When Susan L. Combs graduated from Mizzou with a hospitality management degree, she was fielding eight job offers. Her professors helped her decide on the best opportunity for her based on real-world factors, like salary compared to cost of living. She accepted an offer to be a banquet manager at the Marriott in the World Trade Center in May of 2001, but when the Marriott called and said they’d eliminated their third banquet manager position, Combs chose to pivot and get a different job in a different industry in New York City.
“When I took that job at Paychex, I kind of felt like I’d failed a little bit,” said Combs. “Like ‘this is not what I came to New York to do.’”
However, Combs’ grit and determination helped her forge a new path for herself. After a few years with Paychex, she started her own insurance brokerage firm at 26 years old.
“I knew that if I started a company as a sole proprietor, I need to appear bigger,” said Combs. “So, I thought ‘what are the partnerships and connections I can bring in to offer additional services to my clients and support the process?’”
As Combs & Company grew, so did Combs’ list of skills. After working at the Hearnes Center and Holiday Inn Select Expo Center in college, she believed she would never leave the hospitality industry. Since, she has used her hospitality knowledge to carve out her own niche in the insurance industry, working with entertainment, actors, directors, feature films, food products, New York City open-air markets, and international companies opening their first U.S. location.
“All that is, the way I look at it, is hospitality,” said Combs. “We’re helping people understand a system they aren’t familiar with. So even though I’ve gotten out of a traditional hospitality role, it’s just service.”
Combs credits her love of service to her father, Major General Roger E. Combs, the inspiration for her book “Pancakes for Roger: A Mentorship Guide to Slaying Dragons.” After his military service, General Combs served as a circuit judge in Gentry County, Missouri. Combs remembers his impact on the community through his compassionate work in the legal system. In 2015, Combs brought her own compassionate service to the legal system when she began serving as an expert witness in 40 states and for multiple major hospital systems, with a certification on the Affordable Care Act. Her father’s wise words guided her as she communicated complicated information about healthcare law.
“My dad always said, ‘It’s important to be understood, but it’s more important to not be misunderstood,’’’ said Combs.
Regardless of Combs’ many responsibilities, she has built her business to be flexible enough that she can be involved in other causes she is passionate about, including the Mizzou Alumni Association, the Jefferson Club, the Veterans Clinic, owning a restaurant in her hometown of King City, Missouri, and helping with her family’s ’s farms. This flexibility also allowed her to return home from New York to care for her father when he was put on hospice for a relapse of Agent-Orange-induced throat cancer. In his last weeks, while he was on a feeding tube, General Combs asked for pancakes for breakfast. While Combs was devasted that she couldn’t fulfill his request, after her father’s passing in 2018, she created a social media post inviting people to eat pancakes in her father’s memory. This created a social media movement of people submitting photos with the #PancakesforRoger, to help raise funds for the Veterans Clinic.
This inspired Combs to begin work on her book, which she cites as a healing process.
“I would set aside time every day to work on the book and just ugly cry,” said Combs. “I didn’t intend for the General to take over the whole book, but I’m not surprised that he did. It was a very healing experience. He gave me a lot of good advice, and I believe if you get good advice, it is your duty to share it with somebody else. If it helped you, it can probably help someone else.”
Combs passed on some good advice to Mizzou students as CAFNR’s Executive-in-Residence and cited her experience at Mizzou in the hospitality management program as crucial to her career success, even though she is not in a traditional hospitality field.
“It’s a business degree with cooking classes,” said Combs. “It’s a super well-rounded degree, and that’s where the fun people are!”
Combs’ first mentor of course was her late father who also held and undergrad degree from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
“Take advantage of all the opportunities CAFNR has to offer,” said Combs. “Not all schools and degree programs are the same when it comes to supporting students.”
Combs encouraged students in the classes she taught as EIR to schedule coffee with an executive of a company they’d like to work for over holiday break to make connections that can help them in their career. She cited LinkedIn’s Mizzou alumni network as a great place to start.
“Sometimes we can hide behind a computer or hide behind technology, especially when looking for jobs,” said Combs. “Did you send out 500 resumes or did you send 500 resumes through Indeed where you clicked a bunch of boxes? That’s missing that personal touch. The people who you chose to have coffee with can become the people that will be your sponsors, that will advocate for you. Mizzou alumni are incredible, all across the country. Those networking and mentorship relationships you can forge now are so important to lead to an incredible future.”
Envisioned and endowed by the generosity of the Robert O. Reich family, this one-on-one interaction offers a rare life experience for students and the Executive-in-Residence. Through class lectures, roundtable discussions, one-on-one meetings and other informal interactions, students learn first-hand about career paths and choices they may not have dreamed possible.
The program, inaugurated in February 1997 by faculty and staff as a collaborative learning experience for students, takes place in an informal environment that allows participation to be spontaneous and infectious.
Anyone can nominate an industry leader to be part of the Executive-in-Residence program; the program’s board extends invitations to two executives each year – one in the fall and one each spring.