How Joel Baker shapes the industry’s most crucial conversations
Everybody knows Joel Baker. You know him from the voice that emerges—measured, practical—in MSA Research’s quarterly reports. You might have seen him making the rounds at the company’s marquee event, the National Insurance Conference of Canada. At the very least, you’ve probably come across something—some figures or a product—that has its origins in MSA’s number crunching or forum sessions.
Even if you don’t know him, it’s a safe bet that a close friend or colleague does. For someone who shuns golf and Facebook, MSA’s CEO is adept at building personal networks, and he’s constructed a mighty—and still growing—one through his analytics firm, his policy think tank Northwind Professional Institute and his latest venture, Catastrophe Indices and Quantification.
Everybody knows Joel Baker. But do they really know the quiet analyst who’s moving some of the industry’s most important conversations forward? Who’s the guy who managed all that?
If anyone could get Bob Benmosche to accept an invitation, for instance, it would be Baker. In 2012, the U.S. insurance titan had just turned AIG into the financial comeback story of the decade, and Baker thought he would be a show-stopping keynote speaker for a new commercial insurance summit. So he picked up the phone. “Joel said, ‘I want Bob,’ recalls Lynn Oldfield, president and CEO of AIG Canada, a member of Baker’s advisory committee for the Canadian Commercial Insurance Summit in 2013, as well as a member of the 2016 steering committee of Northwind’s P&C Insurance Industry Forum. “And Joel is persuasive.”
Benmosche gave the keynote address, “No Free Lunch,” in Muskoka the following year. It was his only trip to Canada during his time at AIG.
For Baker, the business has always been about relationships. But before that, he followed the numbers. In university, he marveled over Riemann series theorem—“It’s a cool series of numbers that adds up to infinity, but you can make it sum up to any number you want,” he says over coffee in Toronto’s Distillery District. Soft-spoken and courteous, he’s a calm presence amidst the buzz of tourists. “I find that stuff fascinating.”
After graduate school, he made a key decision. He’d lived in Toronto for a few years as a child—he remembers spending time at the ice rink and Future Bakery in the Annex—before his family returned abroad when he was twelve. Once he’d finished a master’s degree in statistics and stochastic processes, his parents separated and he opted to move back.
“I had fond memories of Canada,” he says. “I wanted to come back and seek my fortune.” He gained a foothold in the insurance industry at TRAC Insurance Services before moving on to Sun Alliance, where he created financial reports for executives. A second stint at TRAC, this time as its general manager, crystallized Baker’s career trajectory. Even then, “I knew I couldn’t out-count him,” says former TRAC co-owner Don Smith.
Another talent emerged there—Smith and another TRAC owner both had strong personalities and Baker often reconciled the two when they were at odds, says Smith. The mediation “was a big thing. He knew I needed a little help when things got difficult.”
Baker credits Smith for his mentorship—and for the leeway to take some calculated leaps: he got the go-ahead to develop WinTRAC, early-days software that allowed insurers to analyze industry-wide financials. “It was a rewarding time,” he says. “I wasn’t running the company on my own, but had the freedom to run the company.”
Total freedom came a few years later. After A.M. Best bought TRAC in 1999, Baker stayed with the new entity, A.M. Best Canada, as general manager. But when the ratings agency pulled out of Canada in 2003, he opted not to follow. Instead, he launched MSA Research in 2004, offering analytical software, benchmark reports and custom analytics to industry members.
The company’s quarterly report offers a rundown of industry figures and commentary from a range of executives, but it’s Baker’s own take on issues that adds a unique dimension to the reports in an industry awash in them, says Dan Danyluk, CEO of the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada. “He’s enthusiastic about his analysis and he’s enthusiastic about the numbers. In reading [them], you understand that there’s a guy behind them who’s tremendously interested in the industry.”
Baker’s next step took him out from behind the numbers, in a way. Although at least one naysayer told him he’d never find enough material to keep it going, he took over Smith’s Canadian Insurance Congress and recast it as the NICC.
“We switched roles,” says Smith, who watched in admiration as Baker reinvigorated the event with high-level speakers and buzz-worthy panel pairings. Danyluk, too, notes how Baker packed the conference with something for everyone in the industry, and how he moved among the attendees to make sure they were comfortable and to solicit feedback.
