December 27, 2012 by Brynna Leslie
Notre Dame Street in Lachine, Que. is much like any traditional main street in Canada. Buildings are a colourful ensemble of red brick facades and stone, mixed with modern low-storey architecture—typical of a small town in the Victorian era that has grown up in the 20th century. In a triplex between a locksmith and a store selling vertical blinds, Morin Assurances has called Lachine home for 66 years.
“Down the street, we have a guy that does windows; beside us there are two restaurants,” says Donna Lachaine, the office manager and a broker at Morin Assurances. “They are our clients. They come from Lachine. They’re the same as we are. They have the same customers we have.”
It’s a simple comment. But it says a lot about what has made a small brokerage like this successful since former National Hockey League (NHL) player, the late Pierre (Pete) Morin Sr., first got started with “an empty desk and a pencil” in 1946: Go with who and what you know.
“In our community here, my father was very well-known,” explains John Morin, Pierre’s youngest son and the president of Morin Assurances. “When he couldn’t play professional hockey anymore, he wondered what else to do other than hockey and coaching, and his friend said, ‘I’m an insurance broker; why don’t you join me?’ ”
A lot of my customers, I could almost leave here and work for them, I know their businesses so well.
The older Morin did just that. In the first year, he set up all his former NHL colleagues with personal packages, and then expanded his reach by cold-calling in the local community.
“Here’s the type of guy he was,” explains John Morin with a laugh. “When he would go to visit a client, he’d go to the wrong address on purpose, maybe the house or the business next door. He’d say, ‘Sorry to disturb you. I’m looking for Mr. Smith.’ And when the person explained he had the wrong place, he’d say ‘My name is Pete Morin and here’s my card.’ And he grew his network and the business this way.”
Within a couple of years, Morin bought the company. Today, Morin Assurances has seven staff, including John and his older brother Peter Morin Jr., who is a broker and the company’s vice-president. The firm wrote $5 million in gross premium last year, an almost even split between commercial and personal lines.
Business and Shinny
Today, Lachine is no longer a small town. With a population of 40,000, the one-time bedroom community in the southwest of the island of Montreal has become part of the city proper since amalgamation on January 1, 2002. But despite its position in the metropolis, Lachine’s economy continues to be driven by a tight-knit core of locally-owned businesses. Within that, Morin Assurances has developed its niche.
“We are really about small business helping small business,” says Peter Morin Jr. “A lot of my customers, I could almost leave here and work for them, I know their businesses so well.”
One of those clients is Kenny Oliphant, owner of Le Gourmand, a fine-dining restaurant located in a stone house, built in 1847, in the neighbouring borough of Pointe-Claire. Not surprisingly, Oliphant first met Peter Morin Jr. on the local ice-hockey rink—the Arena de Lachine Pierre “Peter” Morin, named after Morin Sr.
“When you play hockey in this community, it’s really close knit and when you find out somebody’s in the insurance business, it makes sense to go with someone you know,” says Oliphant. He describes Peter Morin as a very “hands-on” broker, who frequently pops into the restaurant, and not just for a meal.
“He comes to tell me about new products, and he uses preventative methods,” says Oliphant about Morin’s risk management approach. “He comes around and says, ‘you’d be better with an alarm, or cut down that bush that’s overgrown, maybe put in some lighting.’ I’ve had a pretty clean slate when it comes to insurance and I’m relying on him to go to bat for me.”
It’s best to compete in the zone where you’re comfortable. If a client moves out of that zone, well, you will find others that are a better fit.
“But it’s a two-way street,” says Oliphant of the business-to-business relationship. “Peter comes to my restaurant with his family; they have their Christmas parties here. I don’t think I’d get that kind of personal interaction with a big broker.”
Like many clients of Morin Assurances, Oliphant has the firm handle both his personal and his business insurance.
“Many of our personal line customers have become our commercial line customers,” says Lachaine. “For us, it’s complementaire.”
Lachaine, who first started as a typist at Morin 24 years ago, says crossover between personal and commercial lines is no accident. The firm has an edge over big brokerages in serving small businesses, she says, precisely because they operate using the same type of informal structures as many of their clients.
“We don’t have formal meetings very often, for example,” explains Lachaine. “We have a counter in the office and John will say, ‘We have a situation. Can you help me? Let’s talk about it.’ And personal lines and commercial lines gather around the counter to find solutions. I don’t think you would find that cooperation in a big firm.”
Close to Home
A quick scan on the Internet, and you’ll find Morin Assurances is limited to a Yellow Pages ad with an accompanying video. John Morin admits the company isn’t sure how best to use the Internet as a marketing tool.
“The Internet is a wonderful communication tool and you have to be on there,” he explains. “The Internet can take some of your clients and make them international moguls. Maybe a once-local manufacturer has found a buyer for his line of coffee cups in Germany. We have to understand that and start asking questions and know what the exposures are related to international commerce.
