It was 1983, and Grace and Walter Pilot were at a crossroads in their lives. The company Walter helped build for 10 years was in turmoil. The couple had already purchased a house in Atlanta where Walter soon would be transferred as part of a corporate restructuring.
But Walter was a self-made man who had his own ideas about how to be successful – ideas that worked.
And Grace had the strength of her faith and a belief that, together, they could take a risk and make a better life at home, in Mobile, AL.
“I told him, ‘You know who got all the business for that company, and you know what you can do,’” she recalled.
Pilot & Associates was born at their kitchen table, where Grace handled bookkeeping and payroll, and Walter built the business with the help of their children.
Today, Pilot Catastrophe Services is the nation’s largest catastrophe adjusting firm, employing thousands, with corporate offices in Mobile and offices spread throughout the nation.
When Walter D. Pilot Sr. died in 1991, Grace, along with their children, stepped in to help run the family business. Today, she serves as secretary and treasurer. Pilot Catastrophe continues to grow as the Pilot family guides the business based on its foundational values of honesty, integrity and quality control.
It is a success story that has earned Grace Pilot the distinction of becoming one of only three women ever to be inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame since its founding in 1973. In November 2012 she joined an elite list of 160 of the state’s most distinguished business leaders, including UMobile’s first Board of Trustees Chairman J.L. Bedsole, George Washington Carver and William Albert Bellingrath.
Among the criteria for selection are business leaders whose accomplishments include making a significant impact on the development of community and state by promoting the free enterprise system and entrepreneurship, demonstrating civic leadership, and philanthropy and humanitarianism toward their fellow citizens.
While Grace excels in all areas, it is in the final area – that of philanthropy – that she finds the greatest joy. Among those who benefit from her belief in sharing her blessings are students at the University of Mobile.
In her modest office at Pilot Catastrophe in west Mobile, where walls and shelves
are filled with framed photographs of family arranged side-by-side with awards and honors from organizations across the nation, Grace spoke about being blessed, and sharing those blessings.
Born in Choctaw County, AL, Grace was the third eldest of 10 children, growing up in a three-bedroom home where the children slept three to a bed.
“We didn’t have anything, but we had love. That’s just the way we grew up,” she said.
As a child, she watched her father, grocer Herman Giles, give produce from his 5-acre garden to those in need. One Christmas, after she was grown and married, her father asked for a specific Christmas present from his children. Don’t spend their money on presents for mom and dad; instead, donate whatever they planned to spend to Hickory Grove Baptist Church for the pastorium building fund.
“I got my giving ways from my daddy,” Grace reflected.
But as the Pilots’ business was starting, there wasn’t much to give.
“I’ve always been charitable-minded, but I couldn’t do a lot back then,” she recalled. In May 1983 they started the business with $2,500 in their bank account. She, Walter and two men joining the venture sat around the kitchen table, calculating what they may need to squeak by for the company in its first year. It would be tight.
“I tell people I remember when I couldn’t give you a dime. I want to always remember those days,” she said.
A few months later, Hurricane Alicia hit Texas, and the firm was on its feet, supplying adjusters to insurance companies during disasters. With its long history of providing a knowledgeable, trusted and reliable claims processing operation with long-term partnerships with adjusters, insurance carriers and emergency management agencies, Pilot Catastrophe has been described as “the only GOOD thing about a disaster.”
The company’s success provided the Pilots with more financial freedom to invest in their passion to help people better themselves. It gave Grace the flexibility to invest her own time and leadership to organizations such as the University of Mobile, Alabama Baptist Children’s Home, JH Ranch leadership programs and ministries in California and Israel, Howard Payne University in Texas where she was an advisor to the president and later awarded the honorary Doctor of Humanities degree, among many others.
The list is long. The impact is lasting. The investment is personal.
One example: Grace was named the First Lady of Mobile in 2005 by Beta Sigma Phi for her ideas and commitment to others through her daily acts of love, friendship and generosity. Among those acts was baking her special sour cream and lemon pound cakes for hundreds of employees working long hours in the corporate office, when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992. Then she baked an extra 40 pound cakes and sent them to employees in Florida affected by the storm.
‘Partial to UMobile’
Sitting on her office credenza is a framed photograph of Grace, pen in hand, with UMobile President Dr. Mark Foley in his campus office. She had just signed the paperwork establishing the Dr. E. Grace Pilot Endowed Scholarship to benefit UMobile students.
