I was just in touch with Debbie-Jo and I just wanted to say that she was one of the loveliest girls that I have ever dealt with. Just kind, business-like, but kind. And I was really impressed with her and I think it should be brought to your attention. You don't always get attention at the different places when you go in… You just feel wanted that's all. So thank you very, very much.
Hamilton's Morison Insurance is about 27 times larger than it was 18 years ago.
And the company is happy with that pace of growth — but not satisfied.
Growth has come primarily through acquisitions — 16 of them — leading to offices in Toronto, Oakville, St. Catharines and Hagersville, the latter operating previously under the R.A. Bennett Insurance Brokers banner.
Now, owners Fred and Jill Morison have tentative plans to expand to Alberta.
The brokerage employs about 50 people. With each acquisition, that number lurches upward.
Rapid spurts of growth — including a period several years ago when the company tripled in size in just six months — means good training for staff and clear understanding of expectations are critical.
"We want to make sure customers have the same experience through the company," said Fred. "We want it to be a Cadillac experience."
Staff who go above and beyond in customer service, along with the top five producers, are recognized with fun games and prizes at twice-a-month meetings.
"It's a challenge to get 50 people all rowing in the same direction with enthusiasm every day. You have to work at that. It just doesn't happen," he said.
The couple makes an effort to encourage staff social outings to bring people together, but also stresses the importance of community involvement.
"The company owes its existence to the communities it is in," said Jill. "The customers are part of that community and so are employees. The privilege of having customers comes with the responsibility to help others."
The company undertakes a pyjama and slipper drive for women's shelters, supports the Cancer Assistance Program, minor-league sports and Hamilton's City Kidz.
The brokerage was named one of the top three insurance brokerages by the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario in 2014.
The IBAO award is based on strategic planning, embracing new technology, staff development and training, innovation and pursuit of success.
Morison formed Vanwyck Morison with partners in 1994, taking over the remains of a bankrupt operation called VanSomeren Insurance, whose origins reached back to 1923.
There was a lot of consolidation in the industry after that, which continues today, says Morison.
"Purchasing brokerages is a way to grow reasonably rapidly. You see that on both the brokerage and the insurance company sides."
The headquarters is in a colonial-style three-storey building on Upper James, just south of Rymal Road, which the Morisons built seven years ago. Before that, the office had been on Frid Street, conveniently just across the street from where Jill worked in the Spectator newsroom for 17 years.
She left to assume responsibilities for marketing and strategic planning with the rapidly growing brokerage.
There is hope one of their three children may one day join the business. Their middle child, Brian, 24, works for Intact Insurance. Ora, 26, is finishing law school and Brittany, 20, is in her third year of university.
Fred is serving his second term as a councillor for Cayuga on Haldimand County council.
His business experience almost immediately paid off. He says he looked at the county's claims history and risk mitigation and discovered the municipality was paying far too much in premiums.
He looked around and found better coverage for $650,000 less a year.
"To me, it was plainly obvious. The staff had been doing a lot to reduce the number and severity of claims, but the premium wasn't reflecting that. Things like getting the salters out faster and the sidewalks cleared faster made us a good risk."
Morison knows insurance is often a frequent target of consumer wrath. A customer who came in to pay his house insurance premium complained he hadn't gotten a thing out of his coverage for 35 years.
"I told him, 'Let's cancel it and see how you are sleeping next week.' The majority of our wealth is tied up in our homes. You want to know when tragedy strikes you will be OK."