August 28, 2017 by Tessie Sanci
A visitor to Marsh Canada’s Toronto headquarters can become more familiar with the city through the company’s offices, in which conference rooms are named after its neighbourhoods such as Yorkville and Leaside. But the brokerage’s president and CEO, Chris Lay, who recently celebrated his first year in Canada after transferring from the U.K., likely prefers to explore his new home by seeing those and other neighbourhoods up close.
“I have been all the way across Canada and I can truly sum it up: I have been in every one of our provinces multiple times and all of our thirteen offices multiple times. I have met all of our colleagues and many of our clients,” says Lay, speaking to Canadian Insurance Top Broker in a boardroom that overlooks the city’s main commuter hub.
Lay took on the job when former Marsh Canada CEO Alan Garner stepped back to become chairman of the company. The role is another leadership position on Lay’s lengthy resume. In his 33 years at Marsh, he has spent time as CEO of Marsh U.K.’s corporate division, head of global sales, business development leader of the international division and president of global captive solutions.
All of those positions share some simple criteria. “I like growing businesses, I like building businesses and I like new challenges. And, as long as [the job] ticks that box, it usually excites me pretty quickly,” he explains.
In coming to Canada in 2016, he encountered a business that is Marsh’s third-largest, after the U.S. and the U.K. The company is known for being a dominant player in the large-account corporate space but was already branching out in an effort to continue its growth trajectory.
Lay has been busy implementing his plan, taking some initiatives that began under the old guard and going higher and deeper. This includes ramping up the industry focus at Marsh Canada, and bringing more attention to the different client segments that the company serves but for which it is less well known.
In 2015, Marsh subsidiary Marsh & McLennan Agency (MMA) acquired Montreal’s Vézina, an independent brokerage with a focus on P&C insurance and group benefits. The move allowed the middlemarket focused subsidiary, which is a billion-dollar business in the U.S., to open its first office in Canada.
“We have a leading position in the risk-managed top 100 companies in Canada. We’re known for that,” says Lay. “We’re probably less known for being involved in the mid-market commercial [and] personal lines business, but we actually do quite a bit of that business.”
Joe Vachon, executive director of large commercial and national brokers at Aviva Canada, is familiar with Lay’s strategy to increase Marsh Canada’s presence in the middle market and is working with Lay on this initiative.
“Their big wins are not going to come solely from taking more market share [of risk-managed companies] because they already have a mature market share in that segment,” Vachon explains, basing his observations on his discussions with Marsh Canada leaders. “Marsh’s growth in the future has got to come from… going broader. And that means moving into the mid-market.”
This determination to ensure that Marsh continues to grow is bearing fruit. Lay does not provide figures but says the company has seen “better growth over the last year.” The financial statements of the broker’s parent company, Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC), back that up. MMC does not break out Canadian revenue from that of the U.S. but does state that the two Marsh divisions produced combined revenue of US$3.04 billion in 2016, compared to US$2.86 billion in 2015. In 2014, the two divisions saw combined revenue of US$2.68 billion.
The business acumen that Lay brings to Marsh Canada is based on more than three decades of experience in P&C insurance. He moved into underwriting in 1983 after working at a bank in London, U.K., a job that did not hold his interest. “I like numbers but I pretty quickly discovered that I like numbers and people,” he explains.
He became an underwriter at Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance and moved into the brokerage side of the industry when Marsh U.K. offered him a job in 1984. He has been with the company ever since, climbing up the professional rungs and tackling different roles in different geographies, including the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe.
“I relish doing different things. I like change. I like different challenges,” says Lay. “I’m quite a curious person.” His curiosity and a job offer to lead Marsh Canada brought him to Canada in July 2016. Lay and his wife, Fiona, moved to Toronto while his sons, Will and James, remained in the U.K. to attend university.
“Marsh’s growth in the future has got to come from going broader. And that means moving into the mid-market.”
The experience has been an informative one for Lay who did not know much about the business prior to leading it. One of Lay’s observations is that Canadians tend to focus on the headwinds that face the domestic economy, such as depressed gold and commodity prices. However, he sees bright prospects in many industries such as financial services, technology and health care.
