Sam Ciccolini's generosity of spirit has been good for his community,and good for his business
Sam Ciccolini’s charitable accomplishments and involvements have been so extensive over the years it would take most of a page to list them before even beginning to discuss his success in the insurance industry. One of the principals of Vaughan, Ontario-based Masters Insurance, Ciccolini’s work with various youth sporting programs, fundraising for hospital boards, involvement with the Catholic church and service clubs raising money for a variety of causes have earned him the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the Italian Star of Solidarity Medal and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for exceptional contribution to public service.
Not surprisingly, however, when his community involvement comes up in conversation, he addresses it fleetingly with no reference to the honours bestowed upon him. Like most truly generous people, his character is evident in his actions rather than his words. That became apparent right away in arranging the interview for this profile. Ciccolini insisted we had to conduct the conversation in person and urged me to come visit him in his home on an evening after he’d already had a full day at a charity golf tournament. It’s clear that these same characteristics have played a big part in his business success as well.
“I think we try to always get people to like us,” he says. “We go in to see clients with a very positive attitude. It’s always been our motto that if you work hard and work honestly and with a ton of integrity, what you see is what you get and what you tell them today is what you tell them tomorrow.”
Sam Ciccolini and his brother Frank became partners in the firm that would become Masters Insurance in 1966 when they got a $4,000 loan from their father to purchase a small brokerage in the predominantly Italian neighbourhood of St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street in Toronto. Today, the brokerage has 14 principals and employs approximately 80 people in offices in Vaughan, Hamilton, Windsor and Ottawa and is known as one of the leading firms in Ontario in the construction and surety bond niche. Among its most recent accomplishments is arranging the insurance for the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the new permanent home of the Toronto International Film Festival, which includes eight storeys of commercial space with a 42-storey condo tower on top of it.
Frank’s background in life insurance helped them secure some of their first clients, but Sam quickly realized they’d need to do more if they were going to have success developing the business.
“We slowly figured out we needed a niche to hang on to.” Frank, Sam and Max (another brother who got involved in 1972) decided to go into construction insurance after looking around and realizing how many of their friends, neighbours and existing clients were in the field. In 1978, Ciccolini approached Gary Corby to obtain his first construction bond. “I knew absolutely nothing about bonds and he refused to give it to me.” After obtaining the bond elsewhere, he called Corby back. “I asked if I could go and see him every Tuesday and Thursday and that’s where I learned everything there was to know about bonding.”
Corby ultimately became the fourth partner in the firm and in the meantime, Ciccolini learned everything he could about the construction industry, literally from the ground up.
“I honestly believe that you can learn all you want about construction in a book but you’ll learn a lot more if you go and practise it and be out there to see how it’s done, observing exactly what people are doing,” he says. “We started going out to construction sites. I was very inquisitive and I started asking questions. What do you do with the footings, the actual surrounding of your trenches, what do you do with the basement walls? All you need is some construction boots, a hat and go and observe.”
We can’t know it all, so we draw from these people that have this multitude of smartness.
Gaining this knowledge firsthand gives the broker a more detailed and nuanced understanding of a contractor’s risk, says Ciccolini. “For example, in winter, a bricklayer may use a different solution so that the mortar doesn’t freeze. Now you have to realize that you should make sure there’s no cover for frost or freezing exclusion on the policy. So, the need for the endorsement to be removed is of importance.”
Ciccolini and his staff have developed their construction expertise to the point where part of their value proposition is to get involved with contract negotiations between a contractor and a municipality. “We would take the contract that they signed with the municipality and read verbatim what’s on the insurance section so we know exactly what the municipality asked. On many occasions, we would actually get involved and tell the municipality that what is on the contract doesn’t go far enough to ensure that our client is well protected through insurance.”
He also gives credit to the knowledgeable underwriters he and his staff deal with at some of the major carriers in the construction field such as Zurich, Lombard, Aviva, RSA and Travelers for making sure they stay up to date. “We can’t know it all, so we draw from these people that have this multitude of smartness.”
Ciccolini says Masters currently has 80 contractors on a program they developed with insurers for buildings under construction. “On a good year we’ve insured as many as 13,000 homes. Some of the larger builders that we insure are right across Ontario. Some are into the other provinces now and we insure them as they move across.”
The construction practice for Masters grew steadily as the first contractor clients referred increasing numbers of their colleagues to the brokerage. But Ciccolini says the other major asset that helped them grow the business in both personal and commercial lines was his and his family’s involvement in the community. He has been heavily involved with youth athletics since the ’60s when he and five others founded the Westwood Young Generation Soccer and Hockey Club, creating programs and teams for neighbourhood kids. He has also been heavily involved–as everything from board member to referee–with the Woodbridge Minor Hockey Association for a number of years. This involvement was a great way to get to know the parents of the kids in these clubs, he says.
“People got to know us through that and then say ‘What business are you in?’ You tell them you’re in the insurance business and they would like to do business with you.”
Ciccolini has also been very active in various charitable causes through the years. He served on the boards of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for 10 years as well as the Humber River Regional Hospital and is the foundation chairman for a new hospital that has been proposed in Vaughan. He has also been a longtime president of the church council for the St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church and has been actively involved in service clubs, including the Rotary Club.
“With respect to the service clubs, you also penetrated the commercial people. One of the things the Rotary Club does is to familiarize you with people that are in the same business. That also helped a lot.”
Ciccolini’s boundless volunteerism is clearly motivated by much more than a desire for business success. The many causes that he champions are obviously dear to his heart and stem from a deep-rooted value system that he has passed on to his family members, many of whom are also principals at Masters. A fall 2009 cover story in a Vaughan city magazine is a strong indicator of how well regarded he is in his community and includes a photo of him, his son Michael and grandson Eric standing next to former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, dropping the puck at a Leafs game.
At the same time, however, those strong values and generous spirit have also been instrumental in attracting and retaining clients for Masters Insurance. “I can’t think of another broker that has been more successful developing business through their community involvement,” says Alister Campbell, president and CEO of Zurich Canada.
Advice for Young Brokers
In my opinion, insurance is the best profession you can get into, ever. I think if you have the heart and you want to be the best at what you want to be, you can do it. But you have to have the heart.
It’s usually a cycle between four to seven years before you really start to see some substantial return on what you’ve put into that time.
Lastly, be humble. Don’t think you’re the best, because there’s always somebody that’s better. You learn that very quickly.
Copyright 2010 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the October 2010 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.