A Private Dream
Key acquisitions and strong leadership have helped Jones Brown grow from zero sales to a major national firm in just 13 years
Back in 1997, Brian Jones was flying high, working as executive vice president at Johnson and Higgins (J&H), the world’s oldest privately owned brokerage firm. Then one day, Marsh swooped in and bought out J&H’s 32 partners for a whopping $1.8 billion (USD). Jones, who wasn’t a partner, found himself on the street without any clients or staff. Having known nothing but the insurance industry since graduation, Jones decided to mortgage everything he had, coax his friend and mentor (and former J&H president) Don Brown out of retirement and fulfill his dream of building Canada’s finest privately owned brokerage from scratch. Fast-forward thirteen years and Jones Brown has grown from the two founders and zero sales to a national firm with 110 employees in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal and two US states, writing over $130 million (CDN) in premiums.
Leaving aside for a moment his own remarkable entrepreneurship, Jones notes that the rise of the firm can also be partly attributed to having the good fortune to come on the scene during a period of rapid industry consolidation in the brokerage field. Consequently, underwriters were open to doing business with a new player like Jones Brown as an alternative to the increasingly large global firms that were leveraging their size for concessions on rates and terms.
“Because J&H had this wonderful reputation globally from AIG to Zurich and everyone in between, all of a sudden the presidents of the Canadian subsidiaries came to us and said ‘What’s your dream?'” says Jones, who now serves as chair of the company. The support they received from the major underwriters gave the firm “an unbelievable competitive advantage right from the first day. All of a sudden we had all these markets with no volume commitments. We were able to take on the biggest corporations as clients from day one.”
Jones Brown then took off through a series of strategic acquisitions that allowed the firm to become a category leader in a number of verticals. The first acquisition was Thompson & Thompson, an entertainment specialist that had Atlantis Entertainment as a major client. Jones called owner Kirk Thompson and said “I’ve got a relationship with the CFO of Atlantis and he told me that if I want to have his business I have to go buy you.” Today, Jones Brown remains involved in the entertainment space as a major shareholder in Front Row Insurance Brokers, of which Thompson is CEO.
Similar acquisitions followed with firms specializing in golf courses, equine and livestock. The company also has strong practices in motorsport and aviation, among other niches. However, current president and CEO Mark Terrill takes pains to point out that almost half the company’s business comes from its strong general practice in commercial middle market and high-net-worth personal lines.
Another key to the success of Jones Brown is the inclusive entrepreneurial culture that Jones has fostered. It is evident in touches like the large “victory bell” that he had installed in every office. Producers ring it whenever they get a new piece of business.
It’s clearly an atmosphere where people want to stay. “A lot of our long-term people are also the owners of businesses that we acquired,” explains Terrill. “So often, you hear that people like that come as an exit strategy. They fulfill their two to three years of transitional obligation and then they’re gone. That hasn’t been the case in our firm.”
Terrill himself is the best example. He joined Jones Brown in 2000 when the company bought his portfolio of business. Three years ago, Jones stepped aside and named Terrill president of the Toronto-centric firm, despite the fact he is still based out of the Calgary office. Terrill also points out that several people with national practice responsibilities similarly don’t reside in Toronto. “I think that is an indicator of a truly national firm that actually taps the people on the shoulder, regardless of where they live if we believe they have the right skill set,” he says. Terrill is also proud of the firm’s increasing number of female staff that have made partner (currently eight out of 33).
According to Jones, the right skill set goes beyond gaining a thorough understanding of a client’s business; it also means building a relationship with them based on trust. “It’s not a matter of price anymore. It’s a matter of I want to feel I’m in good hands,” he says. Conversely, Jones says “I try and look at [clients] and say are they the kind of people I want to take home and have dinner with after I’ve done business with them?” He applies the same logic to his dealings with underwriters. “Form a deep and rich relationship with me,” he says.
Both Jones and Terrill stress that being a privately owned firm aids immeasurably in the ability to build relationships with customers and grow the business. “It allows us to take a longer-term, patient view,” says Terrill. “We’re not governed by an analyst coming in once a quarter and beating us up because we didn’t meet a short-term expectation.”
The story of Jones Brown and its growth is far from over. “We’re continuing to build our footprint,” says Terrill. “The Edmonton office is new; it’s only been open since February,” adding that the company’s Quebec presence is also far from fully developed.
The company is still making strategic acquisitions as well. At the end of August, Jones Brown acquired Toronto-based Hunter McCorquadale Inc., a developer and distributor of special risk disability and life insurance solutions.
Former Ontario premier David Peterson is just one star on board of directors at Jones Brown
To help realize his dream of building Canada’s finest privately owned insurance brokerage, Brian Jones assembled a board of directors that would be the envy of many large publicly traded insurance companies. This includes original investors Brian Reeve, a partner with law firm Cassels Brock who has served as advisor to the Ontario and Federal Ministries of Finance on insurance matters; and David Peterson, premier of Ontario from 1985-90 and member of the boards of directors of such major Canadian corporations as Rogers Communications and Shoppers Drug Mart.
Peterson met Jones when the former was chairman of the original ownership group of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise and Jones was still with Johnson and Higgins.
“He said why don’t we do the insurance and I said why don’t you buy a box,” remembers Peterson. “I didn’t know him but I really liked him.” Jones convinced Peterson to get involved in the early stages of the firm. “I just watched this thing grow with its phenomenal leadership. I’m a great fan of Brian’s. If he were a horse I’d bet on him in any race he ran in.”
Despite the fact that Jones Brown is a relatively small, private company, Peterson says that Jones brings big company governance practices and discipline to its management and his interaction with the board.
“Even though he’s the major shareholder, he listens to his board. He’s never proprietorial. It’s always about the team. He’s a total team builder and very generous. Not just financially but generous of spirit. He shares and gives credit all the time. He’s got remarkable leadership skills,” says the former premier.
© Copyright 2010 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the September 2010 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.