“When I look at Canada overall as a portfolio, I see lots of the tailwinds, the opportunities. It has got some super industries, even in those resource industries,” he says.
An ability to look on the bright side is typical of Lay’s personality, according to Ulrich Kadow, chief agent for Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty’s (AGCS) Canadian business. “His message is always a positive one,” says Kadow. “He always tries to find the best solution for the client and the industry. [He] really cares about and has a passion for the insurance industry.”
That passion is evident in listening to Lay describe his experiences of personally meeting with clients to discuss their risk management needs. Responding to their needs and wishes is critical if Lay is going to maintain the company’s current client base and convince others to come on board.
“I really want to be able to just sit with a client and not only understand their business but have a conversation about risks and potential financing options, potential options for how capital can be deployed, how data and analytics can be used… and how they want to interact with us going forward,” Lay explains.
Lay’s personal focus on clients is apparent to Martin Thompson, president and CEO at RSA Canada. “He spends a lot of time in front of clients,” says Thompson. “I think that is probably a shift in the importance of Marsh people [especially at senior levels] spending time with clients and the expectation that they will do that.”
Lay is proud of the multidisciplinary service options that clients have access to through the offerings of other MMC companies such as the management consulting services of Oliver Wyman, the human resources expertise of Mercer and the reinsurance capabilities of Guy Carpenter.
“We’re not just an insurance broker, we’re a risk and insurance services business. We’re doing a lot of risk consulting, we’re doing a lot of work leveraging data analytics to provide insight to our clients, we’re working a lot more with different technologies,” he says.
The brokerage uses its analytics platform, iMap, and Marsh’s proprietary benchmarking data to help clients establish their potential tolerance for risk, simulate loss potential, and model their risk-transfer options. Once the risks have been identified, the brokerage can also help clients find financing to insure that risk.
Thinking outside of the traditional insurance box is critical in providing solutions, as today’s problems are different and evolving at a breakneck pace.
“Industries are disappearing… Look at what’s happening with autonomous vehicles, some of the more traditional taxi fleet versus an Uber or what have you,” says Lay. “Businesses are changing, the way people purchase their travel, their hotel rooms, et cetera, so whole industries are changing and they have to change their model.”
The ever-evolving risk environment means Marsh works hard to respond.
“The pace of change is increasing… and becoming much more demanding so we have to be right on top of that. Is it a challenge? Yes. Do I like that challenge? Yes. I relish that, it’s exciting,” says Lay. “[Clients are] having to change and we’re having to change.”
Keeping up with that change requires the Marsh team to be engaged and along for the ride with Lay, who continually refers to these professionals as his colleagues, not his employees.
Ensuring these professionals are excited about working at Marsh is another key component of Lay’s agenda. The “MMC Experience” program, recently launched on his watch, is an initiative that allows MMC employees to volunteer for projects that may be outside of their job description or business unit.
The program was inspired by Lay’s observations that some employees would spend a few years at Marsh and then seek a different challenge with another company. But what if MMC employees could have access to a variety of experiences within the company?
“I believe he probably knows every single employee across the country by name and has probably had a conversation with every employee. Chris leads from the front.”
One of those possible experiences involves directly working with Lay, who is considering creating a new industry group dedicated to the sharing economy. He is currently collaborating with interested employees from Marsh’s Toronto and Halifax offices, as well as from Mercer.
“Without having to leave their day job, they can actually get involved in things that expose them to different parts of the firm, different leaders in the firm, different initiatives in the firm, and it’s pretty exciting,” he says.
Lay enjoys working closely with his colleagues, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Lynn Oldfield, president and CEO at AIG Canada.
“I believe he probably knows every single employee across the country by name and has probably had a conversation with every employee. Chris leads from the front,” says Oldfield.
Lay himself is an example to his colleagues on how a person can build an international insurance career within one company by simply exploring different possibilities.
“The way I like to characterize it is that I have had probably 15 amazing careers with one firm. Marsh is a phenomenal organization both in terms of its depth and scale,” Lay says. “Have I ever thought about leaving Marsh? Yes. Have I ever had other opportunities? Yes. But I always found that the opportunities that exist within the firm have always been more attractive. You just have to go looking for them.”
Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the August 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.