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From Past to Present

In its 125th year, The Dominion is making some big changes

In 1867, Sir John A. Macdonald was named the first prime minister of the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Twenty years later, in the twilight of his political career, Canada’s founding father was named the president of one of the first wholly Canadian casualty insurance companies: The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company, known today as simply The Dominion.

As the company celebrates its 125th anniversary, it is also preparing for some very big changes. After more than 20 years with The Dominion, the longest-serving president and CEO in the company’s history, George Cooke, is retiring at the end of the year. But with Brigid Murphy succeeding Cooke, The Dominion is marking another milestone this year: the installment of the company’s first female president and CEO.

“Talk about big changes in the 125th year,” says Cooke. “There’s two.”

When The Dominion opened its first office, Toronto was home to only 181,000 people. The company had only 337 policies in force, it collected only $5,000 in premiums and paid only $40.83 in claims.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in a century and a quarter.

In 1896, The Dominion opened its first branch office in Montreal. Today, The Dominion has 10 offices across the country and, since 1962, it has been headquartered at 165 University Avenue in Toronto.

The Dominion’s current home is filled with antique reminders of its long, successful history. Encased in glass in the tenth floor boardroom is the ledger containing the company minutes from 1887 to 1924. Macdonald’s well-worn desk sits in the hallway under one of many paintings of the founder. And lining the boardroom walls are framed photos of the company’s 15 past presidents—beginning with Macdonald and ending with George Cooke.

Cooke’s first day on the job was February 17, 1992 and on December 31, 2012 he will officially retire from his role as CEO of the company. Over the years he has developed a reputation as a fierce supporter and an outspoken advocate for the broker channel. (In fact, Canadian Insurance Top Broker’s collection of fiery Cooke quotes was one of the most read items on the citopbroker.com website this summer.) “I think there are not very many people brave enough to replace George Cooke. I certainly don’t underestimate the challenge,” says his successor, Murphy. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.” 

Captain Cooke

For a company that could be accused of clinging to the past, Cooke has done a great deal to move The Dominion forward.

“I think The Dominion, prior to George, was in danger of being a bit old-fashioned and [it] seemed to be complacent and maybe losing a bit of ground,” says Murphy. “I think George reinvigorated the company.”

One of the first changes Cooke made as president of the company was to move his office from the tenth floor where The Dominion’s owner, E.L Financial Corporation, has offices, to the fifth floor where The Dominion’s employees sit.

“My office is not fancy,” Cooke says. “I’m standing here looking at … Gumby.”

Cooke’s office is adorned with oddities that each have a special significance to him. (He once had to convince the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada that his comparison of the BIPPER to Gumby was actually a compliment, hence the green figurine on his desk.) But his unconventional office is just one example of how Cooke has differentiated himself—and The Dominion—from the rest of the industry.

In the early days of Cooke’s tenure, the industry was figuring out how to deal with the Red Cross’s tainted blood scandal, when thousands of transfusion patients contracted HIV or hepatitis C. “I guess not knowing any better, I was very much of the view that it was just something that cried out for resolution—and quick resolution—so that the people who had actually been injured would be able to, in some way, receive some of the compensation that they were clearly owed,” says Cooke. “But lawyers preach that you never deal with liability issues that way.”

“My office is not fancy. I’m standing here looking at … Gumby.”

At a meeting to deal with the issue, Cooke urged his fellow insurers to find a way to work with the government and settle the issue. “Many of them laughed,” he says. After months of hard work, the insurance companies along with the federal and provincial governments created a compensation plan for those affected—a plan that Cooke counts as one of his greatest accomplishments. “It was a very unusual way of dealing with an insurance problem,” he says. “It established us as being different. A lot of people poked a lot of fun at the inexperienced kid that was trying to do this, but we pulled it off.”

This was but one important moment in Cooke’s career at The Dominion. In 2005, The Dominion was drawn into an automobile insurance salvage class action lawsuit. The litigation stemmed from a case in which a plaintiff, whose car was irreparably damaged in an accident, claimed the insurance company owed the full value of the car—not the value minus the deductible. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the plaintiff and the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the industry’s appeal. “It produced an outrageous result,” recalls Cooke. “Lawsuits, if you’d added them all up, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars against the industry.”

