New Man in Town
The new CEO of JLT Canada, Steve Thomas, left behind a hot summer in his native Australia to tackle some big goals in his new role, including capitalizing on the company's experience serving big clients in high-tech industries
Jardine Lloyd Thompson Canada Inc. spent a year searching the world for a new CEO. In early January, Steve Thomas arrived in Toronto to sub-zero temperatures, trying not to think about the record-breaking heat wave in his hometown of Perth, Australia. An avid sailor, JLT Canada’s new CEO doesn’t expect to have much time to engage in his hobby until the ice thaws on Lake Ontario anyway.
“I didn’t pick the best time to kick off, did I?” says Thomas with a laugh. “But I expect it will be much colder where I’m headed. My 100-day plan is to get to see all the staff around the country, to get a really good feel of the business, their issues, and understand how I can help them with their goals and their divisions.”
Thomas is no stranger to travelling vast distances to get down to business.
A broker for 27 years, (with JLT and Marsh), since 2007, Thomas has been the executive director of JLT Australia’s advisory corporate branch and the senior state executive for Western Australia (WA), the state that fuels much of the country’s economy, and JLT Australia’s broking business. Until December 31, 2011, he was also the chairman of the Insurance Brokers Association WA Committee.
“JLT Canada sought me out,” says Thomas. “Dominic Burke, our global chief executive gets around the world to most regions several times a year. They were looking for the right person, someone who could understand and appreciate the operations of a large country. My mining experience and construction, and the additional benefits of my knowledge of the energy market made me the right person for the role in Canada.”
Thomas is reputed for having a “fiercely competitive” approach to business. The region of WA is vast and remote. The target of exploration for big international mining firms, the WA branch represents a quarter of JLT’s national business there. The state is to Australia what Alberta is to Canada, “the driving economy of the country,” says Thomas.
JLT Australasia is approximately three-and-a-half times the size of JLT Canada by revenue. Over 21 years with JLT Australia and New Zealand, Thomas has overseen the national corporate segment for the company, earning a reputation as a hands-on broker with some of Australia’s most prestigious insurance clients. He has managed the Australian insurance program for Canadian-based Barrick Gold, the largest gold producer in the world, with seven operating mines in Australia; he oversaw the global insurance program for Asia Pulp & Paper, with US$15 billion in assets across China and Indonesia. And he’s been responsible for installing construction programs worth billions of dollars, including the Sally Malay Nickel Project ($200 million), the Perth to Mandurah NewMetro Rail ($2 billion) and the Burrup Fertilizer program ($700 million).
“I was born and bred in Perth,” he explains. “It’s a very isolated place, noted as the most isolated city in the world. I think that engenders a sense of entrepreneurialism in the people who live there, and it’s evident in the broker market as well. The insurance industry is fiercely competitive in Perth, not just among the internationals, but also with local firms that look after large, international clients.”
Thomas is a big believer in “seeing, touching and feeling risk” to maintain a competitive edge. “It’s about getting out to mine sites, getting to understand the business of our clients and their problems, problems that are inherent to the location and where they are,” explains Thomas. “For me, I only fully understand what they need from a broker when I see firsthand how they run their business and the challenges they face getting their product out to the world.”
“I think there’s a lot of synergy between Australia and Canada, including the vast geographic regions that need to be covered and understood.”
Thomas has never been apologetic for prioritizing client needs, even at the expense of business etiquette, says Leo Demer, CEO of JLT Australia and New Zealand.
“I’d fly across the country from Sydney to meet with him and he wouldn’t be shy about cutting me off after an hour to say ‘I’ve got to go to a meeting with a client,’” says Demer with a laugh. “Here he was running the second biggest branch in Australia, yet he always had plenty of time to get out and see clients. It’s always been his focus.”
That Thomas arrived in Toronto at the start of a new year is no accident. He has extensive experience and knowledge of JLT corporate, an area where JLT Canada is overtly looking to expand. The decision was made at the global level that, with the installation of a new CEO, JLT Canada has an opportunity to shift the leadership of its business from its Western base, to extend its reach into the heart of Canada’s corporate insurance world. Currently, one-quarter of the company’s business is in corporate, including transportation and logistics, life sciences, health care, commercial real estate, industrial manufacturing, and communications technology.
“We see the opportunity to grow more being in the East,” says Thomas. “JLT Canada has been based in the West for a number of years; the CEO has been in Calgary, and our financial base has been in Vancouver. But Toronto is the financial capital, and we see it as a place to put down our flag, close to the head offices of insurance companies and larger clients.”
