November 20, 2014 by Ronan O'Beirne and Jeff Pearce
Others have their top 30, their elites, their fave five—but who decides? We think the industry should. So we gathered a panel of expert leaders: Mitzy Gale (business development manager, Aviva), Paul Jackson (vice-president, distribution, Gore Mutual), Janet Miller (manager, Central and Atlantic Region, Guarantee), Shari Dodsworth (senior vice-president, sales and business development, Northbridge) and Sandra Henkel (vice-president, strategic intiatives, Trisura). But they just couldn’t leave things at an even number…
Catherine Cake doesn’t like to sit still for too long. “I always like to be doing something new and changing and progressing,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s just the generation… we want to get in there and we want to go quick, and we want to build and just keep going.” Cake has hardly stopped since starting at Drayden as a receptionist in early 2006. She’s now a branch manager, having served in just about every role in between. “It was all very quick, but it has been wonderful.”
Apart from her quick climb up the ranks at Drayden, Cake has also been active in the Professional Young Insurance Brokers, and says it’s one of the best ways for young people to get involved in the industry. “If there was anything that’s going to make you be a lifer… it was that.” She adds, “There is so much opportunity for young people in this industry, and this industry’s changing so drastically…. To really be able to be involved and have a say and get in front of the people who influence our industry is just an amazing opportunity. I feel like it’s taken me to a completely different level of who I am, and what I can do.”
The younger generation might have the energy, but she says veterans have to help them get where they want to go. “The thing is to really look at the staff you have, really look at your young brokers and figure out who’s motivated, ask them where they want to be… give them that opportunity. If you can set up a structure… where they can grow and they can progress, your young employees are going to grow at a way quicker level than you can even imagine. They’re going to show you things that are going to blow you away.”
ALIGNED has made so much noise in the insurance scene, you’d hardly know it’s only seven months old—and has just two frontline employees. But Andrew Clark’s brokerage really is that small.
After 10 years of working at large brokerages, Clark spotted a gap in the market, and says the name gives it away. It’s about aligning interests with clients, he says, because “there’s an opportunity there, and I pursued it.”
ALIGNED’s cornerstone is their fee-for-service model, in which they offer clients three levels of service: bronze, silver and gold. “We have a very frank conversation about what service level do they want from their broker… It’s just a very different conversation, which really seems to resonate with clients.” He says his “brokerage-in-a-box” model (not quite franchising) has appealed to some in the commercial space already, which should help with his expansion plan: he wants ALIGNED to be national within three years.
Clark is also active online, writing LinkedIn posts on topics like first-dollar coverage and hold harmless agreements. He says this has helped to spread the word in such a short time frame. “Because we’re exclusively B to B, we have a real opportunity to market and communicate in a different way, and that’s really an education and information approach.” He says that being only a few people (the two frontline employees are backed up by a full office staff) is “definitely a challenge, but with good prioritization and a clear vision… it’s made it a lot easer.”
Please don’t call Joel Davison a salesman. “We’re an advisor, we’re a consultant, we provide professional services,” says the 31-year-old broker. “The one thing I hate is being called a salesman.” He should know; he’s been at it since his first year of university, when a friend’s father charmed him into working for his brokerage, Flanders Insurance. “He came to us and said, ‘You know what, guys, there’s no one in the industry coming up. So looking at it from 10 or 15 years away, if you can develop that experience today and really start shining through… it’s not just a part-time summer job.’”
That turned into a stint at Lowndes Lambert Group, where he stayed for eight years. Then in 2011, BFL said they wanted Davison to help open their Winnipeg office. It wasn’t easy (he jokes that when BFL first came to town, some people confused the name with BFI), but they scored a few successes early on. Within six months, he was a vice-president.
In addition to mentors like George Hucul and Irwin Kumka, Davison says he has gotten to where he is by developing meaningful relationships with clients. “You have to be looking at it every year as, ‘How can we add value for this client? ‘How can we further this relationship?’” He says that’s where youth can trump experience. “A lot of older producers… aren’t out there that are looking for that new coverage or the new way of spinning it to either the underwriters or the brokers, to make it a little more sexy and a little more attractive to them.” Putting something into a simpler form “gives a better opportunity to really develop and strive for ultimate success with the client.”
James Gilles gets regularly asked to present niche product offerings. Is it because he has a knack for specialization? No; it was simply because one particular client asked him about K&R, and “I just, kind of, dived into it.”
He’s a self-confessed geek when it comes to the fine print of policies. “I really enjoy diving into the minutiae of a coverage line, because the better able I am able to understand the coverage, the better I’m able to explain it to the client in a way that makes it understandable,” says Gilles. “The last thing you want to have happen is, you go in to a client and you start rhyming off the wordings or stating or spouting off the verbiage of the wordings, and then [have] them coming back to you and saying, okay, that’s fine, but what does that mean?”
