“We were so outside the box with our thinking that we didn’t even know where the box was.”

Leading an industry with Ken Armstrong and Aly Kanji of Sussex Insurance

Ken Armstrong,

Need a successful business concept? How about one that is a government mandated with set prices, that everyone needs, that requires annual renewals, and that does not require inventory or accounts receivables? The way to set such a company apart is sheer customer service and ingenuity. For Ken Armstrong, CEO and president of British Columbia-based Sussex Insurance, it was a recipe for success. In 36 years, Armstrong has grown his full-service insurance agency from a single location to 43, with a year-end goal of 50 locations. From there, he hopes to expand across Canada and into the United States. Advantage caught up with Armstrong and Aly Kanji, COO and general counsel for Sussex, on what it will take to achieve their lofty goal.

Advantage: Why start an automobile-insurance company?
Ken Armstrong: I started Sussex Insurance in 1976 with a high-school friend after I found myself unemployed with a family to support. Having worked selling tires in the past, I was familiar with the auto industry. I realized I could be successful in the insurance game, since much of it is government mandated and I’d be relying on my own people skills to succeed. I bought out my partner two years later and, with my wife, Debby, concentrated on building a business from the ground up, by opening up offices and franchising them—something no one else had been doing before in British Columbia.

Did you ever think that if no one else is doing it, maybe it’s not the right thing to do?
KA: People always say to think outside the box. We were so outside the box with our thinking that we didn’t even know where the box was.

Aly Kanji: In an industry where much is the same, being different has to be your calling card. And while customer service is key, starting with your employees is a necessity.

KA: We wanted to bring “please” and “thank you” back to the insurance business. We want our franchise owners and customers to know we appreciate them. You spend as much time talking about your staff and franchise owners as you do your end consumers. Most company executives focus on making the customers happy.

AK: We are very dedicated to our human resources and the training of our staff. We have a marketing person to assist our franchise owners with their marketing initiatives. I work on any legal issues that come up, such as helping our clients when claims get denied by insurance companies. There aren’t a lot of things our franchise owners need to worry about other than just running their business and taking care of their customers.

KA: We hired a customer-experience manager to ensure our customers are enjoying the best customer experience from the company. We have lots of fancy titles in our office because we also want to have fun. But don’t get us wrong—we also work very hard to provide an excellent product.

It’s no small feat to get into two of the largest retailers in the country. How did that happen?
AK: We currently have 43 locations, soon to be 50, around British Columbia, centred in the prime real-estate locations of Walmart and Real Canadian Superstore. Prudent management and persistence helped us land in locations where shoppers can find sleek, clean, and well-lit retail outlets.

KA: Sussex Insurance is currently undergoing a $2 million state-of-the-art renovation of its Real Canadian Superstore locations, which will make it more enticing for customers to stop by and see what is new. Being in both Real Canadian Superstore and Walmart allows us to interact with our customers because it’s easy for them.

How do you engage your franchise owners in the company?
AK: We work very hard to make sure our franchise owners know how important they are to the business and to Sussex Insurance’s overall success. We host an annual franchise retreat in a resort-type location that is fully covered by the company. It’s a great opportunity for our franchisees to network with other owners, share best practices, learn what is happening with the company, and have a good time, too. It’s done in a real family atmosphere.

What’s next for Sussex Insurance?
KA: The company has no plans to slow down any time soon. Once it expands to other parts of the country, it hopes to break into the United States, too. Our potential is truly unlimited.