One may stumble into a career in insurance, but it takes deliberate and measured decision-making to create a successful and thriving brokerage company. Tony Davis, the president and founder of Vancouver-based Axis Insurance Managers Inc., who first got into the field in 1980, has been thoughtfully injecting creativity and teamwork into his own firm for more than 15 years. Recently, he was able to outline for Advantage his business’s unique partner-based approach, born from the need to challenge perceptions and the desire to create the right insurance for the right clients.
Advantage: You’re originally from Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, in England. What caused you to pack your bags for Vancouver?
Tony Davis: I couldn’t settle down. There was something inside of me, and maybe it’s part of the English character—living on an island, you just want to go somewhere else. So I looked at Bermuda, Australia, and ultimately chose Canada.
Did you have a job lined up before you made the leap?
I was here in 1986 on extended vacation and actually got a written offer from a life insurance company before I went home. I returned as a landed immigrant in 1987 but never took the job, as the individual that gave me the offer had changed positions. Fortunately, I was introduced to Clive Bird in 1987, who is still my partner at Axis. I went into the property and casualty side of business, where my greatest knowledge was, and we both ended up working together for five years at Dale & Company, which was then the nation’s largest Canadian-owned insurance broker.
Were there many differences between the British and Canadian insurance industries?
There are some subtle differences. At the time, the Americas had developed very broad, all-risk wordings while in the UK it was more restrictive.
When forming Axis, how did you want to set it apart from other brokers?
I had been used to this very hierarchical environment, so I was looking to do something more creative and find others with a similar entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted an atmosphere where creative thinkers could come together and we could challenge traditions. We look at changing wordings and making it so that our clients have custom-tailored products that better address individual exposures. We’re not just dealing with our products as commodities. We also seek to sell into niche market segments.
Your firm also uses an unusual “partner-based” model. Could you explain that a little?
We were one of the first, if not the first, to say to new salespeople who we felt were similar to ourselves in terms of being entrepreneurial, “How about you come onboard, and we’ll form a satellite subsidiary to our main brand, and you get to bring your business and establish yourself?” We give them a turnkey operation with 50 percent of the common shares.
How do businesses not operating under this model usually work?
Most hire on a salary or a commission basis; they look to sell standard products to random clients at discounted prices.
Begins insurance career in the United Kingdom with General Accident Fire and Life Corp. PLC
Meets Clive Bird, his future business partner
Moves to Canada and works alongside Bird at Dale & Company
Acquires Winram Insurance Ltd. and becomes its president
Renames Winram as Axis Insurance Managers
Avoiding standard products seems self-explanatory, but how do you avoid standard clients?
With respect to quality clients, you can be selective. We don’t want to be all things to all people; we provide good service, and we want to provide good service to people that care about their business. There are some people that you go and talk to and it’s a case of “how much insurance can I buy for x dollars?” But it’s not about how much you want to spend; it’s a case of “what is the right insurance for your business?”
What was the secret in creating a reputation that allows you to be at the top of your field?
The old saying “Never be afraid to hire someone you think might be smarter than yourself”—and just attracting strong people and creating a culture without silos. A lot of brokerages of our size have individuals that tend to compete for business from within.
Throughout your more-than-30-year career, what are you most proud of?
That we’ve created an environment where people can come to work, enjoy themselves, and support their family. It’s okay for the mail-room clerk to have a joke at my expense, you know? People feel good when they come here because their opinion is respected.
Because you’re in charge of so much now, is there anything you miss from when you were in the trenches?
Definitely talking to clients face to face. I’m still able to do that to a certain extent, but you get involved in the administration of an organization and there’s limited times you can implement all the new ideas you’ve picked up along the way.
What’s keeping the company successful moving forward?
Maintaining culture whilst improving structure. As we grow, it’d be very easy to become the corporation I never wanted this company to be. But overall, staying close to our focus, which is “quality insurance for quality clients,” will keep us successful.