Some challenges yielded good-natured solutions: the 2009 NICC dinner coincided with both the U.S. and Canadian federal election debates and Baker worried that attendees would drift away to their hotel rooms to watch Stephen Harper or Sarah Palin. So, he set up large screens in the banquet room, deeming one side the “U.S. Junkies Corner” and the other for Canadian junkies. “There was a huge crowd at the U.S. corner,” he laughs.
A firm approach to sponsorship also took things to a new level. “He was way ahead of me,” acknowledges Smith. Where Smith would have asked a company to sponsor a cocktail party and go back and forth on price, “He’ll say, ‘Monday night’s cocktail party is $10,000 and they’ll pay it.’”
For a mild-mannered guy, Baker can also be “pushy in the best possible way,” according to Danyluk. That’s a strength, he insists, pointing out that such tenacity is necessary for any business owner. “No entrepreneur has serial successes,” he points out, noting that the Canadian Commercial Insurance Summit didn’t take off as well as his other ventures. “You’re not really pushing your limits if you have serial successes, but he’s had the guts to try it and will move heaven and earth to make something work.”
The storm chaser
At present, Baker is putting that energy behind CatIQ. He wants the venture and its companion conference to open up the conversation to weather events and losses. While it will bring the latest weather and weather loss data to subscribers, he’s determined to “cross-pollinate” the discussion and bring together insurers, weather researchers and related government agencies. “CatIQ connects the dots,” he says.
One example: most insurance executives don’t know how to read a weather radar image, so Baker called on former Environment Canada meteorologist Carolyn Rennie to be CatIQ’s director of catastrophic loss analysis. And, other sectors don’t always recognize the impact of weather catastrophes on insurers. “They [have] no idea that Storm A caused so many millions of dollars to the insurance industry, but having that knowledge helps everybody understand the magnitude of these disasters and the impact on the economy.”
He hopes CatIQ will help bring about infrastructure and policy changes, and draw more representatives to the table. “It’s come a very long way in one year.”
What makes Baker an uber-connector in an industry with its fair share of associations, clubs and happy hours? Well, there’s the breadth of his network, says Oldfield. “Joel has the unique ability to reach every level of an organization and has strong relationships at the C-suite of insurers, brokers and reinsurers across the country.”
Then there’s his access to other sector leaders through Northwind’s leadership ventures. That’s helped him reach across insurance boundaries to foster relationships and add new dimensions to MSA’s events. “We can bring industry executives to speak to the hydro industry, for example, about the ice storm. It opens their eyes as well.”
There’s something more fundamental at work, according to Danyluk. “He’s dogged about getting information. He loves learning, and he thinks that people should have an opportunity to learn.”
Baker credits other people. He points to his 10-person team at MSA, and to his chief secret weapon, his family. There’s Heather, his “superhero” wife, and two tween children, a son and a daughter. His chief goal, he says, is to raise his kids and make them happy. “Touch wood, it’s been that way.” This summer, the family headed up to Killarney for a canoeing and camping expedition—some true Canadian portaging. “It was the kid’s idea,” he says a little ruefully.
But he doesn’t discount his perch at MSA, and the birds-eye view of the industry it gives him. Nor does he totally discount his own skills. “I’m not a party person, but I listen to people and can connect the dots when they say something. I can connect ideas together and help them move the conversation forward.”
Lately, Baker has been doing some reading. He favours books about history and just finished The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by former Netscape exec and Loudcloud co-founder Ben Horowitz. He admires business leaders like the late Steve Jobs and big thinkers like Stephen Hawking, who he met as a graduate student.The scientist had come to give a lecture, and Baker was one of the students helping to carry his wheelchair down the stairs. “It was an amazing thing. Surreal.” But he’s quick to dismiss any notion that he has anything in common with his heroes. “I admire their search for perfection, for not compromising on quality.”
But colleagues agree that the one-time math major has become his own kind of trailblazer. “He’s an incredibly smart guy, but he’s actually a pretty shy guy and those of us who’ve gone to the conferences have seem him grow in stature as a speaker and as an industry leader,” says Danyluk.
But there’s something more underpinning his leadership style, says Oldfield.
“He’s a student of the business,” she says. “He sees it as a productive [element] in society. He believes in the industry and in taking industry knowledge to the next level.”
Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine