Canada's CEO of the year reveals what's behind his brokerage's success

Few can lay claim to a title as prestigious as CEO of the Year – but that is exactly what Stephen Billyard, CEO of Billyard Insurance Group, scooped at the Insurance Business Canada Awards 2021. Here he talks about the challenges the firm has faced, how he defines corporate values and what’s vital when it comes to talent retention.


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Surina: [00:00:13] Hi everyone, welcome to IBTV. I'm Surina Nath news editor at Insurance Business and today I have the pleasure of chatting with Stephen Billyard, CEO of Billyard Insurance Group. The brokerage leader was awarded CEO of the Year at the 2021 Insurance Business Canada Awards, as Stephen has worked tirelessly to expand the business and keep his employees happy. Today he joins me to explain what it takes to be an award winning leader. Stephen, welcome to IBTV. 

Stephen: [00:00:45] Well, thank you very much, Surina. Looking forward to our conversation today.

Surina: [00:00:47] So can you start by speaking to the importance of organic growth and some strategies that have been found to be most successful in BIG's national expansion? 

Stephen: [00:00:58] Sure. I think organic growth has been one of the main principles for us at BIG. As we've grown the brokerage, there's a lot of different ways to to to move a brokerage forward these days. You know, I think we see in the marketplace a number of a number of players who have become very adept and very effective at non-organic growth, at consolidation and acquisition. And it's they've built impressive, impressive apparatuses that can negotiate and acquire and close and integrate with large amounts of capital behind them. A consolidation of brokerages across the country, and I think that's been an incredibly successful model for brokerage growth over the last couple of decades. You know, then I think you have your second tier of brokerage, your separate type of brokerage that is growing at that 3 to 5% rate, moving along involvement in their communities, traditional advertising likely aiming to be to be acquired by one of those consolidators at some future state. And then and then you have organic brokerages that are strictly organic, like, like BIG and many of our, many of our other players in the space. In order to be successful in the organic space, I think you need to be good at a lot of things, much like being being successful in the consolidation space, starting with business development, learning how to to get out in your communities and form coaches, form relationships with, with, with lawyers and auto dealers and real estate agents and being involved in your community. You know, we we are the kind of brokerage that puts boots on the ground. And and whether it's in our in our in our churches or in our schools or with our colleagues in our workplaces, we are in our communities developing those leads. And that brings organic growth into the business. That brand is important. We want to create a brand that stands behind a broker. A broker is out there cultivating their their personal networks, but they need a strong brand that is going to stand behind them so that they can they can be represented in the marketplace. Technology, empowering technology to make it easier for your clients to do business with you, easy for the brokers to do business so they can better serve their customers. Hiring and onboarding to grow organically. The most one of the biggest challenges is all of the human capital that's required to do this. We've we've brought on over 700 agents in the last last number of years. And that apparatus not only of finding and cultivating those agents, but getting them to a place where they are at a computer and prepared to sell is a bit of a heavy lift. And we have a lot of infrastructure built around trying to achieve those outcomes. And then there's training, getting them to understand how to do their job, how to do their job with our system, how to sell insurance, how to build those networks, how to cultivate those courses. And then there's advertising both digital and traditional. You know, you need to be in that space right now that's generating leads. And whether it's SEO, SCM or traditional advertising, that needs to be a comprehensive strategy. And I think you need to do all of these things well in order to be our guest excuse me, an aggressive organic grower.

Surina: [00:03:45] You mentioned that onboarding and training have been challenges. What were some others that you've had to work through? 

