Canadian Underwriter

Broker Corner: Glass Ceiling, Shattered

April 26, 2017   by Gloria Cilliers

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From humble beginnings, Michelle Tremblay, managing director of St. Clair Insurance Brokers in Windsor, grew a struggling $7M brokerage to almost $30M in only three years. Here’s how…

How did you get into insurance?

Working in insurance was never on my radar growing up. However, when I became a young single mom, I needed a steady reliable income, which brought me to the insurance industry. I obtained my RIBO license, and worked as an account manager for a few brokerages in the Windsor area.

When was your big break?

In 2005, I responded to a job ad that drastically changed the course of my career. I met two young entrepreneurs, who had an idea to create a fully automated brokerage, which would give consumers the ability to complete the entire process of buying their insurance online from quote to purchase, a concept that didn’t yet exist in the Canadian marketplace.

We knew we had some big challenges ahead of us, especially with our limited experience, but we didn’t let that stop us!

We launched in 2007, and in our first year wrote a great deal of premium volume, but in that time we identified some problems: retention was low, and it seemed we were just writing new policies to replace the ones we lost. We learned a lot from this, tightened our filters and gradually experienced growth and increased retention. In 2010, I unfortunately had to leave the online brokerage, and accepted a position as operations manager for a brokerage in Toronto. In my three years there, we went beyond simply selling insurance online and set out to create a brand that incorporated the bricks and mortar brokerage, online technology, and utilized social media marketing. There, I learned how important a solid vision and leadership, positive culture and full engagement of its employees are to a company’s success.

Three years later, you became managing director of St. Clair Insurance Brokers in Windsor, tasked with turning it around. What was your strategy?

When I joined, St. Clair was a struggling $7M volume brokerage with three branches in Southwestern Ontario. Taking on this position came with several challenges, not the least of which were employees who had been through a lot of tough times, and were in need of leadership, motivation, guidance and support. Growth was the goal, and there were only two ways to get us there, organically and through acquisition. I wasn’t exactly sure where to start, so I began with the people. I identified employees with management/leadership potential and promoted them. We then introduced a sales focused culture to help motivate and support the staff to build organic growth.

What was your approach to growing through acquisition?

I researched brokerages to identify synergies, and learned everything I could about them. I had to anticipate the integration of the culture and the people, knowing that the staff have the relationships with the customers and are the reason the company exists.

I learned quickly that with acquisition, you aren’t purchasing a book of business, you’re purchasing the people, and if those people aren’t happy, you could risk losing a lot of your investment. We have now purchased and successfully integrated two brokerages in Windsor and most recently one in Woodstock, Ont.

You grew St. Clair Insurance Brokers from $7M to almost $30M in only three years. What advice do you have for growing brokerages?

My journey thus far has been an interesting one with many lessons learned and no doubt more to come. If I had any advice to give, it would be that in the fast paced rapidly changing industry we are in, it’s important to keep an open mind and be open to taking some risks. In my experience, the rewards have certainly been worth it!

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the April 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.