Canadian Underwriter

Broker Corner: Six generations. 135 years of service.

June 23, 2017   by Tessie Sanci

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High-quality customer service takes precedence at Ontario’s Coburn Insurance Brokers, come rain or shine…or political office…

The independent brokerage is celebrating a landmark 135 years of service this year in Mount Forest, a community of approximately 4,600 people. The business has employed one family for six generations.

Its second owner was the multi-tasking J.J. Cook, who inherited the brokerage from its founder (and his father-in-law), Henry Stovel.

“J.J. Cook was the mayor of the town for a while and he had a horse called George. And he and George would strike off in the morning to call on farmers to sell insurance,” recounts Bill Cockburn, laughing.

Cockburn, 89, is Cook’s grandson and the fourth generation to take on the business. He inherited the brokerage at the age of 20 from his own father, George Fulton, when his father became ill and passed away.

Cockburn admits he did not initially choose to be an insurance broker. Family circumstances and a strict local insurance official dictated his entry into the family business. “I called the superintendent of insurance, and told him the story [about my father’s death]. He said, ‘You’re in the insurance business, you have a license, go to it.’ There was no test,” says Cockburn.

He ran the business with his mother, Agnes Cook. Cockburn was the client-facing broker while Agnes would take care of the correspondence. The mother-son pair worked side-by-side until Agnes’ death in 1961.

At this point, Cockburn was married to Mary Beth and had two sons, Jeff and Scott, and a daughter, Ann. Cockburn was very deliberate in ensuring that, unlike his own circumstance, his children would have a choice in joining the family business. Jeff and Scott would become insurance brokers, while Ann chose not to.

J.J. Cook was the mayor of the town for a while and he had a horse called George. And he and George would strike off in the morning to call on farmers to sell insurance.”

Jeff, who is the brokerage’s past president, embraced his new insurance career when he joined the brokerage in 1978. “You worked within your community, you’re respected and if you ran a good show, it proved dividends,” he says, explaining the reason for his joining.

Scott, now 53 and a co-owner of the brokerage, delayed his entry until 1987. He wanted to work his way up in a manufacturing company in order to gain the managerial experience required to help his brother run the brokerage.

Staying independent

The brothers, who changed their own names and the brokerage’s name to Coburn with their father’s approval, continued to grow the business based on their predecessors’ focus on good old-fashioned customer service.

“When you phone here, you’re a name, not a number. We help people. We solve their problems and we help them with claims. You have what we call ‘personal service’ from your independent broker,” Jeff explains.

It is that prioritizing of personalized service that allows Coburn Insurance Brokers to remain a community fixture in the face of tight local competition from major corporate sales forces and other independent brokerages. The Coburn family can lay claim to serving the insurance needs of some of their clients for more than four decades.

“Our existing customers are our salespeople, basically. We get our leads from them,” says Scott.

As the brokerage world gets smaller, in part because of acquisition activity from some insurers, the Coburns work hard to stay independent and to continue to bring good service and reasonably priced products to their clients.

“Our insurers don’t own our business, we own our business and we can do whatever we want with that business. If one insurer gets out of sorts premium-wise, we take our customers somewhere else,” says Scott. “The agents do not have those options.”

A family affair

The brokerage will go into its fourteenth decade with a new generation to help bring it forward. Jeff ’s son, Andrew, is currently a co-owner of the company, and Scott’s daughter, Kaitlin, is a personal lines broker.

Like his father, Andrew, 31, made a very deliberate choice in 2011 to join the family brokerage following the earning of a business degree and a career as a semi-professional hockey player in the U.K. “It’s just something I have always wanted to do to carry it on. It has been around for so long and I had gotten some experience in other places and fields,” Andrew explains. “I knew that Dad’s retirement would be coming soon so I didn’t want to prolong it any further.”

Andrew’s involvement in the brokerage brought about a few technological changes for the brokerage. He focused on improving workflow processes so that more of the brokerage’s documentation is available digitally. Under his watch, the business would also gain a website, through which clients can request a quote online or submit claims digitally.

Personal, local service remains tops

Coburn Insurance Brokers’ business strategy has also undergone some tweaking in recent years. In addition to its traditional home, auto and farm coverage, the company offers insurance coverage for recreational trailers through a business called RecProtect, founded by Andrew. The Mount Forest community is home to many parks so it made sense to provide this type of niche coverage, according to Andrew.

“When you look at the marketplace today, there are a lot of mergers and acquisitions happening. So if you want to stay independent, you have to find niche markets and different ways to grow,” says Andrew. “So far, we have seen a great response as a result of it.”

The Coburns have taken stock of the changes in the industry, from the move to increased technology use to the ongoing consolidation of insurers and brokerages and the pressure to provide much higher amounts of business in order to have an insurer underwrite clients’ coverage.

Through all of that, the Coburns’ priority remains their commitment to providing clients with personalized service from their local independent broker.

“It is basically bringing it back to the old principles that Scott and Jeff have built on: standing behind the policies you sell. We find, in our industry, [brokers] have been becoming a lot like direct writers. They bring the policy in and pass you off to the customer service representative and you’ll never hear from your broker again,” says Andrew. “We keep the broker as the first point of contact at all times.”

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

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.