Big dreams aren’t often realized when sitting in traffic on Ontario’s notoriously jammed Highway 401. But they were for Stephen Billyard when he hit the road in 2016 with his colleague and friend, Cody Douma, to sell the idea of Billyard Insurance Group (BIG) and bootstrap what would quickly become one of Canada’s fastest growing independent insurance brokerages.
Billyard has always dreamed big – but his dreams weren’t always centred around insurance. He spent the first decade of his working life managing Hunters Pointe Golf Course in Welland, Ontario, where he cut his teeth in business administration and honed his skills as a golfer. He then had a brief stint working in a British Columbia ski town, where he became an avid skier – a passion he holds to this day.
Billyard didn’t venture into the insurance industry until his early 30s, taking a role at his parents’ brokerage in 2012. Over the next two years, he learned the ropes of the industry from his mom and sister, gained a Level II RIBO licence, and used his extensive business administration knowledge to create growth opportunities for the firm.
“As my parents neared retirement and were looking to exit the business, I had a vision to take over and create something BIG,” Billyard says. “When my sister and I purchased the brokerage off my parents,that’s when we rebranded the company as Billyard Insurance Group. Building a business
was always on my roadmap. My parents are entrepreneurs, and I always knew that was something I wanted to pursue, so when the opportunity struck and the idea of BIG came to me, I went for it. I truly believe that the sky is the limit for entrepreneurs in the insurance industry.”
A lot has changed since the early days of BIG, when the brokerage operated out of a modest office in Welland and three of the six employees were members of the Billyard family. Today, BIG has more than 60 offices across four provinces (Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick), with 500-plus employees handling $250 million in gross written premium. Most of that growth has happened in the last four years.
“Our growth has been completely organic; there’s been no acquisitions up to this point,” Billyard says.“We’ve driven this growth by aligning with Canada’s top insurance professionals and entrepreneurs. There are so many talented agents and brokers out there who want to take control of their careers, establish themselves in their communities and build something BIG, and we’ve facilitated that by providing the tools, technology, training, branding and business support they need to be successful.”
Billyard first positioned BIG as an insurance technology company, but the team quickly realized that, as a full-service insurance brokerage, they were a people company first. As the business has developed, its technology focus has been on building tools to support people and to make the process of buying and selling insurance easier for bothbrokers and customers.
“This has enabled us to close the gap with some of the direct-to-consumer groups that have taken market share simply because they had an early technology and brand advantage over most brokers,” Billyard says. “I think the broker value proposition has always been the most compelling value proposition in the insurance industry. As we close the technology gap compared to the directs, they can’t touch us, because we’re able to offer so much more to our customers than they can.”
Lots of BIG’s most talented and entrepreneurial brokers have joined the company from the direct channel – a fact that Billyard says he’s quite proud of.
“We’ve trained and licensed hundreds of people to join our firm who were holding OTL licences or other licences,” he says. “We’re disrupting the direct channel – and we’re doing it by creating opportunities for entrepreneurial individuals who want to get out there and build their careers on their
Reaching the next generation
The average age across all 500 employees at BIG is less than 35 years old. Such a stat might be common among tech startups, but it’s pretty rare for an insurance brokerage. However, Billyard feels insurance companies can be just as attractive and exciting for young professionals as tech firms.
“Younger generations want to work for exciting companies that are doing interesting things,” he says. “I don’t think we need to focus so much on the product that we’re selling, whether it’s insurance or anything else; it’s about building an exciting company, creating opportunities and doing something that people want to be a part of. It’s funny – you hear all the time that millennials don’t want to work in insurance, or millennials and traditional brokerage operators don’t seem to know how to work together. My answer to that is, if millennials don’t want to work in your firm, perhaps it’s not a problem with the millennials; perhaps it’s a problem with your firm. Maybe it’s just not a compelling place to work.
“I started my career selling home and auto insurance, and I found it thrilling,” Billyard adds. “Being in sales is always exciting, whether you’re selling insurance or anything else; it’s a rewarding career. In the insurance industry, we’re really helping people. We’re out in our communities, talking to people, solving their problems and protecting them – talk about selling a product that you can believe in. That’s what makes our industry great, and that’s why there will always be opportunities to thrive in the brokerage distribution channel.”