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How one of Canada’s largest brokerages is handling COVID-19


March 23, 2020   by David Gambrill


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A pandemic triggers a state of emergency. You have 24 hours to shut your doors to customer walk-in traffic and protect 1,900 of your brokers and support staff across Canada from catching and spreading the novel coronavirus.

Even for smaller brokerages, it can be a logistical nightmare to cease walk-in traffic and send people home to work on such short notice. But for Western Financial Group, one of Canada’s largest brokerages, it took approximately 24 hours to set everything up.

“I think the fact that we are a larger organization actually helped us to move so quickly [on COVID-19],” Western’s president and CEO Kenny Nicholls told Canadian Underwriter recently. “We rolled this decision out last Thursday, and we have received praise from our employees and customers for doing the right thing, being socially responsible and doing our part to help flatten the curve [i.e. reduce the transmission of the virus within the community].”

To get a sense of scope of what Western Financial had to do, the brokerage has 183 locations spread across the country in offices based in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. More than 1,600 of its 1,900 employees are licensed brokers who sell P&C insurance in all lines of business, including personal, commercial, financial services and specialty lines. The brokerage has partnerships with over 100 carriers across Canada. So how did the brokerage turn on a dime the moment it realized it had a pandemic on its hands?

Nicholls said the national scope of the brokerage meant that it already had a team in place of 300 specialists dedicated to supporting frontline brokers. Experts on the team included IT specialists, marketing and digital specialists, communications specialists, HR specialists, and finance specialists.

“All of them put together gave us the ability to provide expert service that perhaps some of our smaller competitors would not have,” Nicholls said. “We’ve got a very robust infrastructure. In the last few years, we’ve not only invested in technology, but also in processes.”

Nicholls noted that Western has historically been built on the basis of more than 100 acquisitions, which had the effect of streamlining processes. “Our focus has always been, ‘How can we still be considered local in all of the communities in which we operate, but still operate as a unified group?’” he said. “We’re at a point now where most of our branches are interconnected with each other and communicate very, very efficiently, [even though] we are split by region and lines of business as well. We have an ability to move or change direction very quickly.”

The investments in technology, processes and having a dedicated team of specialists all played a crucial role in responding to COVID-19 as quickly as Western did, Nicholls said.

“When we started thinking and talking about closing our branches to walk-in traffic, it took us about 24 hours to put everything in place,” he said. “That includes providing people with playbooks. Early in the morning, before the branches opened, our brokers had a complete list of instructions of what to do. Instructions were as basic as, ‘First, please print this sign and post it at the door’, so that customers would be advised.”

The communications teams sent out emails and reached out to as many customers as they could, providing consumers with the new information. And sometimes necessity is the mother of invention: The brokerage discovered a new way to communicate with consumers online through the use of its digital form for quoting.

For tasks that required the presence of the client – taking photo ID for driver’s licenses in public auto jurisdictions, for example – appointments were arranged for customers to come into offices. They were asked to practice social distancing and voluntarily cancel appointments if they were unwell.

The brokerage reached out to its 100 carrier partners as well as all of the applicable regional broker associations to advise them of their plans.

Throughout it all, Nicholls pointed out, Western has two fully-functioning contact centres — one in Victoria, B.C. and another in Manitoba. Both are staffed with nationally-licensed experts to provide support to any branches. With employees working from home, the branches have fewer staff people, allowing social distancing measures to be established in the branch offices. And employees have been given extended sick leave should they not be feeling well and must quarantine at home.

Western has had to function in catastrophe situations before, and responding quickly to an emergency situation such as a pandemic is no different, Nicholls told Canadian Underwriter.

“Western was built on pure entrepreneurship,” he said. “Although we are very big, we’ve kept the spirit quite strong. We feed off experiences. We experienced the floods in Calgary in 2013. And we are in remote locations as well. Every year, we are confronted with fires, evacuation orders, and other types of disasters. It’s all allowed us to react promptly to protect the safety of our people, but still maintain a level of service to our customers.”