The extra mile
Going the extra mile for your clients might sound clichéd, but when it’s a key motivator driving a brokerage to grow from $3million in revenues and 29 people to over $130 million in revenues and more than 800 people, one tends to take notice of the adage’s significance.
Cliché or not, it’s the single biggest piece of advice that Robert Keilty, president and CEO of HUB Ontario has learnt from his father, Bruce (86), vice-chairman, and one of the key lessons Robert has passed onto his son Jack, a broker with JLT working at Lloyd’s in London, U.K.
Today, the Keilty name is as synonymous with the insurance industry in Canada as HUB International, the country’s largest insurance brokerage.
HUB Ontario is the fourth largest of HUB International’s 25 regional hubs across North America, and has become a leader in Canada in Directors & Officers (D&O) liability insurance and the preferred brokerage of the Canadian Automobile Dealer Association.
And the business just keeps growing…
The lesson in customer service began when Robert was a mere four years old, sitting at his father’s desk on Saturday mornings, listening to Bruce go about his business or accompanying him to client meetings.
By the time he joined his father’s firm in the fall of 1987, Robert was ready for a mentorship that’s lasted until today. “My father has taught me a tremendous amount about building relationships with customers”, Robert says. He smiles at Bruce, then glances at Jack.
The three men are seated at a conference table in the sophisticated University Club of Toronto, clean cut, well spoken, friendly, and clearly related if similar mannerisms and a preference for impeccable suits are any indication. They’re joined by Robert’s wife Ruth, a former broker.
“My father taught me that using reciprocity is key to being successful in business, at least in our business”, Robert continues. “If you insure a car dealership, you should be buying your car from that dealership and refer your friends to them. They may appreciate that and refer their friends to you. You always go the extra mile for your clients. My father still comes into work every day to make sure the claims experience is as positive as it can be”.
Building relationships is also what attracted Jack to insurance, he says. “Like my dad, I grew up in insurance. I’d go with him to the office on weekends and sit in Granddad’s office. Getting to know interesting people and learning what they did intrigued me from the start”, says Jack.
After graduating with a history degree from St. Francis Xavier University. Jack was introduced to people within the industry by Robert; the same opportunity Bruce gave Robert when he graduated.
“And just like his father, Jack took the opportunity and turned it into a career”, Bruce says.
Jack now specializes in D&O for North American accounts at Lloyd’s, where he’s worked for the past two years.
He’s not the first Keilty to make a name for himself at Lloyd’s. His parents worked and fell in love there.
Our M&A strategy isn’t based on geography or accumulating commissions and fees. We buy people.”
As a Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, student at the time, Ruth won the prestigious Walter Wattles Fellowship to join Lloyd’s in 1986, where she worked as an aviation broker.
Robert had been working at Lloyd’s too, brokering excess and surplus lines business for the North American market. The two had met around the workplace a few times, but it was Bruce who gave the relationship a kick-start.
“We went out for dinner one night and I suggested Robert take Ruth with”, Bruce quips, a smile beaming across his face. “I don’t want to take credit for it, but once Ruth met me it was a done deal!” he jokes.
The couple married in the fall of 1988 and settled in Ontario, where Ruth worked at Chubb as a commercial lines and excess umbrella underwriter until Jack was born in 1992.
His mother taught him and his sister, Sloane (20), a great deal about business, Jack says.
“She taught us about honour and how to treat people well, which has been massively influential not only in business but generally in my day-to-day life”, Jack says.
He has great admiration for his dad and granddad and the firm they’ve built, but Jack insists on making his own way.
“I get asked all the time by underwriters at Lloyd’s if I’m related to my grandfather and father”, Jack says. “Having opportunities like this is exceptional, but sometimes it can be challenging in that people perceive you with elevated expectations. The flipside to that is that it allows you to rise to that challenge”.
Robert can naturally relate. “Most university kids wouldn’t get an interview with the top brass of a company. With my dad being an icon in the business, there was a lot of pressure on me. People thought I was entitled, pushed into positions”, Robert says. “But you work hard and earn your right to be there”.
“You certainly did”, Bruce says to Robert. He couldn’t be prouder, he adds.
Theirs is a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.
“My dad and I have worked together since 1987 and we’ve never had a disagreement about business”, Robert says. “Maybe other things! But never business”.
Watching them over the years, Ruth says the Keilty men operate best as a team. “There’s a great comfort in knowing that Bruce is always there for Robert, as I’m sure they both will be for Jack”, she says.