Stephen: [00:03:51] Sure. I think I think we faced a faced our share of challenges as we've gone through this. I think the number one challenge that we're all facing and not just the insurance industry has been the last two years. Navigating and growing a business through through this pandemic is something we've all faced the uncertainty of what's next, not knowing from month to month what the economy is going to be doing, what's what business is going to look like. That pivoting from from this was two years ago now from a traditionally office based workplace to working from home and ensuring you have the technology and communication and support capable to do that. So I think every brokerage has taken on these challenges. These ones aren't unique to anybody, but they certainly have been the challenges of our time. And with it comes a lot of anxiety, anxiety from from us as a leadership team trying to run this business in a stable and predictable way and anxiety on our teams, on our employees, BIG changes, on how they do their jobs and what's expected of them and and the kind of leadership and mentorship they were receiving before. This has to pivot into a different style now because we're communicating by video camera and doing very different things. So I think that was probably the number one thing we face. But COVID aside, I think early on we had to do a lot of work to convince an industry that wasn't very accustomed to organic growth of how we were doing business, of our model expanded and we don't have those conversations anymore. I think that's that's behind us now. We've established ourselves as a national player here and and we've made it through those hard challenges of growth. But that definitely took a bit of work to to get us there. And then the actual challenges of scaling a company this quick finding the human capital, having a place for them to sit, bringing them on, onboarding them, training them, even even commercial real estate. We've been buying buildings and renovating every every other month here, it seems, for the last four or five years to make sure that we have the infrastructure necessary to grow the brokerage. And then I think finally, technology, there isn't a great solution out there in the industry yet in the broker world for technology. There's some there's some fast movers out there that are building exciting things, but so far, nobody's really gotten there where we have a unique value proposition that is making the brokers life and job a lot easier and making client acquisition a lot easier. We're we're in a bit of an arms race to to get there. And that that remains a challenge.

Surina: [00:06:02] With ongoing growth. What have you kept in mind when defining values and establishing a strong corporate culture?

Stephen: [00:06:10] Sure. I think this is this is of paramount importance and something an exercise we actually just went through as an organization, interestingly enough, you know, defining our core values. What are what are they going to be? This is something that took us years to do, to be honest. And it wasn't because we we were committed to the project and didn't want to do it. We were we were really committed to making sure that if we're going to put our values out there, that they're true to us, that they're meaningful to us. And and that's that's complicated. And so I think I think some of the first challenges are some of the first things that keep in mind are not just to throw up corporate values on the wall, you know, like integrity, just because that seems like something we should all have. But ask yourself, what does that mean to you and your company? And and what does it look like in your company? And is it is it truly one of your core values? And so we we did a lot of work to. To to to try and figure out what it was that was making us successful, what was it that was driving us? And then kind of take the back door approach to to developing our core values that way. What do we do? Who are we really? And I think second to that, it's important to engage a lot of your stakeholders to have that conversation, because the core values that I may think the organization is living may be different in various places in the organization. And so we we went through the exercise of of engaging everyone on the team to to to bring core values that are truly what we are doing. And then from there, when you put them up on the wall, I think you need to live them and they need to become real for your organization, which means that when they're tested, you live them. And so so if you're if your core value is we take care of our people, then then when you have that opportunity, when conflict arises, are you making choices that fit that? And do people in your organization feel safe to to point out when when you may not be living those values? And we put those up on the wall and someone says, hey, I don't think we're doing this here. And then how are we going to react to that? Are we going to true over our values and change our course? And I think that's critical to to to core values and building culture in your organization. And then I think finally, our values are written in pen, not etched in stone. I think you need to be available to change your values. I think of where where our company was five years ago versus where it is now. We have different values now. We're a much larger enterprise. We learned things along the way and we're going to continue to do that. So we want it to be a constant conversation about what our values are, where the company is going, and do do the values align with who we are and where we want to take this company? 

Surina: [00:08:31] After values are established, talent becomes the next focus. So how has BIG positioned itself to attract top talent?

