Shirley Ann T. Sablan is a businesswoman among men. In the male-dominated industry of insurance for the past three years, Sablan deals directly with principals and partnering insurance carriers on a daily basis and also oversees the management of one of the longest standing insurance companies in the Northern Mariana Islands. She is the executive vice president and general manager of Pacifica Insurance Underwriters Inc. in Saipan.
Though she stands out as the lone woman among businessmen in her collection of photos from industry conferences, business meetings and events, she says her job presents no real challenges in this regard.
“I have always believed that if [women] plan carefully, organize and immerse ourselves with issues that may have a direct relation to our business and the profession we are in, we will always be in a state of readiness, regardless of gender,” she says.
Whether it was forging a path into a mostly male career field or the weighty task of reviving a company like Pacifica Insurance to its pre-recession days, Sablan was never intimidated by the road to success and never limited herself to what was considered the norm.
“In general, women in any field of business conquer challenges and achieve success as a result of will and ingenuity,” she says.
Her will to achieve success began early in life. It was her childhood dream to become a powerful businesswoman, and her every step since then has been with purpose toward that goal.
Starting in a college preparatory high school, she achieved beyond what was expected, earning not only her diploma, but dual associate’s degrees in liberal arts and pre-business. These would prepare her to earn a bachelor’s in business administration one year later from Chaminade University of Honolulu and a master’s in business with concentrations in marketing and human resources two years after that.
The focus and determination that accelerated her through college was something she knew from a childhood of helping out with the family business, which included a retail store, a dress shop, a beauty parlor and a wholesale operation.
“My father once told me that selfsacrifice and self-discipline are paradigm amongst successful individuals and that we all had to earn our keep,” Sablan says. “Even for a 14-year-old girl receiving such advice at the time, this meant that I had to earn everything that was given to me; borrowing was not an option.”
As part of earning her keep not just in the family business, but eventually in the outside working world, she knew her efforts had to go beyond sufficient.
“As a businesswoman, I was taught that the glass was always half full. If I was at 100%, I was pushed to make it 110%. This is the type of upbringing I had,” she says.
Her first job outside of college was a manager for Joeten Enterprises Inc. Employing her same 110% approach, she effectively demonstrated her capabilities and quickly grew her responsibilities from managing the company’s two The Athlete’s Foot stores to also running its franchise golf pro shop, Las Vegas Discount Golf & Tennis.
Her goal for The Athlete’s Foot was to reduce the competition and make it the authority in footwear in Saipan. Part of her approach included a detailed blueprint of the sales floor from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, using historical data to determine the best merchandising schemes. She also exhausted all resources in her buying strategies for the store.
“I knew which celebrities wore what, what colors were trending, if shades should now be sold bigger or smaller, or if my niche was listening to punk rock or hip-hop. I had most everything down to a science,” she says.
Eventually, she helped Joeten Enterprises acquire the exclusive master franchise of The Athlete’s Foot for Guam and build the brand’s first store in Guam.
For Las Vegas Discount Golf & Tennis, her goal was to increase sales per square foot. She took the store from 700 to 2,300 square feet, growing merchandise to improve inventory turnover and also adding a simulated golf range within the store for customers to test drive golf clubs and balls. Her efforts doubled sales.
She went on to become the marketing manager for Northern Marianas College before taking her current position with Pacifica Insurance in 2011.
Though insurance was a new industry to Sablan, she again applied “will and ingenuity” to “wake up the sleeping giant.” Having served the NMI for 37 years, Pacifica Insurance had seen a boom — at one point serving most of the hotels on island, Sablan says — and had also experienced, along with all companies in the commonwealth, a significant drop in business starting in the late 1990s with the Asian currency valuation crisis and SARS.
“I knew the only way to [restore the company] was to improve service, develop marketing and branding strategies, upgrade to new technologies and cultivate change,” she says.
In three years as general manager, Sablan has increased the company’s revenues and profits, increased market share for personal lines and increased the number of broker partnerships. In addition, she designed the company’s roadside assistance and customer loyalty programs and bid on and won a two-year contract for the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. workers’ compensation coverage, which covers more than 300 employees.
These successes have been aided not only by her will and ingenuity, but by certain distinctly feminine qualities.
“Etiquette, communication, appearance and intellect all play a major role in shaping women in leadership positions,” she says. “Most importantly, I socialize. If a woman can’t socialize, she should reconsider being in business.”
Her accomplishments and abilities are known and respected throughout the insurance industry, as is evident by her election to vice president of the Northern Marianas Insurance Association. The association is comprised of all major players in the industry focused on property and casualty.
“Her personality is very pleasant — the perfect personality for the type of work she’s involved in. She’s direct and to the point and very professionally mannered,” says Timothy Lujan, vice president and chief claims officer for Century Insurance Group, who has worked with Sablan for more than five years.
Part of Sablan’s personality is her concern for goodwill in the community. She learned back in the days of helping with the family business that the company’s business arena was also its backyard. This meant not only supporting, but physically serving local groups including the religious community and sports teams.
“My formula in business is ‘give and get’ — don’t expect to get if you don’t give,” she says.
In the past year, Pacifica Insurance has donated to support the Korean Community of Saipan’s South Korean- CNMI Student Exchange Program, the Joeten-Kiyu Library Fundraiser Golf Tournament, the Autism Society of the CNMI, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Mount Carmel School and the Saipan Fishing Association, among others. Sablan has also personally volunteered at various fundraisers and events this year to assist groups and causes including the public school system, the Marianas March Against Cancer, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Rotary Club of Saipan, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the Saipan Marathon, the American Red Cross and the Joeten DaiDai Foundation.
Furthermore, she is an active member of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Marianas Insurance Association and is also the community events director for a nonprofit group called Stellar Marianas.
At home, Sablan and her husband, Jason T. Sablan, raise six children ranging in age from 3 to 12. She considers her children her greatest life accomplishment of all.
“There is no sugar-coating motherhood,” she says. “But at the end of a long work day, coming home to six beautiful children whose laughter is infectious makes life all the more worthwhile.”
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