“We must continually educate ourselves so as to provide accurate answers and solutions to the questions and challenges posed to us.”

James Chmiel and Albert Schmidt of Erb and Erb Insurance Brokers Ltd. discuss the changing landscape of their industry

Albert Schmidt & James Chmiel

In 1919, after serving as a flyer in the British Air Force during World War I and returning to his home community in then-Berlin, Ontario, Irvin Edwin Erb established himself as an independent insurance agent. Joined a few years later by his father, Ephraim Bricker Erb, the firm of Erb and Erb Insurance was born. Continuing to celebrate its deep roots in the Waterloo region, Erb and Erb Insurance Brokers is an independently owned insurance brokerage that is still operated by fourth- and fifth-generation family members.

The Kitchener-based brokerage—licensed to serve all of Ontario and boasting 13-plus personal lines and more than 20 commercial carriers—directly employs around 70 employees and has subbroker relationships across the country. Here, James Chmiel, president since 2007, and Albert Schmidt, sales and marketing manager, explain what makes the insurance industry more complicated today, what has remained the same since Erb and Erb was founded, and why the agency makes an effort to give back to its community and stay true to its core values.

Advantage: What are a few of your niche products, and how did you develop them?
Albert Schmidt: In addition to offering personal lines and life and financial products, our commercial niche products are bed-and-breakfasts, carwashes and gas bars, disc-jockeys, life advisors, and financial planners. Many of our niche programs were developed years ago and have continually evolved as the respective industries and insurance needs have changed. Constant reviews of our products are undertaken in order to continue to provide the best coverage possible. Having had many years of experience with our niche products, our commercial-lines brokers are experts in each of these areas and can provide best-in-class service and protection at affordable prices.

What gives you a leg up on your competition?
AS: Erb and Erb Insurance Brokers values the relationships we have with our clients and has invested in technology to provide quicker, more efficient service to our clients and prospects. We have expanded our online presence and revamped our brokerage website to make it more robust and user-friendly. Most importantly, we have taken up social media more than most of our competitors. No longer does the consumer want static marketing. They demand two-way communication, and Erb and Erb—with its Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ accounts—is there to connect with our clients and with the general public in just about whatever medium they would like.

What is the most challenging aspect of your industry today?
James Chmiel: The dramatic rise in fraudulent-claims activity and changing weather patterns. Fraudulent claims drive claims costs, which ultimately drive insurance premiums higher for everyone. Changing weather patterns and the unpredictability of weather events have made water the most claimed peril. Extreme weather events and catastrophes have forced insurance companies to adjust some of their underwriting practices and alter their products.

What about with auto insurance specifically?
JC: Something that just about every motorist in Ontario can identify with is the recent government review of automobile insurance, which occurs every five years in Ontario. This review consists of a detailed analysis of the auto product, primarily to ensure availability and affordability for all drivers in the province of Ontario. Insurance companies must always comply with varying degrees of government regulation, ensuring that their products are amended accordingly.

How do you handle the scope of these challenges?
JC: Any one of these changes alone would be daunting. Together, they represent fundamental challenges to the insurance-industry worldwide. Through all of this, Erb and Erb must be an expert in this ever-changing world of insurance. We are the professionals to which our clients turn. We must continually educate ourselves so as to provide accurate answers and solutions to the questions and challenges posed to us.

How do you keep your brand recognition the same over the years, even as the company and the industry changes?
AS: Our company has changed much since 1919, but through it all our core values have served us well and guided us through turbulent change in the industry and global environment overall. Our products and coverage may change from time to time, but we [will always] continue to offer professional, friendly advice, and a strong commitment to our community and local charities. We are a community-minded brokerage. From sponsorships of sports teams to children’s programs to local nonprofit organizations, Erb and Erb understands that a strong community is good for everyone. This attracts like-minded consumers and businesses.

James, you have received a lot of recognition for your community involvement and charitable giving. Tell me why that’s important to you personally and to the company.
JC: I believe it’s the right thing to do. I have had some pretty tremendous people around me who taught me early on about the importance of giving back. Fortunately, my personal beliefs on this very much mirror our company beliefs. The concepts of good corporate citizenship and triple-bottom line are very much ingrained in Erb and Erb’s philosophy.

What are the company’s main goals for the next several years?
 JC: We aim to grow our business; to continue to provide the most professional, friendly service possible; to challenge the status quo; to look to offer unique insurance products and programs; and to continue to be a part of the diverse and exciting community of Kitchener-Waterloo.