August 22, 2018 by Greg Dalgetty
Sarah Robson was named the new president and CEO of Marsh Canada back in April. And when she met with Canadian Insurance Top Broker for an interview recently, she really was new to the role—it was her second day on the job.
Robson isn’t new to Marsh, of course. She’s been with the company for 26 years, fulfilling a variety of roles both in Canada and the U.S. Most recently, she was based in New York, serving as a global relationship manager in Marsh’s insurer consulting group.
We spoke to Robson at Marsh’s Toronto office on a Monday afternoon in June. She’d gotten up at 5:00 a.m. that morning to catch a flight from New York to Toronto, but as 5:00 p.m. approached, she showed no signs of having endured a 12-hour day—and she couldn’t have sounded happier to be back in Canada.
“It feels great to be coming back,” Robson said. “To me, this is coming home, coming back to an organization—the Canadian company—that I feel I’ve been a contributor to for a long period of time.”
She returns not only with a wealth of experience in the Canadian and American markets, but with deep insights into how Marsh conducts business around the world.
“The role that I’ve been in for the last four years has been a global role,” Robson said. “I spent some time in the U.S. but more time abroad, which was fascinating because I got the opportunity to look at the way in which business is transacted within Marsh in various regions of the world, from South America to Australia, through Asia as well.”
Indeed, her international experience is part of what gives her an edge, according to industry colleagues.
“I think she knows the market on both sides of the border really well,” said Paul Lenzi, director of risk management and insurance for BCE. “She’s had a senior leadership role in Canada before, so I think she’ll know most of the staff in Toronto already.”
As for Robson’s personal approach to doing business, she is praised for being a great listener. Daniel Desjardins, Bombardier’s senior director of global risk management and insurance, has known Robson for about 20 years—since she first started working on Marsh’s Bombardier account—and can attest to her attention to detail.
“In this business, it’s easy just to broke an account—to go in front of markets and broke it. But she made it a point to not only broke the account, but understand the account,” Desjardins said. “That’s what made our relationship click at the outset. For me that was very important—not just to get another broker, but someone who understood what we wanted, why we wanted it and how she could actually pitch it to the marketplace.”
Lynn Oldfield, president and CEO of AIG Canada, met Robson when she was a broker in Marsh’s financial and professional liability practice. At the time, Oldfield had just joined AIG as manager of professional liability.
“We both enjoyed golf and negotiating deals, so we hit it off immediately,” Oldfield recalled. “As Sarah’s responsibilities and accounts expanded, so did mine. You might say we ran parallel career paths.”
Those career paths allowed Oldfield to witness Robson in action in her previous role, where Robson was responsible for carrier relations.
“I saw firsthand Sarah’s ability to navigate executive relationships, manage delicate escalation of critical client issues and negotiate fair resolutions,” Oldfield said. “Her style is collaborative, results-driven and always professional. Sarah has a great sense of humour, so people enjoy her company.”
When we spoke to Robson, she identified three key areas of growth for Marsh Canada: transactional risks, cyber risks and construction risks.
Transactional risk insurance—covering representations and warranties, as well as tax liability, in business acquisitions—is common throughout Europe and the U.K., but Robson believes it is poised to grow here as well.
“In the U.S., it has taken off over the last 10 years in particular. It’s just been on an exponential trajectory,” she said. “From a Canadian standpoint, it has been relatively new in terms of the adoption, but it’s now very much taking off and it’s a significant growth area for us.”
On the cyber front, Robson believes that the federal government’s changes to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) that come into force on Nov. 1 will be a big driver of sales.
“We think that that’s very much going to influence the purchasing decision and drive more clients towards it,” she said. “That is really going to change the buying decisions and the reasons for buying.”
But it’s not just changes to legislation that make clients consider cyber insurance—there’s also news coverage of major breaches.
“When a company within a certain industry has a breach and it’s broadly publicized, that causes that industry to sit up and take notice,” she said. “Take the example where there was a Canadian university that had a breach and, literally within a couple of months, we had seven other universities who wanted to purchase the insurance.”