So Gilles asks questions. A lot of questions. And the right questions. When he started out “as an assistant, I was only responsible for doing paperwork and issuing certificates and doing invoices. I always made sure that I was looking above to the next job position and doing that work… But I was always going above that and doing, you know, account management work. I found that made my life a lot easier, and I found that it made my manager’s life much easier, and I think that’s important… So if I were to give advice to anyone coming up the ranks, I’d say, ‘You know what? Try and do what you can to make your boss’s life easier.’”
Oddly enough, someone asked him recently why he was in insurance. His answer: “I get to influence people’s decisions at top levels of corporations.”
Sean Graham is a name in the biz thanks to leading the growth of KTX, Canada’s first online brokerage. He’s come a long way from Smithville, Ont., handling farm insurance. “You actually go in and meet the families in their kitchen, have milk and cookies with them, that sort of thing,” he recalls. “Very old school. You’d help deliver calves… walk through their barns and the dairy farms and whatnot.”
Now, 15 years later, he’s with a company that can boast about 25 employees and stands as one of the largest online insurance brokerages in Canada. When asked what he’s carried from his humble farm days, he says he had a strong underwriting base and knowledge of how to assess risk. “Without it, we could not have grown responsibly. And so anyone can grow, but to grow profitably is a difficult thing to do.”
KTX’s office has a bit of interior design borrowed from Silicon Valley—open concept and friendly, with a room dubbed “The Kave” (yes, with a K), where you’ll find toys for the smart kids, like a foosball table, a pool table, a video game system, a DJ booth, and of course, a beer fridge. “We make this a place that they want to work and play,” says Graham. “And that’s enabled us to attract that top young talent.”
Knowing who belongs as a cave dweller is a useful talent, especially when Graham sees a lot of brokers struggling to adapt to the changing online landscape. “And I think we are so far out on the edge of innovation and technology and customer service that I think most brokerages could learn from us in terms of adopting new technologies. Consumers are adopting them, clients want to deal with their brokers when, where, and how they want, and brokers can learn from us in the sense that we’re connecting with clients on their terms.”
Just a few months after being made one of the youngest partners at JDIMI, Scott Irwin says he owes a great deal to the company’s mentorship programs. Irwin has done training programs with several insurers, but he cites JDIMI’s producer training program as a major factor in his quick rise.
“I am where I am today because of Danny Sgro,” the company’s chief sales officer, he says. “Working hard, having a thirst for meeting new people and networking that helped to perpetuate it, but without the direction and the roadmap, it really wouldn’t be a successful formula as it has been for me.”
That same thirst for meeting new people has also gotten Irwin involved with a slew of organizations, from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. His specialties include construction and hospitality, but he doesn’t want to limit himself. “The part about the job that I love is learning about all the different clients’ businesses… So anytime I get invited to something or somebody would like to involve me, and I can learn more about it, I’m up for it.”
He says young people in the industry sometimes deal with the perception that their relative inexperience makes them less valuable. “A few more greys might help to connect earlier on, but if you prove [yourself] to them with hard work and you earn their trust, the age doesn’t become an issue.”
At 33, Irwin is now in a sort of middle space—no longer a newcomer, not yet a veteran. Coming back to the role Danny Sgro played as his mentor, he says he’d like to pass that on. “I’m still learning and working my way through it, so [mentoring] is something I’d like to do, but haven’t done yet.”
Brett McGregor comes from an insurance family in an insurance town: Wawanesa, Man., where his father is a vice-president with Wawanesa Insurance. Brett worked for the company while getting his commerce degree in Winnipeg, and when he finished school, he applied to a few brokerages in Brandon. He had an interview with Neil Andrews, then the president of Guild, which was more like an informal chat. After that, he “knew that this was the place I wanted to be.”
McGregor was hired on as Guild’s operations manager, before moving into commercial lines sales in 2008. He found his time in operations, which included overseeing IT, helped him understand clients’ tech needs; cyber liability is now one of his specialties. He and his colleagues had some policies in place, but they started to realize, “Hey, this is a really big need for all of our companies, not just technology companies.”
McGregor adds that he was “incredibly lucky to fall into this business that had Neil at the helm.” Andrews passed away in 2007, and his brother, Darryl, ran the business for five years. After a collaborative management retreat at Darryl’s cabin, McGregor became president. He says others could learn from the way Guild has maintained its independence. “It seems like a lot of brokers are getting to an age where they need an exit plan, and their exit plan is, ‘Let’s sell to whoever comes along with a cheque.’ I think it can be done internally if you identify the right candidate and you’re willing to work with that person to bring them up and put them in the spot you’re in right now. That’s a really admirable thing to do.”
