Donna Roper has lived in York County for most of her adult life. But if you listen closely, you still may catch a hint of her southern accent.
She doesn’t hear it herself anymore. Originally from Texas, the principal and vice president of operations for McConkey & Co. in York County knows it can surface under some conditions.
“If I get really excited or really relaxed, my words start drawing out more,” she said.
The southern United States was her home before marriage, children and her then-husband’s job transfers in the oil industry. In the 1980s, they moved from the Lone Star State to Oklahoma and then her husband switched to a banking position and they moved to Las Vegas.
She remembers the Vegas move with two toddlers as particularly unnerving.
“After two days of driving. We pulled over in a Las Vegas parking lot. It was hot. The kids were fussing and I just lost it. It was nerve-racking,” she said. “I hated it in Vegas. Hard place to live when you have young kids. No friends, no network.”
The family had the opportunity to relocate to Hunt Valley, Maryland, and settled in York County in the York Suburban School District. Roper stayed home with the children until they were ready for school. That was about 30 years ago.
Around that same time, McConkey, an independent insurance agency, was celebrating a milestone: 100 years in business.
When it was time to go back to work full time, Roper weaved in and out of temporary work. One job landed her at McConkey to help with the centennial anniversary and hand-addressing invitations.
“At the time I didn’t know that insurance guys don’t write very well,” she said.
She said she loved everyone at the company and when another temporary position opened up at McConkey a few months later, she agreed to come aboard again. For the next few months, she was the company’s receptionist.
Holding a master’s degree from Midwestern State University, she was overqualified, but at the time it was the right call for Roper and her family.
The temp work turned into a permanent opportunity and this time Roper’s trajectory in the company moved upward. First she started taking over some of her manager’s responsibilities and she became a go-to person in the department. She worked in jobs that she said needed to be done, but usually they were jobs others didn’t want to do.
She became a department supervisor working in both the accounting and the IT departments.
“I didn’t have IT experience, so I took books home at night,” she said.
Looking back, there were many supervising roles Roper handled where she might not have had the skills to actually do the same job that her team members conducted, but she could still help lead her team, she said.
“Being an advocate for that person. Sticking up for that person. Sitting down with them and saying, ‘Hey I really don’t know your job, I’m not going to pretend, but help me understand it,’” she said. “I’ve always felt that is the way a good leader does, be their biggest supporter and biggest advocate. You might not know what you are doing, but you can certainly motivate them.”
Onward and upward
Roper’s moves at McConkey continued upward. She went from supervising a team to supervising the supervisors and eventually to vice president of operations. She is also a company principal, the first and only woman on the company executive team in the history of McConkey.
“They need that women’s perspective. Bringing the empathetic voice,” she said. “Bring the voice of what our employees are saying or thinking. I also play devil’s advocate. It’s not just the sales. It’s not the most popular role, but it’s needed.”
In Roper’s own words, here’s some insight she has about her leadership role, a position she understands is both highly visible in both her professional and personal lives.
CPBJ: What’s it like to be the first and only (woman principal/VP)
Roper: There are times you are sort of left out of the club. They are talking about golf, they are talking about going to the shooting range. My outside-of-the-office interests are different than what theirs are. That’s OK. In meetings sometimes I have to hold up my hand and say, OK, it’s my turn to talk. My voice is not as loud as theirs. There are things that we do better and there are things that we don’t do as well.
All the obstacles I faced? I look at those as challenges and opportunities to grow. Some of those things have been really difficult. My divorce. It was really difficult but it has made me a much stronger woman.
It’s awesome to see my granddaughters and how they have that spunk in them. If they decide that they want to do something, they set their mind to it. I love being that leader for them.
CPBJ: Why is it important to bring more women into the company. Why is that diversity important?
Roper: Back in the day when I was looking for a job, some of those opportunities weren’t available to women. When I first started college I was in pre-med and I was at the top of my class in pre-med. I was the only woman and my adviser was very much against women (the year was 1979-80) Very much a bully. I cowed down to that and stepped down in pre-med. There are times that I kick myself for that, but then there are other times I think it would have been really difficult to raise the good kids that I have and had the privilege of being that full-time mom.
CPBJ: Why pursue the insurance field?
Roper: Ninety-nine percent of students don’t go to school for insurance and insurance can be a great career. We have a really rich intern program
CPBJ: How do you sell that?
Roper: I don’t really want to convince somebody because if you have to sell them on the job they are probably not the right person. We do talk about what we do in the community. What you can do in the community. It’s a button that’s easy to push with those coming right out of college. Having that ability to help people. Some are focused on detail. Customer-service support staff like to put themselves out there, so they are geared toward selling. There is a whole gamut of people who help with insurance.
CPBJ: You have a low turnover rate, Why do employees stay?
Roper: We have a very low turnover rate. We work very hard on our culture and our moral path of doing the right thing. Good attracts good. To keep going for 128 years, we have to invest in the young professionals.
CPBJ: How many years do you have left at McConkey?
Roper: I’ll be here until they kick me out