Nancy McKenzie went into business for herself in 1983 because she wanted her reward to be commensurate with her effort. She has been a licensed insurance agent in the province of Alberta, specifically in the Calgary market, for 21 years. In 1983, McKenzie founded Yellow Raincoat Benefit Consultants, an independent insurance brokerage offering a range of individual and group benefits with a focus on small and medium-sized businesses (typically between 2 and 500 employees). For the majority of those years, she handled everything herself and built up a solid book of clients. That worked out fine until about six years ago, when McKenzie’s business grew to a point where she became stretched too thin and made the decision to hire her first full-time employee, Dana Nevison. Nevison was so efficient that McKenzie wondered how she ever got along without her. Today, the company has five full-time employees. We sat down with McKenzie to discuss the secret to running her own business in a highly competitive market.
Advantage: The name is very clever. Where did it come from?
Nancy McKenzie: I hired a graphic designer to help me with the name and logo, and to understand where I was coming from, she asked me several questions, such as “If your company was a colour, what colour would be it be?” and “If it was an inanimate object, what would be it be?” We came up with something that represents how we feel about what we do for our clients—being there for them in their time of need. We have an all-female team. It wasn’t intentional—it just happened that way. But because of that, we’re very maternal, and we go the extra mile to build long-term relationships with our clients. We get to know them really well, and I feel the logo and the name represent that.
And you specialize in the oil-and-gas industry?
Yes. Alberta is the oil-and-gas province of Canada, and most everyone who works here is related to this industry in some way. We have a lot of experience in this area. We’ve been doing it long enough that we speak the language and understand the issues, so that’s a competitive strength.
You generate all your business from referrals?
When a client leaves a company and goes to another one, they hire me [to do their benefits] at the new company, and then the person who fills their position at the former company stays with me, as well. My lawyer recommends us. My accountant recommends us. I can trace 15 clients back to one client I got in 1991. We retain their business because I understand their concerns and because I know where they’re coming from. We do minimal advertising, but last year we grew more than 33 percent.
What is the most common question that your clients ask you?
They mainly ask, “Why should we do business with you?” I explain about being a small business myself and how we care about them and that we’re simply an extension of their company. We emphasize that we make our team available to them for support and service with exceptional response times and that we go the extra mile; we’re very detail-oriented. We also emphasize our level of confidentiality. They can tell us anything and know they can trust us. We have a client that got divorced, and both sides still work with us. When you can have a partnership dissolve bitterly and still have both those clients trust you, that’s a huge compliment.
Is there a mentor or role model from your past that has made you who you are today?
My biggest influence was growing up in our family business, Horton Donuts. I watched my parents struggle. They were open 24-7 and needed reliable staff to manage it. I started, at age 13, learning how to do payroll and bank deposits and inventory. In the 1980s, when interest rates shot up to 20 percent, my parents almost lost their business. I learned a lot from them. Today, I have a female client who I consider my mentor, and she is brutally honest in a kindhearted way. That’s good for me, and I’ve learned a lot from her.
You are heavily involved in helping others. Tell me about that.
Our team of staff volunteer at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, and we are passionate about supporting charities in the city that work with victims of domestic violence, several of the shelters in the city that support women and children and families working to get back on their feet. We all get involved and try to help out as often as we can.
Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?
Right now, I’m the only full-time salesperson, and I could see having a team of salespeople to help grow the business. Calgary has so much potential; I know we could accomplish some great growth with the right people. But I never see us getting too big. If we were 12 people, that would be double the size we are now—and that would be fantastic. _a