“I’m very partial to the University of Mobile,” Grace said. “I’ve been so proud of the university and what it stands for. A good college education with the right principles and standards means so much to me.”
With nine siblings, college was never an option for her. She doesn’t want that lack of financial ability to limit others.
“I think there’s no better way to give back than to do something like that (establish an endowed scholarship). It benefits people who maybe couldn’t go to college, like me. I think back to when I didn’t have a choice, and there was no one to help me,” she said.
She said attending the annual UMobile Endowed Scholarship Luncheon gives her an opportunity to meet the students who are benefiting from her endowed scholarship. The students have sent her notes, and she sees first-hand how her investment in their lives is paying off.
Scholarship recipient Daniel Dearborn
sat beside Grace at the 2011 luncheon, and appreciated the opportunity to thank her for making a difference in his life.
“The scholarship meant everything to me and to my college career,” the 2012 graduate said recently. “Without it, chances are pretty high that I would not have been able to attend my last semester and, therefore, I would not have graduated when I did.”
Grace also sees the university’s impact in her own family – and her family’s influence at the university.
Grandson Davis Pilot III
graduated from UMobile in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in business administration with a concentration in managerial entrepreneurship. Currently, he is enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program, serves as a graduate assistant in the School of Business, and is a leader in the award-winning Students in Free Enterprise program.
Daughter Daphne Pilot Fonde
attended Mobile College in the mid ’70s and now serves as a member of the UMobile Board of Trustees as well as a vice president at Pilot Catastrophe.
“The University of Mobile is projecting the Christian and godly values that we hold dear. I believe the future of our country lies with our young people. If we grow godly men and women, then we can change this country. It’s time for Christians to stand up. That’s what I believe God is doing at the University of Mobile, raising up those godly leaders,” Daphne said.
It is at that intersection of faith and action, of belief and passion, that Grace and the University of Mobile are building a lasting legacy.
Moments of Grace
One thing underlies all that Grace Pilot is and does, and that is her faith in God.
“It’s been the basis of it all. My faith has been what has gotten us through so many times. You pray daily for the business, for your siblings, for your family,” she said.
It’s a faith that she shares freely with others, and she counts it as one of her most precious blessings that her children also have a strong faith.
“She is the anchor that holds us together,” Daphne said. “She’s the one who always took us to church. She’s the cornerstone of our family, the cornerstone of our business. She’s the prayer warrior. She’s always been on her knees – she’s always been our example.”
As a family, the Pilots put their faith into action through a variety of philanthropic projects, in addition to the University of Mobile. Many of the projects bear Grace’s name, as a testament to her faith, influence and love. There are two Grace Chapels, Pilot House for women in crisis, and a large cross stands at the peak of Grace Mountain in California, providing a serene setting for prayer and reflection.
Then there is Camp Grace in Mobile, started by son Davis Pilot Jr. Camp Grace is a privately owned and operated property of over 220 acres in Mobile County complete with cabins, recreation center, pavilions, a lodge and activities such as swimming, boating, archery, inflatables, ropes course, horseback riding, athletic courts and more.
Grace serves on the board of Camp Grace, which hosts four special-needs, week-long residential summer camps in cooperation with area agencies:
- Camp M*A*S*H* (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting) for ages 7-17, in partnership with the Arthritis Foundation, Southeast Region
- Camp Rap-A-Hope for ages 7-17 battling cancer, in partnership with the Medical Society and the Alliance to the Medical Society of Mobile County
- Camp SMILE for ages 5-50 with and without disabilities, in partnership with United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile
- Camp Sugar Falls for children with diabetes, in partnership with Southeastern Diabetes Education Services.
Camp Grace is also the grounds for Outback America’s events in Mobile, which is a non-denominational ministry designed to build, restore and strengthen relationships.
The many projects have one thing in common – they provide a variety of people in a variety of circumstances with moments of joy, encouragement, support – and grace.
The success of Pilot Catastrophe is “beyond my comprehension,” Grace said. It took hard work, sacrifice, and a family pulling together to work long hours. It is that family – five children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild – that makes the hard work worthwhile.
Also beyond comprehension is the impact that she continues to make through her faith, her giving nature, her passion for life and for helping others to live their own lives to the fullest.
“Phenomenal,” said Daphne, when pushed to describe her mother in just one word, but the words continue to flow.
“She’s dignity. She’s special. She’s loved. She has passion. She gives it her all. She loves the Lord and loves everybody around her.”
But maybe, Daphne said, there is one word that fits.
“The word that describes her most is her name – Grace.”