Fifth-generation brokerage leader on carrying on the family legacy and embracing data

'LinkedIn doesn't have enough descriptions to explain every role I've done in this office'

Fifth-generation brokerage leader on carrying on the family legacy and embracing data

Insurance News

By Gia Snape

When the time came for Zac Sutherland (pictured) to make his next career move, he had to choose between pursuing a legal career or joining the family business.

Looking back, Sutherland – now the president of Sutherland Insurance, his family’s 150-year-old insurance brokerage in Ontario – admits it was an easy choice.

“The concept of running your own business one day and having something with the family legacy behind it was just too much to pass on,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for me.”

Starting from the bottom

Sutherland Insurance has been serving Guelph communities since 1870. Founded by John Sutherland, the brokerage has grown to one of the largest in the area, providing insurance products and services to commercial, retail and professionals establishments in and out of Ontario. It also holds a large personal lines portfolio.

Zac is the fifth generation to lead Sutherland Insurance, taking over from his father Jeffrey Sutherland, who had been serving as president since 1995. The younger Sutherland went to Wilfred Laurier University, where he received a Bachelor of Business Administration with a concentration in finance.

“At that point, I weighed the options of pursuing the lawyer path or getting real-life experience in the family business, and bringing my unique finance background to it to see where I could be of help,” Zac Sutherland said.

He made his official debut at Sutherland Insurance as a commercial insurance broker in 2001, though he had been working summers at the brokerage since he was 13 and had done “every role in the office,” from reception and underwriting to “taking out the garbage.”

“LinkedIn doesn’t have enough descriptions to explain every role I’ve done in this office,” he told Insurance Business.

Ushering the family business into the age of data

Zac Sutherland acknowledged he is taking the reins of Sutherland Insurance during a period of tremendous change and upheaval in the industry. With the COVID-19 pandemic having brought a shift in consumer demands and behaviour around insurance, data has proved to be a game-changer.

“There wasn’t a playbook [during COVID]. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t doing a lot of explaining to my father,” Zac Sutherland recalled. “This is a whole new world, and we need to make decisions on the reality of this world. Data allowed us to make quick and educated decisions, which put us on a great path.”

Zac Sutherland built a dashboard using Power BI that allowed the brokerage to consolidate and view all its data on a weekly basis, rather than at the end of every month. The tool helped give them almost real-time information on the business, helping to propel Sutherland Insurance to more than double-digit organic growth in the past three years.

“With the backbone of data driving our decisions and pointing us to when we need to hire, what role we need to hire for, we created a benchmarking tool to allow us to track our progress,” Zac Sutherland said.

“[Data] allows us to make decisions quicker, and with how quickly this industry is moving in terms of M&A [mergers and acquisitions], I’m constantly thinking about the relevancy curve.”

As a medium-sized brokerage, Sutherland Insurance is caught in the waves of change brought by rapid consolidation in the industry.

“I’m fortunate to have great relationships with a lot of my partners. But if it’s a multibillion-dollar corporation, and you’re a million dollars, there’s relevancy questions that eventually come into play, no matter how good the relationship is,” Zac Sutherland said. “My big driver is thinking about how to constantly stay in front.”

Facing the future as an independent brokerage

Despite the challenges ahead, Zac Sutherland is optimistic about the future of Sutherland Insurance.

He credits his father’s passion for the industry for keeping him on track. Jeffrey Sutherland is the active chairman of the brokerage.

“His fire for this industry is what drives me and keeps my more analytical mind focused on what’s important,” the younger Sutherland said. “It’s the people that make it great because we could not do what we’re doing without the incredible team we put together. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of and I’m just excited for it to continue to push forward and grow.”

Above all, Zac Sutherland is grateful for his grandmother’s sacrifice to keep the business going. When his grandfather, Bob Jr., passed away unexpectedly years ago, his grandmother sat the RIBO exam to become principal at the brokerage and keep it in the family.

“You can only write it three times, and she had failed it twice. The lawyers were ready to sell the business,” Zac Sutherland shared. “She passed the third time, knowing almost nothing about insurance, but she needed to do it so my dad could transition [into the business].

“I wouldn’t be here today if that didn’t happen, so I understand her wanting me to continue the business given how much she sacrificed to keep it going and pass it on to my father. I can’t emphasize enough how fortunate we are.”

Are you an independent Canadian brokerage with a story to share? Tell us in the comments.

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