HR Leadership with Danone Simpson at CAHR20

HR and insurance share many of the same goals; setting everyone up for success in uncertain futures, keeping health and wellness top of mind, and ensuring protections where they’re needed.

CEO and President of Montage Insurance Solutions, Danone Simpson, stands proudly in both worlds encouraging human connection and excellence in everything she does as a business leader and active member of the Southern California HR Community. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Danone and Montage Insurance Solutions have been proud sponsors of the California HR Conference for over 10 years. Danone’s expertise in insurance and deep understanding of HR make her company the perfect organization to support an event that guides so many HR professionals into leadership roles over the years. 

Danone Simpson CEO Montage Insurance Title Sponsor CAHR20

Danone Simpson, CEO

With this in mind, we asked Danone to share her thoughts on what defines great HR leadership, especially during these difficult and uncharted times. She provided an insightful look into how her involvement with the PIHRA Woodland Hills chapter and the California HR Conference have informed how she runs her company, and vice versa! 

Dive into Danone’s positive and knowledgeable philosophies on HR and business, then register for the Virtual California HR Conference to reserve your space. (Danone and her team wouldn’t sponsor just any run of the mill virtual event!) 


CAHR20: What, to you, defines great HR leadership?

Danone Simpson: It is about learning and listening to clients, the team, vendors and understanding the core competency of the organization, all the while working with the C-Suite to create solutions for the needs of clients and internal team.  Flexibility is what I cherish more than anything.  Creating an environment that allows the culture to thrive in a positive way and constantly protecting it from anything or anyone negative.

My professor of Strategy taught us if we are not growing, we are dying.  He also taught us to find our unique differentiator and he realized ours was heart.  I loved that because the most important thing to me is to serve with heart.  I tell our employees if they don’t serve with heart and focus on greed rather than giving, they won’t last at Montage.  It takes courage and humility to be an HR leader because you are protecting the company, while caring for the employees, which can create a dichotomy at times.  It takes solid values to manage employees and compliance today.  You must understand the company’s why, mission and values and believe in them or leave.

Why are you excited to be part of the Virtual CAHR20?

DS: This has been a year to try new things and adapt. Leadership is best when solutions are found quickly and efficiently, which brings confidence and new energy. While we will not be face to face with our clients and connections, and will miss you all so much, (as much as I love connecting with all our clients, friends and seeing our competitors to have a friendly chat) this is the new normal for 2020.

I decided to support PIHRA with the same sponsorship, albeit extremely different, because I believe in Rafael, Brian and rest of the CAHR20 Team. This is an exciting platform that will bring great education from the best of the best speakers to our HR executives, while allowing them to still be there for their family.

Why is the California HR Conference such an important event for Montage to support?

DS: I support HR Executives and need to know what they need and want. What are their dreams for the year? What can I take off their plate? It’s no longer I, it’s now we. Our Executive Vice President, Tobias has the same heart and drive that I do, as does the team. The California HR Conference is the place to learn what they learn, so we know what they need.

This is where we meet our future clients, as we’ve connected with so many clients at PIHRA events. We sponsor their memberships to support their learning with PIHRA and SHRM.

We are very close to the LA and SFV Business Journals where we meet the HR executives, CFOs and CEOs nominating many clients for awards and many have won them, along with Montage. We have grown with PIHRA and the Business Journals because they are full of community support and learning. We have attended and sponsored the California HR Conference since 2006 or 2007 and never missed a year.

Our mission is to further your mission with Dedication, Service and Integrity while protecting your assets and giving back to the community. That includes PIHRA. I guess you could say I am a PIHRA cheerleader, albeit an older one, but one just the same. I love the spirit of PIHRA and want to be a part of it and share it with others for many years to come.

How has Montage Insurance’s approach to providing insurance solutions changed since the pandemic hit?

DS: In some ways it has changed, but in others it really hasn’t. Frankly we will climb over any mountain or swim through any ocean to serve our clients well.

We shifted to virtual, as did everyone else, and we have done it well with more capabilities. We now have two webinars per month, where before we had only one MY HR Summit per month in our offices, training on everything from FFCRC, the COVID 10 FSA new rules, PPP, Safety bringing employees back to work, diversity and more.

Thank goodness the Montage clients are large groups and we have everyone’s back on the HRIS for a while now. The years of innovation have made us all nimble and quick. We provide as many webinars for in state or out of state as possible, and enrollment customized e-kits. We are a wonderfully creative group, so this was just an extension of our disaster recovery we had just put in place and we are living it.

We miss the face to face with our clients and their lovely employees for the monthly, quarterly or annual wellness events. So, we have created many options for our clients to choose from in wellness and safety. This is the reason I started this company in 2006. I wanted to promote wellness and safety in every corner of the world and we do with our missionaries and clients’ sites overseas.

The only way to save on premiums is to do this: we fight hard for our client’s renewals and know everything about their claims, because we manage them. Our wonderful world of employee benefits, property casualty, workers’ compensation and professional lines of insurance just got a lot more fun and innovative over the years.

We have busted out of the boring stage it was in when I joined this industry in 1997 with brokers on the golf courses. I brought in 52 clients in a year and 2 months in my first year in this business by asking HR, CFO and CEO executives what they needed and wanted and that is exactly what we do today and have built this company on. We do it your way.