JLT already boasts an impressive roster of clients. In communications technology, alone, JLT has managed programs for some of the world’s most prestigious companies, including British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Research in Motion, Nokia, Ericsson, along with a number of media companies, including Britain’s ITV. It’s just one of the areas where the Canadian division is looking to expand, capitalizing on its already established niche approach to business in this area.
“Disruptive technology is changing the business and risk landscape,” says Ray Mattholie, a director at JLT Canada, and a former risk manager in the telecom sector. He points to the trend of cloud computing as an example, with many companies opting out of in-house computer services and data storage, instead relying on external shared resources. “Unlike being in-house where you have your own files and security protocols, relying on a cloud service provider you’re not totally in control anymore. Particular concerns for the sector relate to data privacy and network security. The risk financing solutions will not be provided by conventional insurance products. It’s more about developing a customized, risk management approach for our customers to respond to these emerging risks.”
The customized approach is what sets JLT apart from its competition, adds JLT Canada president and former CEO, Paul Murphy. “JLT is not all things to all people. We are big enough to provide any of the services Aon and Marsh do, but small enough to be able to customize and say to a client, ‘tell us how you want to get this done and we will move heaven and earth to do it for you.’ ”
Mattholie adds that new leadership offers a chance for new dynamism in these areas. “Steve Thomas will strengthen the team and help us to push forward in innovative ways,” he says. “And with Paul Murphy staying on as president, there’s a great continuity for our clients as well.”
History has shown that JLT Canada’s areas of specialization have also been its areas of organic growth. Thomas brings with him an impressive resume of knowledge of some of these areas, including construction, insurance for professionals, and public sector business.
“These are not new lines, but they are areas where we have experience and expertise, and we’re looking at pushing forward in these areas, and aligning with our global expertise as well,” says Thomas. “One of JLT’s current niche market divisions has dedicated resources to underwrite and risk manage public entities including, but not limited to, municipalities, First Nation communities, non profit groups and all levels of government.
“We don’t want to be the biggest; that’s clearly not our aim. We do want to be the best at what we do, and with that comes growth,” says Thomas. “We see ourselves as an independent and distinctive broker for people who don’t want to be part of the multinationals, but want a company with that kind of reach.”
Globally, JLT ranks as the sixth largest broker in the world. In Canada, it still has miles to go to compete with other large multinationals like Marsh and Aon. Over the past decade, JLT Canada has grown year-over-year, and it has not been shy about its willingness to explore external opportunities in order to put itself on a more level playing field.
“JLT has an appetite to do acquisitions,” says Murphy, who began planning for his own succession as early as 2005. “We’ve looked at many acquisitions within Canada. But we’re price sensitive. JLT Canada is a debt-free company, financially in good shape and some of the prices when we got down to final negotiations were exorbitant. But these things go in cycles, and Steve Thomas is in a position to put his stamp on the company and take advantage of the next cycle.”
Acquistions and growth aside, Thomas believes the biggest challenge for JLT Canada going forward is the impending shortage of young, skilled staff. According to demographic research conducted by the Insurance Institute of Canada, 49%of the 110,000 people working in the Canadian insurance industry in 2007 were between 41 and 60. There are expectations that 25% of the industry’s 2007 labour force will retire between 2012 and 2017.
“I was surprised and a little disappointed to find that in Canada, like Australia, there is an enormously competitive environment for human resources,” says Thomas. “This is a huge challenge. In Australia, we see young people get attracted to mining, oil and gas, getting paid very well for fly-in, fly-out work, and I think it’s the same here in some areas. And what we do know is that generations X and Y have a different approach to work, different values. We have to work harder to attract them, and make it attractive for them to stay in the insurance industry. You haven’t got a business unless you’ve got the right team in place.”
“I have a real passion for getting young staff in and kick-starting the industry as much as we can.”
Those who know Thomas say he’s the man to inspire. The avid sportsman and father of four grown children is reputed for having unique ways of getting people—both staff and clients—on board, literally.
“I don’t know if they’ve got any big boats around Toronto,” says Demer in Sydney. “Steve’s a mad boat man. If his clients or staff get sea sick they’re going to have some problems. But otherwise, he’s the guy to engage them and get them interested and educated in all issues involving the entire insurance business across the whole country.”
Advice for Young Brokers
In the competitive world of insurance, Thomas believes the integrity he brings to his work stands out for a couple of reasons.
“I’ve always believed it’s clients first,” says Thomas. “When doing deals, I always look at what’s best for the client. It may sound simplistic, but if you keep that in the back of your head, it always comes through.”
He’s also known to put his money where his mouth is, understanding that the harder he works, the more “luck” he’s had in business.
“It’s not luck, really,” says Thomas. “Things don’t just come to you. You have to work at it to make it happen.”
Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the February 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.