Tom Hickey, President of Wedgwood Insurance, is growing the St. John's, NL, based brokerage from the inside-out. For two years in a row, Wedgwood has received the "Best Places to Work in Atlantic Canada" award. Tom shares with us what he's learned about culture, growth, and success.
What makes a brokerage prosper or succeed?
There is all the usual stuff. You have to have the right team, the right people, the right products. But that’s all business 101. I think at the end of the day if you want to be successful and move to the next level, it’s all about having a clear vision and clear direction. Most of the brokerages I know have the basic value proposition of 'we have great people and we provide great service'. Or 'we provide cheaper products'. That is what you see out there with all the advertising. That is fine, but will that strategy carry you forward? Can you dare to be different? It’s easier said than done.
What is the vision at Wedgwood Insurance?
For us, our vision is really about having a broader definition of risk and how we can help our clients with all of the risks they face. That is the conversation we want to have with our clients or our prospects. That is the direction we are going. Whatever you are trying to do, it is important to have a clear path. If you don’t have that vision, how can your employees follow it? And how can your customers understand what you are trying to accomplish?
Communicating that vision to your employees is central. These days, information is very accessible and you can’t hoard it. That means you have to be a transparent organization. For us, that means you tell your employees what the vision is. You have to be open about what it is you’re trying to accomplish and how what each employee does contributes to that vision. It has to cascade right from the top and throughout the organization.
From a behavioural point of view, that involves not just showing employees the big picture plan. You have to get into the details – what are our numbers, what are our sales totals, what do our expense ratios look like, what volume do we need, what sales do we have to make to achieve top-line growth, what does our retention look like? What behaviors have to be exhibited to be successful? All of those things have to be out on the table.
You have to be transparent and you have to give people the pieces to fit together as part of their jobs. We are probably pretty extreme on that, but if you don’t have that transparency, people don’t understand what it is they are buying into and how they are a part of it. Obviously, the behaviours and the actions have to be in line with that – not just from the staff but also from the brokerage leadership.
How would you describe your culture?
There are three core values here: commitment, leadership and teamwork. These are put up on the wall here and that is what everyone tries to do. Your culture is really just a reflection of your behaviour. If you are in an office where people are late all the time, then you have a culture of lateness. It is simple really; you don’t have to make it too complicated. So we try to have a culture here where people are committed to the Wedgwood way of doing things, show leadership and work together. That is different depending on the employee. We try to include everyone and encourage them to fit into that mold.
What about competitor differentiation in the marketplace?
The differentiation for us at Wedgwood in the marketplace is that we are trying to have a much broader definition of risk. There are obviously the risks that our clients manage with their insurance policy. But these may actually be some of the smaller risk items that they deal with. There are a lot more risks around having the right people on your team, having people become more productive, competitive issues, business growth, getting into new lines of business, dealing with compliance, emerging risks like Cyber and Reputation Risk, generational changes – all of those things are risk issues as well.
We try to have the conversation around risk with our clients from a much broader perspective, not just insurance. The insurance policy cannot be the only tool in your risk toolbox. An insurance policy can address a hazard, but what about all the other things a client has to deal with?
Some clients appreciate that conversation. It depends on the client. Some people don’t think that way. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I think most progressive people who want to grow their business realize there are risk issues that can’t be solved with insurance policies. A lot of what we discuss is around policies, procedures and process. We can deliver a lot of expertise to help with those areas as well.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in this industry?
When I got into this industry, you were taught how to be an insurance “person” – in other words, how to sell or service or provide insurance products. But in this day and age, you need a lot more business acumen. People talk a lot about being a “trusted advisor.” But you can’t be that advisor if you are just an order taker for insurance policies. By its very nature, the role of the trusted advisor is to advise someone before they make their decision. If you are a young person coming into the insurance business today, I think you need to have a much higher level of business acumen, or a plan in place to develop it.
This is the kind of person we look for when we are hiring. They should think beyond just insurance products and look at business and risk issues in general. They should have the knowledge to bring value and discussion to clients about broader issues, not just insurance issues.
