Building Career, Community and Character
| Connections Editor | Apr 2 2020
Gillian Van Kempen, member of the Applied Client Network (ACN) Board of Directors and president of Best Buy Insurance, has seen the industry from both sides. Here, she shares her thoughts on the importance of maintaining diversity and building a support network -- no matter your gender -- in order to effectively lead.
Connections: Tell us a bit about your career. How did you get started in the insurance industry?
Gillian: I grew up in the industry. I'm the fourth generation in my family in insurance. My great-grandfather and grandfather had a brokerage together in Toronto — even my grandmother worked there, too. At 90 years old, my grandmother still talks insurance, it's hilarious. If she sees a commercial on the TV about an insurance company’s product or service offerings, she'll call me and ask, “Do you think I should have that?” She's still so on the ball about it. Anyhow, the three of them worked in the industry together, and eventually my dad got into the business as well. Initially, my dad worked on the company side of insurance. When my grandfather decided to retire, it wasn't great timing for him to take over the business. Then, in the '80s, there was an opportunity for him to open his own brokerage. That's when he migrated to the agency/brokerage side of the insurance business. Then came me. I got my broker's license in 1996. (In Canada, if you represent more than one market, you're called a "broker." If you represent only one insurance product, such as Geico, you're called an "agent.")
When I finished university, I immediately jumped into getting my professional designations. This included the Chartered Insurance Professional, or CIP, and the Fellow Chartered Insurance Professional, or FCIP, designations from the Insurance Institute of Canada (IIC), which is the equivalent of the CPCU Society in the U.S., and the Canadian Accredited Insurance Broker, or CAIB, designation through the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario (IBAO). I also got my CRM designation with a major in risk management. The CRM was issued through the Risk & Insurance Management Society (RIMS) out of New York City. A couple of weeks into my continued education, I was offered a full-time job at an insurance companies on the claims side.
Upon leaving that position, I ended up going to work for another insurance company and eventually was recruited to work for the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, which is the regulatory body here in the province. All insurance providers have to file their auto insurance rates with that government body, since auto insurance in Canada is mandatory and regulated by the government. While there, I worked as an Ombudsman Manager (for the Office of the Insurance Ombudsman), and handled complaints about auto insurance — [joking] it was a really great way to make friends. Next, I moved on to a position in the IIC graduate division, the CIP Society, as a communications officer, overseeing 12,000 members across Canada. From there, I was offered a job as a claims supervisor at yet another insurance company. While I was pregnant with my son and on maternity leave, that company was acquired by another insurance company. So, in 2006 when I returned to work, I left the company side to join my family's brokerage, Best Buy Insurance, and never looked back. Eventually during my tenure, my dad decided he wanted to take a step back and I took over. Since being here, I don't think I've ever worn less than all of the hats.
I felt it was really important, before doing anything with the family business, to understand the other side of insurance. Now, in my current role, I have a better appreciation for some of the responses that we receive and some of the decisions we have to make.
Connections: What have been your most significant career moments that led to you assuming your current position?
Gillian: I've been very involved in the industry. I was the president of IBAO in my region, which was a proud moment. During the two years I held that role, we won the Affiliate of the Year award, which is a provincialwide recognition, similar to the Applied Client Network Chapter of the Year award. We even won for a third year in a row after I had transitioned to past-president. That was a career-defining move because it had only ever been done by one other chapter in the history of the award. I find it so valuable to participate in the community in this way. Even though the brokerage down the road is technically the competition, the insurance community as a whole is great about working together. I cannot tell you how many of my colleagues in the industry regularly reach out to help one another, especially now as we are dealing with COVID-19. I can pick up the phone anytime and call a fellow brokerage leader for advice about various dilemmas. It's something I find really inspiring about our profession.