While the Keiltys insist a lot of people have contributed to building the business to the firm it is today, there’s no denying Bruce was integral to its prosperity.
HUB HKMB’s success begins in 1966, with a young, hard-working, ambitious Bruce and the $170,000 account he managed to win.
Bruce was managing the Montreal office of Travelers Insurance Company at the time, when the senior partner of a Toronto-based brokerage sought his help with writing a massive account in Montreal. “One thing led to another, and they added me to their stationary”, Bruce recalls modestly. In truth, the man often described as a visionary by those in the know, became senior partner and president of Guthrie Keilty Bickerstaff in Toronto.
The Keiltys and their partners have seen their fair share of M&A since, managing exceptional growth through smart acquisitions.
The business near doubled in just four years, from $2.9 million in revenues and 29 people in 1994, after buying out other Trivest partners and forming a new firm, Keilty, Muntz and Beatty, to almost $6 million in revenues by 1998.
The business doubled again that year, when they acquired Hunter Rowell Ltd. to become Hunter Keilty Muntz Beatty (HKMB) International Insurance Brokers, then $12 million and 100-people strong, with five equal partners: Robert, Greg Belton, John Hawkrigg, Neil Morrison and Bryce Hunter.
HKMB grew to $40 million and 250 people following another smart acquisition in 2007, of Canadian insurance firm Morris & MacKenzie, giving the firm a foothold to grow even stronger in western Canada.
By 2008, the business had started to outgrow its partners’ resources, resulting in the decision to sell to HUB International. And they’ve never looked back.
“Today, we have a 94 percent client retention rate and we have an expert in every area”, Bruce says.
We know we have to adapt to changes, to evolve with the times… we’re trying out all sorts of innovative and unique ways to connect with current and new customers.”
While organic growth is one of the cornerstones of their success, Robert admits it’s hard to compete with insurance companies buying up specifically personal lines brokerages to aggregate market share.
Generalist to specialist
Another challenge is competing with directs and trying to stay ahead of disruption.
“There’s a lot more competition today”, Bruce says, types of competition that didn’t even exist when he first started in the industry 50 years ago.
“Directs are building awareness for the consumer of a different type of insurance-buying experience, potentially spawning a whole bunch of entrepreneurs who might do more disruptive things for our industry”, Robert says.
The Keiltys believe the broker will always have a role. “We’re just unsure how that role will evolve”, Robert adds.
“We know we have to adapt to changes, to evolve with the times. We’re working on direct-to-customer and white-label solutions as well. We’re trying out all sorts of innovative and unique ways to connect with current and new customers”, Robert says.
Specialization will become key to the broker’s survival, he adds.
“We used to be generalists”, Robert says. “In the old days, we’d be driving around seeing different clients, from auto dealers to builders, and we were meant to understand the nuances of all of their businesses and know their insurance requirements. I knew enough to get by, and in those days, it was good enough.
People trusted each other, underwriters made exceptions, people helped each other out. It all worked”, Robert says.
“These days, insurers are a lot more rigid in their application of the terms and conditions. Buyers are a lot more demanding in what they expect of their service provider. If they’re going to pay an intermediary’s fee, they expect specialist advice, advocacy, and expertise that you can apply to their unique challenges – that’s how you win and retain customers today”.
Equally as important to their success as their clients are their people, say the Keiltys. “Our M&A strategy isn’t based on geography or accumulating commissions and fees. We buy people”, Robert says. “We look for entrepreneurs who want to grow with us. And we offer people a place where they can build a career and be challenged”.
It’s a type of culture that’s always been top of mind for Robert and his long-time business partner and close friend, Belton, executive chairman of HUB Ontario. Belton’s son, Scott, works with Jack at JLT in London and the two have also become close friends. “I think it’s quite special that Greg and I are such good friends and business partners and that our sons have become close friends and are now also colleagues”, Robert says.
The type of culture offered by their fathers’ firm certainly attracts millennials like Scott and Jack. “Millennials are after excitement and the opportunity to innovate and help change the way things are done”, Jack says. “I think insurance offers all of that”.
And while a lot has changed over the years, insurance is still “very much a people industry”, he adds. “Being able to interact with people is something a lot of my friends miss in their jobs”.
That’s why, if he does join his father’s firm, Jack says he’d do things much the same as his dad and granddad. “As far as leadership goes, I can’t think of two better people to follow”.
And as far as brokering goes, he’ll always stick to that one key piece of Keilty advice: always go the extra mile for your clients.
Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the March 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine