Through the Ranks

How George McCarter's professional growth helped to rebuild Pearson Dunn Insurance

After working his way up from the bottom—and from the southern United States to Ontario—George McCarter purchased Pearson Dunn Insurance Inc. six years ago. Today, as president and CEO, he drives strategy and vision for the company, which serves roughly 25,000 clients across Canada. Recently, he sat down with Advantage to talk about restructuring his management team and to explain his simple philosophy, based on one word: relationships.

Advantage: Let’s start with a simple question. How did you, as an American from North Carolina, end up spending 30 years in Canada?
George McCarter: I fell in love at age 22 with a pretty Canadian I met while travelling. I came to visit and never found my way back home.

And since that time, basically when your career started, you’ve been climbing the insurance ladder.
I started out working for Allstate while I was still at university. I saw the industry and the multifaceted opportunities it provides, and I interacted with agents, brokers, and all supporting businesses. I worked in life insurance and then joined an established brokerage that recruited me for a sales position. My first office didn’t have a desk. It had a table, a thick phone book, a phone, and a stack of business cards.

What does that kind of experience provide?
That’s how I learned every aspect of the business. I realized how personal the industry is and how it all comes back to relationships.

George McCarter’s
Career Milestones

1978
Accepts a position with Allstate and works for three years in life insurance while completing his undergraduate studies

1983
Relocates to Hamilton, ON, from his home state of North Carolina in the United States

1985–1995
Spends a decade at a large, respected brokerage, working his way up from a sparse room to the president’s office

1995
Becomes full owner of the brokerage after other executives exit, running the firm until its sale in 2002

2005
Joins Pearson Dunn Insurance with an option to purchase

2008
Completes the purchase of Pearson Dunn early, becoming the company’s full owner

Did you start to focus in on one area, or did you stay more general?
I knew quickly I wanted to work with business owners. My [first firm in Canada] was doing complex and interesting work in this area. The premiums were large, and the compensation was good. I knew that if I was going to be good, I should learn every piece about it and earn a reputation as someone who understands not just insurance but also people. I took every course, talked to every person, and read every book I could. In this way, I began to grow a very large portfolio of clients, and that kind of strategy yields great opportunities.

Now that you’re running your own firm, what still sticks with you from those early days?
I was doing what I was good at and saw how important that is. Sometimes companies take their best salespeople and move them into management. That’s a huge mistake. You need good salespeople to generate revenue.

Describe your upward trajectory and how you came to own Pearson Dunn.
I stayed in the big firm for 10 years and moved up, becoming a shareholder and an executive. When the company changed in 1995, the senior partners orchestrated a lucrative payout and left junior execs behind. It was hard to move forward. I took over as CEO and president and found funding to buy out all shareholders. If I was going to take on all the risk, I should be the owner. So that’s what we did. I financed the company, took it over, and ran it for seven years. I started realizing that I needed another challenge and that the organization wasn’t a perfect fit for me. I sold my interest and came to Pearson Dunn with an opportunity to buy everyone out in five years. I accelerated that process and completed the purchase of the firm in 2008.

And now you run the show yourself.
Well, this time I did it without other partners. It’s a lot easier to run a meeting when you’re the only one you have to answer to. I came here because I knew the Pearsons and the Dunns. They are well respected and dedicated to their brokerage, employees, clients, and community. Again, it goes back to relationships. I knew I would fit here and also strengthen parts of the company based on my experience.

Like the management team? You’ve completely restructured it, right?
The previous management team was dismantled since they had been unsuccessful in the perpetuation plans of the company. I let them go and built a whole new team with some great internal and external hires. Hiring our dynamic COO last year completed the restructuring of the management team. It’s taken five years, from the purchase, to build the team with the right people clicking in the right roles.

What’s been your vision in that process?
Taking a person’s natural capabilities and having them apply those in a role they will excel at. We need to stop squeezing people into the wrong roles. People chase money and titles and get to a role where they are set up to fail. I tell my executives that they will be rewarded based on performance in a role that’s natural. We don’t have them worrying about a title, role, or position. We create the role, build a title around it, compensate the executive well, and find that they are happier and more successful.

Where did these ideas come from?
I’m a sponge for conversation. I make friends with everyone I meet and ask questions. I spend lots of time with clients to find out how they do things. I also encourage our employees to do the same because this helps us find the right clients and develop the right projects as we focus on relationships. It also helps our managers grow as people. We build relationships.

Describe how you work with clients.
We take a very personal approach. I want our customers to understand this complex product that is “insurance.” We are not a call centre; we meet with real customers, and we want them to grasp risks and solutions related to insurance. We think of it like this: we look after our employees, clients, and partners—in that order. Engaged employees translate to positive relationships with customers, and that flows out of the partners. This has helped us build a really strong brand based on relationships, so we should never have to cold-call. I want every new relationship to come from a referral.