell anyone I’m CEO when we’re out at an event. I just want to be one of them. I’m really busy so my team does a lot more with the enrollment meetings, but that’s my juice and my candy! I go to as many as I can. Who inspires you? My mom and dad were wonderful teachers, and my mom went through so many fascinating things. She was French and was living in China when she had me; she was an incredible cook and loved to entertain and had a very Eastern philosophy on health. I’m actually writing a script about her life with a wonderful script mentor who has worked at all the big studios. It’s so exciting!

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