Western Financial Group
Western Financial Group was founded in 1996 although the roots of the company can be traced all the way back to 1905 when the Wyatt and Hunt Agencies first opened for business in High River, Alberta about 60km south of Calgary.
During more than a century in business the company has undergone various ownership and partnership transformations but has always remained true to the established founding community of High River.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Western Financial Group President & CEO Kenny Nicholls about the company’s successful history and its current status as an influential player in the insurance market with an eye to further expansion.
A significant milestone for the enterprise occurred in 1996 when Scott Tannas entered the business and bought out the existing partners.
“When Scott took over he had tremendous ambition,” begins Nicholls. “The strategy was realizing that in rural towns it was difficult for people to get insurance products. Not all carriers actually made their way to smaller brokers and smaller towns. He saw an opportunity of growing his network and becoming more influential with insurers and therefore started acquiring and getting financing for it.”
After a decade of success in owning the business Tannas spearheaded the acquisition of nearly 90 agencies, making Western Financial one of the most prodigious brokerages in all of western Canada.
“We’ve grown through close to 100 acquisitions of insurance agencies across western Canada,” notes Nicholls.
In 2013, Western Financial Group closed the sale of Coast Capital Insurance Services Ltd. (CCIS), the property, commercial and casualty insurance subsidiary, with British Columbia based Coast Capital Savings Credit Union. Ownership of CCIS was, thus, transferred to Western.
“We feel there is tremendous advantage on both ends working together and in many of our locations we co-habitate and refer each other customers, which provides a complete financial service offering,” says Nicholls.
It has always been the mission of Western Financial to put the customer and his or her needs first.
“Our mission – as independent insurance experts – is to create security and provide the right protection for Canadians. It’s essential for us to have very strong guiding principles. “The four guiding principles we abide by at here are: truthfulness, fairness, value and loyalty,” notes Nicholls.
New Ownership – Expanded Direction
In 2017 Trimont Financial Ltd., a subsidiary of the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company, purchased Western Financial Group and Western Life Assurance from Desjardins Financial Corporation, a Desjardins Group subsidiary.
“They obviously value the independent broker channel and saw a really good opportunity to pick us up,” explains Nicholls.
Meanwhile, Western Financial made a simultaneous acquisition of a group in Winnipeg called Wyatt Dowling Insurance Brokers. Subsequent to that, Western Financial made its first foray into Ontario buy acquiring Axion Insurance Services and more recently DMW.
Since last year’s change of ownership, Western has grown by 22 new locations bringing the total to 180 in six provinces.
“We added 150 experienced people to our headcount that now reaches 1,800 dedicated people to insurance, either licensed or in support of our licensed people,” reveals Nicholls.
Of the 1,800 people working with Western Financial Group about 1,300 are licensed professionals. There is also a specialized group insurance solutions team with a main office in Winnipeg and they focus more on affinity groups offering both commercial insurance and employee benefits packages for small to medium-sized businesses. There is also a smaller branch in Laval, Quebec.
Much like other industries technology has been a game-changer for insurance. Those who embrace it have reaped the rewards.
“With our recent investment in technology we became one of the first Canadian brokers to move to a system called Epic from a company called Applied Systems. Now many of the brokers are following suit,” says Nicholls.
Epic is a fast-growing cloud management system that offers hassle-free automation and access to immeasurable amounts of relevant industry data.
“It allows us to provide our leadership group with far more data than ever before. We have Canadian customers throughout the whole country and this is the best way to deliver service. Although we’re only physically present in six provinces we have customers that stretch the whole country, including the territories and the Maritimes,” states Nicholls.
The success in western Canada has been immense and so a corporate decision was made to expand eastward. Ontario, being the largest province and having the Greater Toronto Area to draw from, became the first target.
Western Financial also has a great deal of experience in working with farm and agriculture insurance and that type of knowledge could be very beneficial in the Ontario market. Much like Alberta, Ontario doesn’t have government auto insurance.
“It was important for us to also take a closer look at the Ontario market and see what’s happening out there that hopefully we can bring back to Alberta or our expertise could also help Ontario,” says Nicholls.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve had in mind for a while but the recent partnership with Wawanesa really got us to think a bit more in that regard than we had done before,” confirms Nicholls.
Due to the ever-increasing amount of consolidation within the insurance industry it became apparent to Nicholls that in order to remain relevant his company needed to participate in the consolidation of the brokers for various reasons. There has been significant change within the industry brought about by technology but also there’s kind of a battle between direct writers and broker-related insurers.
