“I had to learn on my feet because I didn’t have much choice.”

On the job with Mia Kukic, principal and owner of Alger & deForest Insurance

Rising to a challenge is nothing new for Mia Kukic, principal and owner of Calgary’s Alger & deForest (A&D) Insurance Inc. Formerly from Sarajevo, Kukic moved to Canada after the tumultuous breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.

A lifelong piano player (who studied music and marketing at university), Kukic’s first job in Canada was teaching piano. She eventually launched her career in the insurance business at Royal Bank of Canada looking to supplement her music income. As her career as an insurance broker blossomed, Kukic continued to teach piano until she purchased A&D. “Handling 60 students a week in addition to running an insurance brokerage became a little too much,” she recalls. Here, Kukic speaks with Advantage about running her own brokerage.

Advantage: When did you see an opportunity to become a business owner?
Mia Kukic: I worked at A&D for about seven years before I bought the firm. I attracted a lot of new business, doubling the company’s revenue during the first four years I was there. The previous owner, Darrell Williamson, was contemplating retirement, and I think he had it in mind to sell me the business eventually. A friend of mine, Darlene Taylor, suggested that I take over the business. When Williamson told me he wanted to retire, I asked if I could buy the business and he agreed. Six months later, I became a new owner.

How did your learn to run a brokerage?
Williamson mentored me. He would go on vacations and say, “Well, you’re running the business while I’m away.” So I had to learn on my feet because I didn’t have much choice. Fortunately, I am a fast learner. When I saw that I could do more than just a senior broker, it became my motivation to learn the business as quickly as possible.

What changes did you make?
When I bought the business, the operation was a little dated. We didn’t have a good filing system, the computer equipment was ancient, and there really wasn’t a phone system. I purchased new phones and computers, and updated the records system. I also adopted a new approach to employees, offering more flexibility with working hours.

What sort of insurance does your firm offer?
We offer both personal and commercial lines from major insurers like Intact, Aviva, and Premium Marine. Auto and home coverage are our biggest products on the personal side, while auto, property, and business insurance dominates commercial coverage. We also offer specialized business insurance for professionals, like errors and omissions coverage. The business is about 60 percent personal and 40 percent commercial insurance.

How does the economy affect your business?
We feel changes in the economy a little slower than other businesses. If you want to take out a mortgage or drive your own car, insurance is mandatory. Also many professionals—doctors, for instance—have to carry liability insurance in order to operate their businesses. So some level of insurance coverage is always necessary for most people, regardless of the economy.

How has the firm’s business changed?
With the rapid development of Calgary’s oil-and-gas industry over the past five years, business insurance is in greater demand. It doesn’t matter how small the company or contract is, people want to see that whoever they are doing business with has some level of insurance protection. Previously, people didn’t see a need for business insurance, because their customers weren’t asking about it. So business insurance has become a huge market for us. We are also seeing a rise in residential-building owners insisting that tenants obtain renters insurance.

How do you market the business?
Until recently, 99 percent of clients came from referrals, so we didn’t do much marketing. Now we advertise in community newspapers, we have our name in the local Yellow Pages, and we have set up a website. Finally, we cosponsor various community events like golf tournaments.

What differentiates your firm from other brokerages?
Happy customers are my goal. I want our clients to be satisfied with the service they received, not just with the insurance products we sold them. Insurance products are pretty similar; the bottom line for why people choose one insurance broker over another is customer service. We try to always give every customer fast and efficient service. Clients call us and say, “Well, I need this type of coverage,” and they know we will have a policy ready for them almost immediately. We let our customers know they have a personal broker who knows their circumstances and their needs, and can give them one-on-one service.

What’s next for the firm?
Growing organically takes a lot of time. Buying another brokerage will make us grow faster. I’m hoping to acquire another brokerage in the next year or so.