Canadian Underwriter

Island Innovation

May 25, 2011   by Brynna Leslie

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Company: The Charlie Cooke Insurance Agency Ltd.

President: Jeff Cooke
Year Founded: 1972
Public or Private: Private
Premiums/Year: $30 million
# of Employees: 50
HQ: Charlottetown, PEI

The Cooke Insurance Agency Ltd. was founded as a one-man shop in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island 40 years ago by Charlie Cooke, an independent life insurance broker. By 1972, the life market was flooded, not to mention limited, with an Island population of just over 100,000. Cooke thought a rapid shift into the P&C sector would bring more stability and more growth potential.

“My dad was a bit unconventional in his heyday in the way he pushed things forward,” says current president Jeff Cooke. “He was one of the early pioneers in the industry to use technology available, advertising on TV, for example, when other brokers just weren’t spending the money.”

The ads worked to attract clients and investment from abroad. In 1983, Trivest, an international equity firm, propelled the company’s expansion by investing financially and developing new strategies for growth. “We transformed from a small family business into a corporation ready to grow.” Today, the brokerage is one arm of the Cooke Insurance Group, which includes an adjusting firm and a financing company.

Reasons to Watch
In 2007, the company opened its first off-Island office in Rexton, New Brunswick. Three years later, it opened three brokerages in Moncton, Fredericton and New Glasgow. “We expect to open offices in Saint John and Bedford this year,” says Cooke.

“We are seeing how the industry is changing. The big will survive and the small will not, because the big companies can drive down costs through economies of scale.”

As the exclusive broker for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Atlantic Canada, Cooke has a solid reputation for its dealings in comprehensive specialty markets. New niche areas for Cooke include pharmacies, seniors’ homes, and independent health benefits.

“Very few brokers are doing what we’re doing with independent health benefits,” says Cooke. “We have designed unique, customized plans that are self-insured. We take all the premiums and put them into one pool and we pay the claims, leaving the big companies out of the equation.”

New Initiatives
Following in his father’s footsteps, Cooke has embraced cutting-edge technology. A $70,000 capital investment into a Citrix Web interface has eased communications and transactions between brokerages. The voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) allows employees to dial into the same calling system and the same database from anywhere.

Recently, Cooke also invested $50,000 in a voice-recording system that digitally archives telephone conversations. “We looked at where we spend all of our time as brokers and how we can make sure that time is spent most productively,” says Cooke. Customers can now make new applications or policy changes over the phone, without having to come into the office.

Recent Triumphs
Working smarter is paying off. The Charlie Cooke Insurance Agency earned $4 million in commission income in 2010, a fourfold increase in ten years. For the last five years, the firm has been voted one of the top 101 companies in Atlantic Canada by Progress Magazine. And last year, Cooke employees voted Cooke as one of the best places in Atlantic Canada to work.

The biggest challenge facing Charlie Cooke Insurance is the current and impending labour shortage. “It’s not just a shortage of educated staff, but staff that are both educated and exceptional at dealing with the public,” says Cooke.

To meet the recruitment challenge, the company is using profiling software to shortlist potential employees. On the retention side, besides a benefits package that’s “second to none,” Cooke says cutting-edge technology is essential. “Our employees can work in any nook or cranny,” says Cooke. “If they want to stay home with the kids or do some of their work in the evenings, they can do that.”

CEO Quote
“We believe our future growth is in our customers,” says Cooke. “We want to be their advisors and deliver service at an exceptional level in a timely fashion. By investing in cutting-edge technology and providing exceptional customer care, we will continue to be leaders in the industry.”

Charitable Cause
The Charlie Cooke Insurance Agency donates to the Oak Acres Children’s Camp. The company also provides 13 $500 bursaries per year to students attending Holland College.

Headquarters:125 Pownal Street, Charlottetown, PEI C1A 3W4
Telephone: 902-566-5666

Copyright 2011 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the January 2011 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.