“I planned to go to law school, but my father needed someone to help him out for a short period of time … His claws went into me.”

Tom Heinsoo, president of Heinsoo Insurance Brokers, explains why sometimes Dad knows best

Tom Heinsoo, president.

When Tom Heinsoo graduated from college, he planned to go to law school, but his plans changed when his first-choice school rejected him. His backup plan? Become a Toronto police officer—an idea Heinsoo’s father immediately opposed. “He had nothing against the police, but thought I’d be restricting my career options,” Heinsoo recalls. Father knows best, as it turned out: Heinsoo eventually took over his father’s company, Toronto-based Heinsoo Insurance Brokers Ltd., which now has six employees. Here, he tells us about his journey.

Advantage: How did the company get started?
Tom Heinsoo: My father started it. He was a postwar immigrant to Canada from Estonia. After the war, the Estonians had to leave because the Russians were occupying the country, so he immigrated here with my mother. He initially worked in a photography store but was introduced to the insurance business, and he decided to establish an independent brokerage.

How did the business grow from a one-man shop to a large operation?
My father started selling life insurance and then branched out to include property casual, auto, and small-business insurance. It’s grown from there.

Did he market to a specific clientele?
At the time, there was only one other Estonian insurance brokerage in Toronto, and the natural client base for someone like him was postwar immigrants. A lot of them were Estonians. That’s because, until Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Toronto had the largest group of Estonians outside Estonia, around 15,000.

When did you come onboard?
I joined the company in 1986 after graduating from the University of Toronto with an undergraduate degree in economics and political science. I planned to go to law school, but my father needed someone to help him out for a short period of time, so I told him I’d be there for six months, at most a year. I had big plans. I wanted to follow my own path. But six months has turned into 25 years.

Did you stay because you had a passion for the business?
Initially, I stayed because I felt an obligation. A longtime employee—my father’s right-hand person—left the business about a year after I joined. My father was left in the lurch. His claws went into me. He said, “You have to help me out.” I agreed to stay for a couple more years, at most. Then my father had a stroke in 1999 that incapacitated him, so I carried on the business from there.

Did you grow to love it, at least?
“Love” may be too strong a word, but I definitely enjoy the business. As I got more involved, I started to appreciate the fact that it was our own business, and the more we put into it, the more we got out of it. The results were tangible. It’s so different from the experience of being a cog in a wheel in a large organization.

Do you still have a lot of Estonian clients?
My father spoke Estonian, English, Finnish, German, and Swedish. Consequently, a sizeable proportion of his original client base was made up of these ethnic groups. However, over the years, our book of business has become as diverse as the population of the city of Toronto. We still share office space with the Consulate of Estonia. I guess that’s unique for an insurance brokerage.

How did that happen?
My father was acting Consul General of Estonia when it was under occupation. When the country regained its independence, he became Honorary Consul General of Estonia in Canada. At that point, Estonia had no other diplomatic representation in Canada, so the consulate here was acting like a full-fledged embassy. We were issuing visas and passports and performing various other diplomatic activities.

How do you grow a business like yours?
You can go on a buying spree and acquire other brokerages, or you can grow incrementally, through production. We’ve done both. We’d like to double our growth within the next five years.

What advice would you give someone who’s looking to follow in your footsteps?
It would be difficult to start an insurance brokerage, because you have to be contracted with different insurance companies. You’d have to go through another brokerage—work for another brokerage, establishing a book of business, using it to branch out on your own. You could also amass some capital and acquire another brokerage.

What was the best business advice your father ever provided?
Treat people with respect, especially in a competitive environment. Everyone is looking for an excuse to leave you for price. We don’t sell based on price, but on customer service. We try to go the extra mile for customers.