“With customers right across Canada we came to realize that it would be a good idea for us to open up some offices closer to them. It allows us to not only ensure their belongings in the western provinces we were licensed in but also anything that would have across the country,” opines Nicholls.
Nicholls says Western Financial is now far more deliberate and strategic about its acquisitions and goes through the proper procedures to ensure each of the new agencies or brokerages are properly integrated into the business.
“Integration doesn’t necessarily mean assimilate – I want to make sure that is clear. We want to learn from them as much as they could possibly learn from us. It’s important for us to make sure that these successful businesses that we’ve been buying have been growing successfully,” he emphasizes.
Regulations surrounding insurance can be a bit different but Nicholls says that the rules governing the distribution of insurance are relatively similar from province to province with one notable exception – Quebec. However, the eastern expansion focus for now is pinned squarely on Ontario, although there has been some thought given to developing a presence in the Maritimes as well. Western Financial has the internal capabilities to deal with any challenges in those other untapped regions.
“Our size allows us to have a compliance team and a legal team. Before entering any of these new jurisdictions part of our strategy is to make sure we understand all of the legalities. We always do our homework,” says Nicholls.
Each of Western’s brokerages in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba come equipped with government auto licenses so the company is fully licensed to be able to provide all of its customers every single insurance product imaginable, including financial services – life and employee benefits.
Customers are No.1
Insurance is a sophisticated product and oftentimes citizens view it as a necessary evil. As a couple of examples, everyone is required to have it for their home an automobile. There is also the liability and bodily injury aspects as well. In the vast majority of cases a home and a vehicle are the two most expensive items or assets that people will buy in their lifetime, so having the best protection for such investments is a prudent decision.
“Providing life insurance and making sure you have proper coverage for health and dental and incidentals are also very important. These are all sophisticated products and so we do believe that speaking to an expert before making those important purchases remain crucial,” remarks Nicholls.
A sound piece of advice that Nicholls and his team always share with their customers is the need to be properly informed about the policy being selected.
“If you don’t take time to read you know your policy document you may not realize that there’s a reason for some of these carriers not offering the same price for what would appear to be similar coverages,” he warns. “When you start reading the fine print you realize that some of these coverages are to a certain extent different. That’s the job of a broker and provides you with that insightful value.”
The solution doesn’t always mean selecting the policy with the cheapest price. While price should be a consideration it may come with consequences, which is why it is crucial to be informed and use a trusted broker when selecting a policy that works best.
Western Communities Foundation
In 2002 the company created the Western Communities Foundation as a means of providing financial support within the communities where Nicholls and his team live and work.
“This year we’ve just broken the $3 million mark of money given back to our communities and made the official announcement at our annual golf tournament this past September,” he proudly says.
The expansion of Western Financial into new regions and communities the hope is to be able to continue increasing the amount of funds raised. The Foundation is administered by the employees of Western Financial.
Through the Western Communities Foundation the home local head office raised record funds of $36,000, surpassing the goal they had set out for themselves. Because the threshold was met it allowed for the diversion of 50% of the funds raised – $18,000 – to be directed to two local charities that operate in High River – the High River Handy Bus Society and the Foothills Country Hospice Society.
“We’re also proud supporters of various smaller organizations. For example, out in the Kootenay region the Cranbrook arena is called Western Financial Place, which includes the Pink the Rink campaign and promoting awareness for anti-bullying initiatives. We put ourselves more behind local support because we want to stick true to our roots,” emphasizes Nicholls.
In order to facilitate the ability to generate funding for non-profit organizations and promote excellent corporate citizenship within the community, Western Financial allows its employees time off from work in order to lend a hand with volunteer services. Just recently 10 staff members of the group assisted with the Calgary Food Bank and its collection drive.
Looking to the Future
Insurance is a means of protection from financial loss. Professionals such as those at Western Financial Group make it their mission to serve each and every customer’s specific needs in the best possible manner in order to obtain optimal results. The trust and work ethic shown by the company and its staff has led to where it is now and there are hopes for an even brighter future. But for Nicholls, it’s not necessarily just putting numbers on a map. At the current 180 locations across Canada, Western Financial carries significant influence and is recognized as a major player within the industry as a trusted independent broker.
Nicholls confirms there is a strategic plan in place that takes the company to 2020 and beyond, but topping the list of tasks for Western Financial is to always achieve the best results for customers.
“We see ourselves as that trusted independent insurance expert that creates security and provides the right protection for Canadians at an affordable price,” concludes Nicholls.