In terms of other career moments, I also served on the CIP Society Ontario Committee after leaving my role with IIC. That was my first chance at getting my feet wet in terms of being involved in the industry as a volunteer. I ran a golf tournament for them for about 14 or 15 years, which I have taken a step back from over the last couple of years due to conflicting commitments. For the past 16 years I have also been involved in the planning of an industry-specific charity gala in support of the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Learning about and becoming involved with ACN is the other big moment. It all started at a lunch meeting with two executives from Applied Systems. I told them how instrumental Applied TAM online had been during a flood in our office, sharing that, had we not been in an online environment for our broker management system, I would have literally been dead in the water. We could not have opened our doors until we had the servers redone. But, with TAM online, as soon as I had internet we were back up and running by 9 a.m. the next day. I was able to activate our business continuity plan and off we went. The Applied Systems team I was meeting with asked me to go on record and tell that story, and asked if I would be willing to present at Applied Net. I had no idea there was anything like Applied Net. Through the experience of presenting, I met people on the ACN Board of Directors who suggested that I get involved as a volunteer. I am so grateful for that because working with ACN has been incredible. It's such a great group of people and the Applied Net conference itself is such a great event. Even though I've been in insurance for a long time, there's always such great information that I learn each year at the conference. And, the makeup of ACN's Board of Directors is unreal. There's typically such a fraction of women on most boards, yet more than 50% of ACN's is female. These women are not just "seat fillers," they really know their stuff. I'm honored to be a part of that.
Connections: What are some of the greater implications of being a women at the top? Do you think women leaders are becoming more prevalent?
Gillian: I think female leaders are becoming more prevalent. I don't know the official stats, but anywhere I've worked there really seems to be more women than men in the industry. I think we still need to do some work when it comes to the C-suite and senior executive levels, though. I personally know some of the CEOs at some of the insurance companies here in Canada who are female, and they're absolutely incredible people. It would be nice to see more of that.
As an industry we've definitely made progress, but I don't think we're nearly where we need to be. I just finished the Directors Education Program through the Institute of Corporate Directors at Rotman — which is the University of Toronto's School of Management — last week. My classmates and I have learned a lot about different types of dynamics on boards and how boards are moving toward 40% female representation; however, we still have a lot of work to do get there.
The attitude and mindset of a lot of people is going to have to change in order to see those numbers get to where we want them to be. As a woman, I think we're nurturing, I think we're great at customer service, I think we're excellent at multi-tasking (I think it's in our genes), but I also think we're underestimated. Being underestimated can be an opportunity — I often joke that if I had done something amazing in the past, I would not have been on anybody's radar because I'm not the one they're thinking they're competing with, which is kind of nice — but I'm not sure that we are always presented with the same opportunities because of it. That said, thanks to an unbiased process on the ACN board when vetting candidates for leadership positions, we ended up onboarding two amazing female candidates this year. I'm really proud of that.
Connections: From your perspective, what do you see as the biggest challenge – or advantage – that women in the insurance industry face? Why do you think this is?
Gillian: I think the biggest challenge for women, in a lot of ways, both in insurance and in other professions, is not even being on the radar. Not even being a consideration.
Like I said, I think that is shifting, but I don't know if it's shifting fast enough. Some of the CEOs I know in Canada who are female are at that stage where most CEOs might be considering retirement. That worries me. What's going to happen when it's not them anymore? Is there going to be another female leader to replace them? I'm not comfortable with quotas. I don't want "woman" to be just a box on a checklist that people check off. I don't want that to be the case for us. But, if it's the only way we get our foot in the door, then I guess I'll take it. Then, we'll prove to you why we're the best candidate for what you're looking for.
I think another thing women sometimes have working against us is not looking at our age. Because of this, people might have a tendency to dismiss us and not think we're knowledgeable enough on a topic since we "look so young." It's almost similar to how people will do that with Millennials and discount them before even giving them a chance. That's an ongoing issue with every profession, insurance included.
Connections: How do you find ways to help other women rise to positions of influence?
Gillian: Ninety percent of my office is women. That's not by design, it's just by chance.