“But is it a place where insurance should be marketed and sold? We are ambivalent about that.”
Instead, the company stands by its decades-old slogan, “A friend of yours is a friend of ours.” It may sound cheesy, but John Morin says his father’s main street approach—building and maintaining personal relationships through good service and referrals—is the same marketing method the company uses today.
“The smaller broker doesn’t always have the budget to get way out there,” says John. “We concentrate on our own clientele and build from that. We put our advertising dollars close to home. We’re out there in the community, sponsoring things and trying to continue to entertain the relationships we’ve had for decades, because we’re good at that. And we don’t have the budget or the wherewithal to cast our net too wide.”
Morin Assurances is a well-known sponsor of local kids’ hockey teams. They also hold charity golf tournaments multiple times per year, and are a co-sponsor Les Mardis Cyclistes, an annual cycling tournament that attracts professionals from around the world. And then, of course, there’s all the events at the local arena named after Morin Sr.
Big Challenges of Small Business
Its marketing strategy appears to be working for now. But while Morin Assurance has grown steadily over the years, it hasn’t been without setbacks. Despite good relations with a handful of insurers, for example, Lachaine admits a handful of clients have simply grown too big for Morin to manage.
“It’s not always easy as a small broker to keep up with our clients,” admits Lachaine. “Sometimes big businesses get new accountants or controllers who know someone else, or their insurance needs are bigger than what we can provide, and by default we can’t compete.”
“When we lose a big contract, it’s painful,” she says. “And the challenge we have going forward is to find another big client, or, more likely, ten small businesses to replace that big one.”
But John Morin says maintaining a roster of clients that are a “good fit” is more important than overstretching beyond the firm’s capacity.
“We’re not looking to compete with the Aons of the world,” he says. “There are clients for everyone, for every size of broker, for every specialty. In the normal scheme of things, it’s best to compete in the zone where you’re comfortable. If a client moves out of that zone, well, you will find others that are a better fit.”
There are ways small brokers can grow without taking on “big fish.” For one thing, small brokers often have a uniquely intimate relationship with insurers.
“We underwrite risks from small and simple to large and very complex commercial lines,” notes Dennis Furlong, vice-president for Montreal Region at Intact Insurance, who first met John Morin at a business function in 1998. “But how we transact with John is different from how we transact with other, larger brokerages.”
“The relationships that John and his staff have with their clients, their expectation is to have the same relationship with their insurance carrier,” he says. “They want it to be more personal. They know when they have a case to discuss, they can phone a specific underwriter in their business unit, and they rely on that continuity of personal relationships.” Furlong adds that the back-and-forth between brokers and insurers is key to developing new products designed to serve small businesses.
And outside of the relationship with insurers, brokers can learn a lot from each other, says John Morin. He makes a point of meeting with local competing brokers in his region monthly at an informal lunch. He has also been the president of Quebec’s insurance brokers’ association, Regroupement des cabinets de courtage d’assurance du Quebec (RCCAQ), and the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada (IBAC).
“Brokers have to talk to other brokers,” says John Morin. “Now and then there is a case that comes along where you don’t have the expertise or capacity. You can share with brokers to learn.”
And sometimes, with sharing, comes opportunity. It was out of a meeting with a broker colleague in BC that Morin Assurances came to be the Quebec regional broker for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).
“This is a worldwide organization, and my colleague in BC handles this for Canada, but he needed someone in Quebec, and we have the ability and knowledge to handle this for Quebec,” says Morin. “Although your brokerage may be small, you can still do weird and wonderful stuff.”
Tips for small brokers serving small business
1) Develop a niche. Morin Assurances has grown its business by maintaining a focus in its local community. While the company insures myriad types of businesses, John Morin admits a large percentage of clients are restaurateurs. “We do more restaurants than other things because we have spent many years understanding the bread and butter of what they do.” (Pun intended).
2) But don’t be afraid to look for unusual opportunities. Morin says brokers can grow by expanding their areas of expertise. “Sometimes you may shy away from a client because they’re in manufacturing, but you may find that when you get right down to it, ask the questions, read the brochures and educate yourself on their business, you can understand what you need to and convey that to the insurer. And you can serve them very well.”
3) Get to know “the competition.” John Morin meets monthly for an informal lunch with other brokers in Lachine and neighbouring boroughs to discuss new products, challenges and opportunities. One of Morin Assurance’s clients—PADI—came out of networking with another broker in Vancouver.
4) Get personal.John and Peter Morin have a reputation in Lachine as guys who will just “drop in to say hello,” says Kenny Oliphant, who owns a local restaurant. They don’t need an excuse of an annual renewal or a new product pitch to check in with their clients.
Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.