And, with the federal government allocating as much as $35 billion toward infrastructure investments over the next decade, the construction market could be on an upward trajectory as well.
“Several years ago, we invested in a dedicated construction and surety practice that we’ve built out now over the past five years,” Robson said. “That is a significant growth area for us as well, based on how the economy is performing.”
The keys to success
Remaining agile and adaptable in the face of an always-changing risk landscape is key, Robson noted, to being able to deliver on client expectations.
“We need to continually evolve how we can add value to our clients,” she said. “They’re facing different pressures today than they ever have before.”
To that end, Marsh has a number of industry-specific practices—including construction, real estate, agriculture, and media and technology, to name just a few—designed to deliver specialized insight on clients’ risks.
“We’re taking deep industry dives, so that when we’re coming in to have conversations with our clients, our folks are very comfortable with their specific issues,” Robson said. “We’re very much deepening that industry lens, if you would.”
The ultimate goal is, of course, to grow the business, Robson explained.
“We want to grow Marsh Canada,” she said. “We’ve got our risk management segment, which tends to be the large, often multi-national companies that we have historically built our reputation on. The biggest area of expansion for us is in deepening the reach into that middle-market, or corporate, segment, which comprises a significant amount of the Canadian business.”
Part of that growth will be achieved by what Robson describes as a “culture of collaboration” at Marsh, which sees different industry practices working together to provide solutions for clients. And an essential component to fostering collaboration is creating a workplace that puts people first.
“Our people are the heart and soul of our business. They are, without a doubt, what sets us apart from our competition,” Robson said. “Creating an inclusive culture and a supportive environment where our colleagues can thrive is absolutely critical to how we can show up and be able to perform for our clients.”
Robson, like many, didn’t plan on getting into the insurance industry. She graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., with a degree in economics and history.
She was struggling to decide between pursuing an MBA or a law degree, and opted to get some experience in the business world before making her next move.
“I ended up as a D&O underwriter at Chubb Insurance Company of Canada, which, for me, was the perfect combination of law and business,” she recalled. “You’re working with lawyers from the standpoint of claims, and on the underwriting side, it’s got deep financial analysis and business trends analysis. I thought it was the perfect combination to allow me to figure out if I was going to do an MBA or a law degree.”
Instead, she stayed in insurance, moving over to the brokerage side two years later. And she hasn’t looked back since.
“Without a doubt, I still find this industry fascinating,” she said. “The risk issues are constantly changing, so it’s constantly fascinating. I can honestly say that, in 26 years, I’ve never been bored.”
A memorable first meeting
Richard Powers, an associate professor with the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, had a memorable early encounter with Robson when she was enrolled in the school’s directors education program years ago.
“It was quite funny, actually, because we were doing a session on directors’ and officers’ liability insurance, and there was another group presenting,” Powers recalls. “She approached me afterwards and said ‘You know, that was not a very good presentation. We do this type of work, and I’d be happy to work with you to put together a much more complete presentation.’”
So, how did Powers respond?
“I have to say, I was a little taken aback. I didn’t know her that well. But I said, ‘All right, why don’t you try it next time?’ And she came out and nailed it,” Powers says. “She is an excellent presenter herself, but she also works very well with a team approach, and I think that’s really helped her career at Marsh. She’s a great people person.”
Robson would continue as a presenter with the program for years, until a series of promotions at Marsh and travel commitments made it impossible for her to continue. But Powers remains hopeful that she’ll be back in the classroom now that she’s in Canada again.
“She’s been a wonderful colleague. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her. I can’t be happier for her that she is coming back to Canada. We’ll be better for it,” he says. “She’s a wonderful person and she has great leadership qualities that have been recognized by Marsh, and we had seen them in the class when she was helping instruct our directors in our program for a number of years. She’s just an outstanding individual.”
Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the August edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.