If you look at the recent Lloyd’s or Aon surveys - what business owners rank as the top risk issues -things like flood or fires are not even in the top 20 most of the time (unless you live in a flood plain). A lot of other things rank higher. If you claim to be a company that offers risk management, how can you not look at these other things and speak the same risk language as your clients? It requires a different conversation.
What has been a “high point” in your business?
There are always “wins” on accounts. And you feel great when you win an account based on the different and broader discussions we have about risk. You feel like you have solved a problem for someone with some good advice, beyond just insurance products.
Another win point for us: in the last couple of years, we have been selected as one of the best places to work in Atlantic Canada based on feedback from our own employees. That tells us we have a good culture in place and that we have things moving in the right direction.
What about some of the challenges?
Let’s face it, the insurance market is extremely soft now but it has really bottomed out over the last few years. So to go in and have price discussions with clients and say that you can save them 20-30%; the days of trying to do sales like that are over. That is why every insurance company you talk to is not hitting their top-line revenue growth. That creates the need for the broader conversation about risk.
It can be a difficult transition to make – from insurance vendor to broader risk consultant model. When we do it, obviously there will be some setbacks; you will not be successful all the time. Some times, you have to step back and stick to your guns. You don’t waver from your vision. Nothing that is easy is usually worth doing. You have to keep your eye on the ball.
How do you approach technology?
We have Applied here for our BMS. We have some people here who are really good at using the system. We are not a big “techie” brokerage for the sake of it. We are big on people who get into the nuts and bolts of the system and really try to maximize our workflows and our efficiency, as much as possible. We have also invested in an online customer portal, which our customers can access 24 hours a day. We are about to roll out an insurance certificate program for our corporate clients to do their own certificates. We are doing everything we can to utilize the tools we have.
We have a a pretty even split in commercial/personal lines. With Policy Works, our marketing and document issuance much more streamlined. We take advantage of all the tools out there, but it still seems like sometimes we are operating in the dark ages with our insurer partners. The client interface with commercial lines is certainly not where it needs to be.
We also use Policy Works, for our Lloyd’s business; I can’t imagine how we would do that without Policy Works, especially the automation of the process and the paperwork. We have freed up a lot of time and resources as running a Lloyd's slip is so paper intensive. The next step is to get our clients on eDocs, instead of us having to mail paper documents to them. That is on the horizon. Using Policy Works for multiple company marketing submissions on large accounts and Lloyd’s issuance has been a huge time saver for us.
What lessons have you learned about leadership?
It all comes back to the culture of what you are doing. I still believe you don’t try to make people follow you: you try to do the right behaviour, set the example and hope other people do the same. I have an awesome team here at Wedgwood. I don’t have to do much more than sit around and try to come up with ideas. They run the company and do what they need to do. It is really the other way around: instead of leading them, I make sure I am supporting people in what they are trying to accomplish. To me, that is leadership.
We have a pretty flat structure; there are not a lot of layers. We have a tight-knit group so it is pretty easy for all of us to hold each other accountable and to make sure we have the resources needed to get the job done. I don’t think leading a brokerage is that different from any other company or organization. It is a matter of having the right people on a team and a clear vision. After that, everything else pretty much takes care of itself.
What kind of legacy would you like to leave?
Everyone at Wedgwood has a personal brand. The one I created for myself was to be systematic, strategic and fair. So I think that would be a good way to describe how we do things here and how I would like to be perceived. We have about 60 employees. We are the perfect size: just small enough to be big and just big enough to be small.
I think the brokerage business has to change. From what I can see, there are a lot of progressive brokers out there, but there are still some who are operating in the past. We have to create a much stronger value proposition. I don’t think it’s enough to provide great insurance service anymore because that is going to be easier and easier to be competed against, easier for automated direct response insurers to take that business.
We have to get our level of business acumen up and provide a higher level of business advice to our clients. Just providing insurance will not be enough for the future, especially in commercial lines. It’s tough to change from a vendor to an advisor like that. A lot of it is getting rid of the old head trash and that is very important for hiring – to hire new people who think along the lines of broader risk, business needs and having that conversation with clients.