It would have been easy for Ryan Mitchell to walk out of university and right into a job at the brokerage that bears his name. He was intrigued by the entrepreneurial aspect of the industry; by the notion of interacting with clients and getting to learn about different companies and industries. But Dad advised against it. “I was encouraged to work elsewhere to gain experience and to avoid any pressures or feeling of obligation of joining the company,” he says. So he put in a year at another brokerage.
When he came home, he was “fortunate to learn from what I consider two of the best in the industry”: his father (CEO Peter Mitchell) and co-founder Norm Sandham. The two men have different styles, and the son says that shadowing them “led to my well-rounded perspective.” He adds that young brokers like himself (he’s 35) need to keep their education going when they leave the office—so he’s completed a few insurance companies’ programs, including RSA’s Making Partner Program.
And now he’s bought a stake in the company, becoming a managing partner—and he’s on a six-year timeline to become a full partner. He says keeping it in the family is important to them as other brokerages are snapped up by bigger players. Independence “allows you to be completely client-focused, remaining truly independent without having any conflicts or obligations to various third-party companies or insurance carriers,” he says, and that kind of strategy “develops relationships with your clients that are built on trust.” Focus alone won’t develop that trust, though. He says that ethics and values—“I know it goes without saying”—also make that happen. “To have strong values and ethics at the forefront is key to success.”
Ross Murphy doesn’t wax too nostalgic when he recalls his days as a broker back in London, Europe’s insurance Mecca. “It’s a very… I’m trying to say this in kind of a polite way… it’s a very old industry there.” While he was impressed by the professionalism and the way the market operates, even a Briton can get frustrated with tradition. “I mean, fundamentally, it’s the most inefficient business market you’ve ever seen, where people go and queue up at someone’s wooden box in a marketplace, and the person may not turn up… If you look at the banks and stuff, [they’ve] long since done away with physical trading floors. But for some reason the insurance still works like that.” He compares it to waiting to step into a “dead man’s shoes.”
Having moved full time to Calgary in 2007, Murphy spent four years in the local broking market before spending a couple of years in Talisman Energy’s risk management department. He says he was drawn to the energy sector because of the huge numbers; three billion dollar insurance programs “just blew my mind. And then also the global spread of the oil and gas industry as well. That was a large factor for me as well, getting to see how they operate in different jurisdictions, and the requirements there.”
He believes there’s a “ton” of career opportunity over here, especially as the insurance markets grow more sophisticated, and with insurers having the expertise for a deal, “they don’t feel they’ve got to rely on somebody in Lloyd’s or in London to fact-check it and sign off on a risk, and they just jump on, follow on that risk, too.”
Long before Jamie Reid became the president of A.P. Reid, it was his babysitter. Reid grew up at the brokerage his mother founded: he can remember folding statements on a coffee table at his grandmother’s house when he was 10, and one of his first jobs was with the company. Before becoming president in 2010, he worked in every part of the business: customer service, IT, personal lines, commercial lines—everything. He says this all-purpose education means he can work “all the way down to the granular operational level with our staff and managers.”
Reid has seen—and driven—a lot of change at the Dartmouth company. Since he became a partner in 2000, the staff has grown from about 20 to 63 “ridiculously hard workers.” A.P. Reid made its first Ontario acquisition a few months ago: Robert C. Davis Insurance in Waterdown. They’ve done business with national programs in Ontario and other provinces for years, but the purchase also reflects their home province’s economic reality: more and more Nova Scotians are leaving, bound for Ontario and Alberta. At the same time, A.P. Reid has created and staffed a national service centre in its hometown. “Our goal is to grow nationally, yet provide as much of that service as we can from here at home.”
With insurers dealing with brokers on a largely provincial level, Reid knows “the industry is set up in such a way that it is nearly impossible to do what we’re trying to do, and we feel it every single day.” But he’s undaunted by the challenges of moving into other provinces. “We’re moving forward, we’re going with the plan, and with some extreme push, everybody’s going to come along with us.”
Panchali Shah knows now she should have listened to her professor. He told her she’d be well-suited to the brokerage world. So, naturally… she became an underwriter. She lasted only a couple of years at that before she found her true direction in Marsh’s risk management department.
She considers herself fortunate enough to be chosen for a graduate training program, “which at the time was phenomenal.” Whisked off to three different cities with other promising hopefuls, the program taught her “how to think differently about risk, and about how to analyze risk and how to see opportunities in what our clients present to us, and find solutions for them. Because that’s really what we’re doing: finding solutions for our clients, and really being client-focused.”
Years later, and now the mother of twins, she works on large hospitality, railroad and telecom accounts, and she’s travelled numerous times to Europe, London and Bermuda to secure capacity on various insurance programs. Shah says what keeps her motivated and excited about her work “is putting complex placements together. You know, the actual deal itself. So the more challenging the placement, the more complex the market conditions—or the industry for that matter—the greater the satisfaction there is when you finally put it together.”
Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the September 2014 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.