Ask Debbie Thompson why she volunteers her time to support the broker profession and her reply is direct and straightforward.
"One of the main reasons I began this journey with the IBAO is because I believe in the broker brand," she says. "Our brand is not just a symbol; it represents an experience."
Thompson, who also sits on the national committee for the Broker Identity Program (Bipper), notes that a key challenge for brokers today is how to capture that experience in an instantly recognizable advertisement or image.
"Sometimes when the Bipper ads come out, there is frustration about them not being 'sexy' enough," says Thompson. "There is always the comment, 'Where is the Flo?'" she laughs, referencing
Progressive Insurance's gregarious and ubiquitous television huckster.
While it would be nice to have Bipper as readily identifiable as the Nike Swoosh (or Flo), Thompson says other companies, such as Apple and Starbucks, are household names that also offer the promise of an experience.
"They are both recognizable symbols and yet they give the customer a sense of what they can expect when they walk into the store or use the product," observes Thompson, a big fan of the late Steve Jobs.
FOCUS ON COMMUNITY
Most IBAO members live and work in their communities, offering customers a unique experience in purchasing protection for their cars, homes and businesses. And they have the needs and interests of their communities at heart, Thompson says. "We need to find a way to help brokers express the experience that goes with our brand."
When it comes to commitment to the broker brand, Thompson certainly walks the talk. She has volunteered with various broker committees and organizations for more than 10 years, serving as president of the Insurance Brokers of Toronto Region in 2002.
Thompson has also been on the IBAO Board of Directors, and now the Executive
Committee for more than seven years, responsible for helping to develop and implement education, property and casualty insurance initiatives and membership growth, including leading the vision and mission of the organization. She sees her role as IBAO president as an extension, "another step in my journey," of volunteer experience.
BUILT TO LAST
On the business side, she began her insurance career in an administrative role in 1979 with the then-Citadel Insurance Company. A resident of Pickering, Thompson received her broker licence in 1984 and started with RKS Insurance as an account manager.
She recalls that her father, a carpenter, used to bring her and her four siblings to construction sites from an early age. "I have always been interested in construction, and I have been able to apply that interest in construction to builders' risk and, of course, construction insurance, as well as professional liability."
When RKS Insurance was bought by Sinclair-Cockburn Financial Group, Thompson honed her skills and focused her attention on business insurance, serving as vice president of the commercial division and a partner with the brokerage for more than 18 years. She also obtained CAIB and CRM designations.
"I know the old adage is that few people graduate from school and say, 'I want to be an insurance broker,'" she comments. "But there are many interesting facets to this profession. We get to learn so much about other industries and parts of the economy."
After Sinclair-Cockburn was bought by Hub International in 2010, Thompson made the transition to Beyond Insurance Brokers, a Whitby-based brokerage led by former IBAO president Peter Blodgett and Ontario broker of the year, Judy Bell (2009).
As director of business development for the relatively new brokerage, Thompson is responsible for marketing and growth of the brokerage, including commercial insurance production. "I have gone from managing people to leading people."
The marketing aspect of her new role includes tapping into areas where brokers traditionally have not been in the vanguard: web-based and social media. This dovetails with another priority for Thompson in her term as IBAO president - encouraging brokers to adapt to the world of online consumer expectations.
ONLINE IN LINE
"This industry has traditionally been in a 9-to-5 mode, but that is not how the consumer expects to do business anymore," she points out.
"We have to get brokers to think differently."
Thompson observes how when she shops online at sites such as Amazon, there is built-in assistance and the option to speak to a person r24/7 in the event of processing glitches. "I think this is how brokers will have to revolve and adapt to offer services beyond the 9-to-5 world. It will be a challenge for us."
One clear obstacle in selling insurance in the online world is the potential threat of diminished consumer protection, given both the complexity of the product rand the expertise of the seller.
"We do not want insurance to be seen as just another commodity," Thompson says. "At the rend of the day, an insurance contract is still a legal contract. That is why the broker is well-positioned to offer the best of both worlds - knowledgeable advice rand online presence."
Thompson says younger brokers are "getting it," and there is a renewed emphasis at IBAO on attracting new members and reaching out to students and young professionals.
"I think we as brokers can do a better job of promoting insurance brokering as not just a job, but a profession and an opportunity for ownership and entrepreneurial spirit," Thompson suggests. "We need to get out to the schools and training programs and encourage them to learn more, do more, dream more."
The revitalization of younger brokers is also critical for succession planning - what should be the lifeblood of the broker distribution channel. "Hardly a day goes by when we don't hear a story about a brokerage being offered a buy-out or transition by an insurance company," Thompson says. "The companies often tell them, 'We'll take care of it for you.' But it should be us as an association helping our member brokers and giving them the tools to properly plan a smooth and stable succession strategy that includes our young brokers."
Thompson's view of IBAO's role is not one in which the association should be self-regulating or monitoring brokers, but rather arming members with the resources and best practices they need to preserve and grow market share. Many of these tools and practices were identified in the most recent vision and mission statement of IBAO, unveiled earlier this year.
Not surprisingly, that vision touched on many key priorities Thompson has identified for her upcoming term as IBAO president - building the brand, coping with the expectations of the online consumer, reaching out to younger brokers and focusing on effective succession planning strategies.
"We firmly believe in what our brokers have to offer, in terms of knowledge, service and the customer experience," she says. "Our role should be to help them succeed - not just for their sake, but for the future of the broker channel."
While this may seem like a daunting task for the president of an association under constant pressure from direct writers and banks, Thompson puts a positive spin on her volunteer "journey" to lead Ontario's brokerage profession.
"It has been a labour of love," she laughs. "And I see the love affair continuing."