“Virtually the entire industry was trying to focus on how you would narrow the classes of potential claimants and how you would narrow the reach back,” says Cooke. “And we took a look at it and said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to start this all over again. As foolhardy as it is, we’re going to go back and we’re going to try this court case in the divisional court and we know we’re going to lose and we’re going to come back to the Ontario Appeals Court and re-argue it properly. We’re going to get the court to overturn its own decision.’ People laughed at that. In any event, we went back and we did it.” The Dominion’s case ultimately resulted in the Ontario Court of Appeal overturning its original decision and ruling in favour of the insurance companies. “So that was a pretty significant accomplishment with some pretty material dollars associated with it,” says Cooke.

Cooke has also made a name for himself as a champion for the consumer. Most recently, he served on the Ontario Anti-Fraud Task Force that delivered its recommendations to the Ontario government in November. “One of the commitments I made in ’92 to the brokers was that on any issue that related to their customers in the country, we would take a strong position and be vocal about it. We’ve been quite outspoken on bank branches retailing insurance products, any form of regulation, any form of product reform.”

Moving Forward

This appreciation of the consumer is something Brigid Murphy will continue to foster in her role as president—and she believes it is what has made The Dominion so successful for 125 years.

“I would certainly like brokers to take the mantle, to some extent, to support their channel. Non-independent brokers, to the public, look the same as brokers.”

“A sincere customer view is a very important part of The Dominion’s DNA. We have found in our business that if what we sell doesn’t work for the consumer, it ultimately doesn’t work well for us,” she says.

Murphy joined The Dominion in 1996 as a consultant and has risen through the ranks over the years. Her most recent position with The Dominion was chief operating officer. Though she has worked for an insurance company for 16 years, she began her career as a broker in British Columbia in 1973.

“I started off as a broker myself, so I think I understand their lives,” she says. “I admire and support the work they do in their communities. I’m a big fan of independent brokers.”

Clearly, The Dominion’s support of the broker channel will not change under new management, but Murphy says brokers need to take more responsibility for promoting their distribution channel. In this, she echoes comments Cooke made on the CEO panel at the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario conevention in October.

“I would certainly like brokers to … take the mantle, to some extent, to support their channel,” she says. “Non-independent brokers, to the public, look the same as brokers.”

Murphy says The Dominion will continue to support brokers in their efforts to differentiate themselves and to ensure the public understands the value of an independent broker.

“We really do believe consumers are best served when there is an independent advocate between an insurance company and the consumer,” she says.

Though she says she will continue many of the things her and Cooke have worked on together, there are aspects of the company that need to change. “I don’t think we’re going to change things just because we have a new CEO, we’re going to change things because we need to change things to keep pace and stay ahead of some of the areas we’re ahead on,” she says. Some of those areas include technology—an area Murphy feels the entire industry has fallen behind in—and talent management. The Dominion is currently updating its systems “into the modern age” and the company recently added senior members to its team, including new senior vice presidents of field operations, personal lines and commercial lines.

As for that really “big” change (the company appointing its first female president and CEO), Murphy says it’s “very special” to be the first woman that will have her photo hung on the boardroom wall, but she says being a woman has never factored into her career development.

“It means absolutely nothing on the one hand, and on the other hand it’s pretty cool to be the first woman, because there will never be another first woman.”

It’s certainly one for The Dominion’s (already bursting) history books.

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Driving Results

Dek: The Dominion was the 10th largest insurer in Canada overall in 2011 as measured by direct written premiums. It is one of the country’s major auto insurers, ranking 9th last year.

2011 Leaders in Direct Auto Insurance Premiums
RankCompany/GroupTotal premiums$,000
6Wawanesa Mutual Ins Co1,163,432
7Co-operators General Ins Co1,106,523
8Economical Mutual Ins Co913,765
9Dominion of Canada Gen Ins Co778,692
10Allstate Ins Co of Canada739,300
Source: Canadian Insurance Top Broker 2012 Annual Statistical Issue.

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Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the December 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

Transcontinental Media G.P.