Wherever natural disaster strikes, Grace Pilot is ready to dispatch insurance adjusters, to all 50 states — heading a family business that started with $2,500 in the bank.
Mobile businesswoman Grace Pilot at Camp Grace, a Mobile County retreat she makes available for programs for children with serious illnesses or disabilities.
Photo by Todd Douglas
On the campus of Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, college students enter a stately building of fellowship and refuge from the storms of academia. Scribed in a huge stained glass window are the words, “Grace Chapel.” It is named for E. Grace Pilot, a Mobile woman whose business also is a refuge from storms – and earthquakes, fires, or most any act of Mother Nature misbehaving.
Pilot is the co-founder of Pilot Catastrophe Services Inc. Headquartered in Mobile, with offices throughout America, her firm dispatches adjusters to disasters. Hurricane Sandy in New York? No problem. Tuscaloosa tornadoes? Covered. Hail in Minnesota? They’re on the way.
The 77-year-old matriarch of Pilot Catastrophe Services oversees the family business from offices in Mobile. Her co-workers include sons: W. Davis Jr., Curtis and Rodney Pilot, and daughter, Daphne Pilot Fonde. Her extended family is 8,000 insurance adjusters throughout the U.S. It is the largest catastrophe business company in the world. But it’s been a long journey to get there, a trial by Grace.
“I was taught to work hard,” says the elder Pilot, who is a native of Choctaw. “Growing up, we had nothing, yet we were rich. We had love and we had each other.”
“My dad farmed, which meant his children did too.” Her father’s farm had plenty of help. Pilot is one of 10 children. “We worked and never had the opportunity for college. But I would not take anything for my childhood,” she adds. “It’s where I developed my work ethic.”
In 1954, at age 18 and weeks out of high school, Pilot married Walter D. Pilot Sr. and they moved to Mobile. Her husband had several jobs during the newlywed years, including a stint loading meat trucks at Haas-Davis. Grace worked for S.H. Kress & Co., a 5-and-dime store in Mobile, making 75 cents an hour and all the popcorn she could eat.
Walter later hired on with an insurance-related firm but was not happy. “They wanted him to move to the Atlanta division and he refused,” Pilot recalls. “People were telling him to start his own business. I was one of those people.”
In May 1983, with $2,500 in the bank, Pilot & Associates launched its global headquarters from a kitchen table. “Starting a business from home is pretty easy,” Pilot says, with a touch of friendly sarcasm. “All it takes is your time. All of it.”
Her previous business experience was with Kress and later cashier with Mobile’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Drawing from her roots and Choctaw childhood work ethic, she was self-taught and learned fast. “In the days of liquid paper and manual typewriters, my job was bookkeeping and payroll,” she recalls. “But to this day, I have never met anyone who knew how to get business better than Walter.”
Hurricane Alicia was the turning point. When the storm hit Texas, killing 21 people and causing some $2.6 billion worth of damages even counted in 1983 dollars, the Pilots took off. “We put everything we had into servicing Alicia’s aftermath,” recalls Pilot. It established their company as a force of help when battling a force of bad.
The company grew. Walter made the calls, recruited adjusters and generated business. Pilot did the books, 14 to 16 hours a day, every day. Their house was an office complex. “I remember calling Walter when he was working a job in Texas,” she recalls. “I told him, when you get home, we are getting an office outside this house!” And so they did.
Walter died in 1991. But living up to the family name, Pilot became the head Pilot. “Mom was the force that held us together,” says son W. Davis Pilot Jr. “She still is.”
Pilot has always been all in the family. “It’s amazing I’ve been able to keep them here all these years,” laughs Pilot, referring to her co-working children. “Today, the family takes more of a guiding position. I am secretary-treasurer.”
With mom, sons and a daughter running the business, the Pilot family never completely leaves the store. Even when together for family events, leisure time blends with work. Family topics of conversation around the Pilot kitchen table drift easily from the grandkids to California earthquakes.
Work is their life. “We don’t have titles,” says Davis Pilot Jr. “This business is a family. We have always worked well together.”
Today Grace Pilot’s office hours have cut back from the 14-a-day she put in during the business’ beginning. The senior insurance adjuster executive has more time for her passion, charity work.
“I decided a long time ago I would help people who did not have the opportunity to attend college because of finances,” she says. She is a contributor to Howard Payne University, and in 1994 the school gave her an honorary Doctoral of Humanities degree. In 2010, the college’s Grace Chapel was named in her honor.
She organized the Dr. E. Grace Pilot Endowed Scholarship for a positive change in her hometown. The foundation provides financial support for education, community needs and Christian ministry. “This is my way to give back to Mobile, by helping its people,” she says.
In 2005, she was honored by Beta Sigma Phi as the First Lady of Mobile. The organization chose her “because of her ideas and commitment to others through her daily acts of love, friendship and generosity.” She is one of only three women inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame.
Family mementos, photographs, business honors and proclamations share Pilot’s office walls. But her desk is as organized as she is. Everything is in its place and she is in hers. “I love my business and I love to work,” she says. “I plan to stay here as long as I’m healthy and I’m very healthy,” she laughs. “They will have to carry me out of here.”
According to her family, friends and customers in all 50 states, that will not be any time soon.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.