In my broader community, I'm a member of a chapter of the Women Presidents' Organization in Toronto.Our meetings are almost like having our own little "board of directors" for women in the area. It's really nice to show up and share stories with fellow leaders in other industries. We get to sit around the table and talk about challenges we're facing in our businesses, and lean on each other. The support and advice of these women is oddly comforting. And, it's great to know that women of success in other areas experience the same challenges I do. There's comfort in being uncomfortable ... together.
A lot of discussion I have with other leaders, not even just women, is around the fact that being a business leader is very isolating. In my office, where we have about 20 employees, there are not multiple layers of positions. I don't have the different tiers that some other organizations have. I don't have a senior leadership team. It's me and my semi-retired dad. One thing that came up on the "Women in Leadership" panel I participated in at Applied Net last year, was that it's really important to find your people. Find people who are there to support you. Build your own mini "advisory board," especially if you're a small business and you don't have anybody to talk to who you trust. With the staff that I do have, I have a very open-door policy. Sometimes that comes back to bite me, but most of the time it's valuable and means my team has a say and in things. We operate like a family.
Connections: As a leader, in what ways do you impact change within your brokerage?
Gillian: Anytime we've implemented change at my brokerage, I survey my team first to see what they think and how they feel about a situation. For example, we've been having a lot of conversations about COVID-19 and how we want to tackle that. Just listening to feedback from them is really helpful. I think ensuring that change is implemented effectively goes back to our open-door policy.
In the past, I've had staff who were very, very resistant to change, which led to us avoiding it. One instance I can recall vividly is when we had one person who was really against downloads and having e-documents available. Once that individual left, I immediately implemented e-documents from every single carrier we have because I saw how it was going to make our lives so much easier. Change can be uncomfortable, and it can be hard to wrap your head around. But, I find that for the most part my team really takes it in stride. Our industry is constantly evolving, and it's going to be interesting to see what insurance products, if any, come out of COVID-19 right now. We've had a lot of inquiries about business interruption coverage and how that affects things. I look forward to seeing how the industry responds and reacts to this pandemic as we move forward. Fortunately, I have a team who's willing to be on board with change and work together as a family.
Connections: How does ACN help foster women in leadership positions within their respective agencies or brokerages?
Gillian: I love Applied Net. It's such an amazing conference, and I've met so many pivotal people in my life there. I can't sing its praises enough. Also, my involvement on the ACN Board of Directors has been such an important part of my life. We're all such close friends and we text each other daily. It's so nice because how else would I have an opportunity to have friends like that in other parts of the world? Friends who really make an impact on my life.
I was really proud to see some of the soft skills topics that were brought into Applied Net this past fall, such as the "Women in Leadership" panel. It was a really important conversation to have. And, two-thirds of the room on the day of was full after it had been switched to a larger space. I hope we're able to do more stuff like that and have conversations like that again. We need to get comfortable opening up the door to having difficult conversations. We all often experience the same things and we don't need to be going through things on our own.
Connections: Any closing thoughts? Resources you want to share?
Gillian: This article from the Insurance Institute, is something I've been forwarding to everyone recently in light of COVID-19. For any of our clients who have been asking about how coverage applies or doesn't apply during this time, this article addresses a lot of their questions.
Want more thoughts from female leaders? Check out this "Women in Leadership" roundup featuring Gillian's fellow Applied Net 2019 panelists.
Gillian Van Kempen is president of Best Buy Insurance in Ajax, Ontario, Canada. She received her B.A. from the University of Toronto and went on to attain her CAIB, CIP, FCIP and CRM designations. She has served as president of the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario’s Durham affiliate, and continues to sit on numerous insurance-industry boards, company-broker councils and, for 14 years, has served on the planning team for the Starlight Insurance Gala, which raises over $250,000 annually in support of seriously ill children and their families.
Tags: Commentary , Leadership , ACN Community , Women in Leadership , COVID-19