February 3, 2017 by Angela Stelmakowich, Editor
For Laura Van Vliet, her insurance career so far might be likened to what can be achieved by choosing the right building blocks to create a solid foundation for the future.
“So far, it’s been really interesting working,” says Van Vliet, assistant vice president of ALIGNED Insurance Inc. in Waterloo, Ontario.
It has been about “discovering new opportunities that were almost a building block into something else into something else. It was just always a new area of interest that kept coming up and building upon the foundation of insurance,” says the recipient of the 2016 Emerging Leader National Leadership Award.
Van Vliet is honoured and humbled by the award from the CIP Society, the graduate division of the Insurance Institute of Canada (IIC).
It is a heady honour given that, like so many before her, a career in insurance was not initially in Van Vliet’s sights. Having never considered the option, she had neither knowledge of insurance’s scope nor its particulars.
What she did have was the drive to learn, the will to work and a few industry contacts, although that may not have been readily apparent at the time.
Van Vliet further had an interest in business. That appeal led her to a two-year, general business diploma program at Kitchener’s Conestoga College.
While in her second year, Van Vliet was speaking to her sales professor – who was also involved in the college’s insurance program – when a building block came into view. “We were just talking one day and he said, ‘You know, what about insurance?’ I was like, ‘I don’t really know much about it.’ He said, ‘I feel like it would be a really good fit for you,'” she recalls.
Advising her to do her own research, she did just that. She remembered that, years earlier, she baby sat for a family and the father was the owner of a brokerage.
Van Vliet reached out to him to get a better feel for the industry and an understanding of what it was that he did. “Not being in the industry, it’s pretty overwhelming,” she says.
That initial conversation done, the next building block fell into place as she secured a summer job doing data entry at Ned Insurance Agency in London, Ontario.
The position afforded Van Vliet her first real-world view of the insurance industry and it was then that things clicked. “I was like, ‘You know what? I like this.'”
That being the case, she enrolled in Conestoga College’s Business of Insurance program, worked part-time at McFarlan Rowlands Insurance Brokers and began her Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) courses, working toward her CIP designation.
In her first semester, Van Vliet recalls, she completed four or five CIP course exams; in her second semester, she did the same.
“Trying to do my CIPs, do the diploma and work, it definitely was a lot, but it gave me so many different areas of knowledge,” she relays, adding the experience fuelled her interest and enthusiasm.
That interest found its way to work, where she would ask co-workers all manner of questions. She would say, “‘Hey, I’m learning about this. What does this actually mean? How does this apply to the workplace?’ So, it gave me an all-encompassing vision of how insurance works.”
Her second semester done and her CIP completed, Van Vliet remained with McFarlan Rowlands as a data entry clerk for a time before moving over to Cowan Insurance Group in Cambridge, Ontario.
There, more building blocks were assembled. “I started there as a commercial account administrator and it got me into the commercial side, which I found very interesting. I liked that it wasn’t quite black and white, a little more colour to it, and it just kind of drew me into a new level of interest,” she says.
Van Vliet held the position for almost two years before moving into an associate account executive role, focusing on construction accounts. “I was doing insurance as well as surety, so taking it another step further to another interesting area.”
A year later, she made the switch to ALIGNED Insurance. In an advocate role for almost a year, Van Vliet has since become assistant vice president.
It is a role she relishes given her focus on, and interest in, commercial insurance. It is also a position that has allowed Van Vliet to take yet another step towards enhancing her education.
“I want (clients) to look at me and say, ‘You’re a part of our team. You’re the risk management side of our team,'” says Van Vliet, who earned her Canadian Risk Management (CRM) designation a few years ago and recently finished her Canadian Professional Insurance Broker program.
“Our job is to make sure their (clients’) assets are protected and that, in itself, is so important, so why not make sure you do everything you can to stay educated and continue your education,” she says. Coming to the table and saying, ‘I’ve taken the time to educate myself to make sure I can help you better,’ speaks for itself.”
Van Vliet’s CIP designation, for example, “really provided me with a well-rounded knowledge of the insurance industry,” she notes.
But beyond knowledge, it afforded her an opportunity to meet people through the CIP Society and gain access to great resources and contacts. “The foundation there is getting the designation and then moving forward,” says Van Vliet, a licensed broker in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Van Vliet’s interest in business and her growing understanding of insurance certainly played a role in her decision to make insurance a career. But that decision was made easier by the industry’s natural link to helping people.
“I’ve always loved to do volunteer work and to help others,” Van Vliet says. “Getting an understanding of insurance and how it can help people, that definitely drew me into it.”
Van Vliet’s volunteerism and mentorship efforts have been many. She is involved in the IIC’s Conestoga chapter, has taken part in panels at Conestoga College for new students in the General Insurance Program, serves as an ambassador for IIC’s Career Connections program, has launched and co-ordinates a memorial baseball tournament for a friend who passed away from cancer, and has travelled to Thailand for Habitat for Humanity.
“It’s important to stay connected on issues and trends,” Van Vliet notes.
“The biggest thing for me with education is that knowledge is power. It’s so important to stay informed,” particularly in such an ever-changing industry, she adds.
“Change is inevitable, change is ongoing and we have to be adaptable,” Van Vliet points out. “If we’re not willing to change, then we’re going to be left behind. But I think that’s the cool part of our industry: we develop products to make sure that innovation can keep going and that it can be productive.”
Innovative thinking could also be helpful with building for the future and attracting young people to the industry.
Van Vliet wholeheartedly supports developing “mentor/mentee relationships to make sure the knowledge they (veteran insurance professionals) have is shared and is passed down,” she says.
“The really awesome part of insurance is that there are so many different areas of it that it can be appealing to a number of different personalities, skills sets, experience and strengths,” Van Vliet says.
“There’s a place for everyone in insurance,” she suggests.
“That’s my story so far,” says Van Vliet. “The rest is still being written.”