Stephen: [00:08:40] Sure I think it's attracting top talent is is one of the critical elements of our growth. And we approach it very similar to the way that we approach organic growth in our book of business. And that is that we we need to do a lot of things right. And I think you spoke to it well in our conversation about culture. And so we we put some really hard work into our core values to make sure that we're creating a culture where people want to be we spend more time in our workplaces with our colleagues than we do at home, with our families in many cases. And so this needs to be a place where people wake up and they want to be a part of this. They want to feel like they're part of something, and they want to they want to believe that we're doing something great for our career, not only for our careers, but for the industry at large and for our communities. And so we we put a lot of focus on that for for for the growth of our attracting top talent. But then I think from there you need to do so many other things better. Technology is a BIG one. You've got to be able to give the brokers the tools they need and the access to those tools to do their jobs and do it well. If you're a high performing broker, you need technology that works for you and it needs to work and it needs to be functional, it needs to be fast. And that's something we invested a lot of time and resources in developing in our firm and I think support back end support someone to call when you need help, someone to train you, someone to bring you on board, someone to change your password when it needs changing. Someone to help you when your computer is not working, these sorts of things slow, slow anybody down. So, so I think we've positioned ourselves as a place that has the infrastructure to to support a broker who is going to be a top talented broker and then follow that with, with the obvious stuff, which I mentioned earlier, marketing, lead generation branding. You've got a broker that wants to be a part of a firm that that that is standing behind them in that way, that when they go to see their clients, they know that the client's client's going to go online and try and understand who they're doing business with. And they want to go online and find a strong, reputable brand that is that is standing behind them. I think our national expansion really fueled that for us, is that customers can can look at us and see that they're doing business with a strong national brand that it has that has presence in communities all across all across the country.

Surina: [00:10:32] And on the other end of that comes talent retention. Can you speak to the importance of coaching and mentorship programs? 

Stephen: [00:10:41] Absolutely. I think coaching and mentoring in our industry is, is is incredibly important because the jobs that we do as brokers are so difficult. We need to not only understand our client and understand the risk that we're underwriting and understand their needs. We need to then understand the the the appetites and underwriting nuances of 14 or 15 different carriers, understand the technology of all those carriers. So the job of a broker is very difficult. We don't just sit in front of a computer screen and and input input numbers and figures. And so even even me as CEO of the company, I'll be asked an insurance question by a friend over dinner and I'll have to call our broker support department for some coaching and advice because the situations can be so nuanced. So I'll need to call and say, Have you seen this situation before or is this something that's come across our desk? Do we know how this particular company handles this particular problem? And so if you don't have that kind of support as a broker and that kind of coaching and mentorship, it takes years to to to develop that knowledge. And even with the years, you still need to be able to lean on, on somebody to, to, to, for answers for, for up to date answers, because it changes all the time. So having that apparatus in place is, is incredibly important for anybody's career. It's not not just plug and play, turn on and I'll go sell insurance. You need that backend support. 

Surina: [00:11:55] And Stephen, do you have any tips for CEOs who are looking to be leaders in the Canadian insurance market? 

Stephen: [00:12:03] Sure. Well, I don't know what I can offer as tips other than a few a few key, key principles that I try to look at myself. And I think the first is, is that we need to let go of how things have been done in this industry for for decades prior. Things are changing fast. And it's not just technology, but it's it's it's it's the way our economy is changing. It's it's it's the way that it is impacted, the way we work and do business. And so I think we need to blow the old models and not be afraid to to to be critical about about how we're doing business and and how we can do business differently and be more efficient. And in the second and a little bit of the opposite of that is we need to also realize that that amidst all that change, this is still a people business. We are still agents and brokers out there, out there in our communities on the ground. Even if we're a digital brokerage, we are still people on the end of that phone line doing business. And so we need to put all of our emphasis on taking care of our people and assuring that they have the tools and that they need to be supported and ensure that it's a very human approach to doing business. Because this isn't a it is a digital age, but we're not a fully digital business. And so I think those two things together are how we drive success here and I think can can help a lot of people. 

Surina: [00:13:11] That's some fantastic advice. Stephen, thanks so much for joining me today. It's been great getting to chat with you. 

Stephen: [00:13:18] Thank you, Surina. It's a pleasure talking to you. 

Surina: [00:13:21] Thanks for tuning in to this episode of IBTV. Until next time.