– Danone Simpson, CEO, Montage

What advice would you give to HR leaders during these turbulent times?

DS: My advice to you is to do whatever you are able to keep yourself strong first so you can manage everything on your plate right now. I empathize so much with HR Executives who just got all of this dumped in their laps, but we will come out of it stronger because living through adversity always makes us stronger and humbler.

Further, create safety, wellness opportunities and care in your culture. Love, hope and compliance will get us through it.

– Danone Simpson, CEO, Montage

What should HR leaders be most focused on during the pandemic to keep their organizations going strong?

DS: Managing the C-Suite’s needs and helping them understand this year takes patience. HR leaders that are managing the requirements, setting up protocols-checking temperatures, practicing great habits with masks and gloves, as needed, keeping the organization clean and sterilized to protect the health of the workers first, while ensuring the company is still operating as “business in the new norm” will win this battle.

Managing workers staying at home, the COVID 19 compliance, putting in efficiencies with managers for on-site and off-site workers to get the job done in the most cost-effective way while delivering on all promises is the end goal.

You must be on the leadership team so they understand the requirements of the laws in FFCRA, so employees with children are protected during this time, if you are under 500 employees. Keeping your pulse on the emotional health of your workers concerning the virus and the charged emotions concerning diversity and respect is critical as well.

Training and educating on benefits, free testing, wellness and their EAP’s can assist the family with these stressors. For those with operations shut down, dealing with furloughed employees, keeping in benefits if at all possible, sending updates and being authentic is important.

For those who are having to terminate employees have the toughest jobs because it takes constant empathy. They have to trust this too will pass and encourage hope whereever possible.

Can you tell us about your history with PIHRA and PIHRA Woodland Hills?

DS: These women and men on the Woodland Hills board are my joy—a team full of intellect that I adore. The caring and sharing is amazing and I have loved it since the very first time I met these HR folks in 2006. They sang songs for the holidays at a great training meeting and gave everyone a small gift.

I believe with all my heart that PIHRA is the community of HR leaders that hold the future of our businesses in their hands. Without employees we have nothing. They train, lead, discipline, encourage their executives, managers and employees, which takes intellect and education.

PIHRA sisters and brothers are always there for one another assisting with obtaining the best speakers available for us. As a CEO, I love learning from these executives because they help me be wiser with my employees in hiring only the best, having those difficult conversations and parting ways with those that don’t fit our unique giving and serving culture. I attend many CEO cohorts which teach strategy, scaling up, business principals, SWAT charts and organizational developmental programs.

PIHRA teaches me how to manage and care for my employees, which make our organization run efficiently and effectively. That is priceless.

– Danone Simpson, CEO, Montage

What influenced your decision to join PIHRA Woodland Hills?

DS: My HR Manager at the time was invited to a PIHRA breakfast and she asked me to join her. I love to learn, so PIHRA offered me that unique opportunity to learn from a different perspective. I tried to get my PHR designation and I failed. It was the only time I failed a test like that. My Woodland Hills team told me I was trying to answer questions from what I thought was an HR perspective, not from the CEO’s perspective. This is the mistake I am certain that every CEO makes. I loved that.

I realized truly that the talent it takes to be a great HR executive is not my calling, because I fall in love with every one and HR takes tough love too. I love learning compliance because I always want to make sure I am doing everything exactly per the requirement of the law.

I love the comradery of PIHRA Woodland Hills and their corporate leaders. Rafael Rivera (CEO, PIHRA) is innovative and willing to take risk and then ensure these risks are covered. At times we have to take a leap of faith and that takes courage too. Brian Allain (COO, PIHRA) is one of the most caring event planners I have ever met and I have been in event planning over 40 years as executive director of festivals and fairs, luncheons, tournaments, celebrity events and more.

Montage puts on over 100 events in a year from wellness to safety with clients, our business journals, our non-profits and more. Many times I have said, “If only I had Brian to work with.” I love working with dynamic teams and everyone I have met from PIHRA fits that bill, starting with PIHRA Woodland Hills. SHRM has its place for resources and learning, yet PIHRA represents the heart of community in HR.

What’s been the most gratifying (exciting? fun? interesting?) part of collaborating with and volunteering for PIHRA over the years?

DS: I can be safe in sponsorship, sit on my hands (which usually always go up), and be successful. I did that for 13 years. Now I am handling programs. PIHRA has allowed me to just sit back and be a part of a team without being the leader. I have always been a leader and sometimes it is great to just get the team perspective.

I had the Executive of PIHRA Woodland Hills assist me with some tough changes we needed to make and she was kind, firm and did a great job. I was without HR for a few years after having a HR person work to change our amazing team culture so I was gun-shy. He did more damage in three months than was to be believed. Karen got me through what I needed, so a client of mine came on board.

Janelle is our HR and Wellness Director, so finally I feel safe again. Employees can wreak havoc on your world without HR and a great HR person makes it fun while delivering exactly what I need and want. We are an amazing team again and PIHRA had a lot to do with this important process. I have had to fight for my culture of diversity, giving and serving and do not want greedy folks in it. We are back on track, growing and keeping our 97% retention again. Most of my clients I have had since 1997 and I like creating true partnerships that way.


Thanks so much for your time, Danone!

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