Life threw Laura Barkley for a loop in 2002 when she was diagnosed with cancer. The 25-year-old Calgary native was working in the jewelry industry, creating championship rings for professional sports teams, when she got the news, and it took her career—and life—in a new direction.
“I came out of that journey in a different place,” she says. “I felt some loyalty to the company I was with, but I wanted to move on to something that was more meaningful.”
At the time, Barkley’s sister, Melanie Jeannotte, was working in the insurance industry, and she suggested they work together. “We both left our jobs and worked for an independent brokerage firm, but after we’d been in the industry for a year, we noticed that it was a very sales-driven and high-touch service; that one-on-one connection with the client was really lacking in the marketplace,” Barkley says. “We felt there was so much more we could offer, so we stepped out on our own and launched Vital Benefits in 2006.”
DOs & DON’Ts
Starting an insurance firm
Understand your core competencies and focus your efforts on them.
Be consistent, from marketing to service.
Listen to your intuition to determine where the market wants to take you.
Ignore the personal needs of your clients; relationships are key to success.
Let your technology fall behind the curve.
Ignore client education, even during the busiest times.
At the time, Barkley and Jeannotte had no clients but a lot of vision. Vital Benefits Inc. was just one of many companies designing cost-effective, employee-friendly health and pension plans for corporations, but it sought to differentiate itself by providing companies and their employees with a single point of contact for support and advocacy. Barkley attributes this approach to her own ordeal.
“Having cancer was my first real look at the insurance industry because I was suddenly thrown in the process of filing a disability claim,” she says. “It’s interesting, looking back at what I had to go through, because I’m now dealing with those things with our clients. Anything I can do to help them, I will do it, because I was in their shoes at one point.”
Jeannotte took on the role of managing partner and CEO, working to get Vital Benefits established in the industry; Barkley focused on operations, directing the administrative functions to ensure all clients received the assistance they needed. That relationship continues to this day, and it hasn’t always been easy, but it works because of the sisters’ different skill sets. “We really complement each other,” Barkley says.
Staying ahead of the growth curve was the company’s biggest challenge. “It goes back to service,” Barkley explains. “We want to be sure we have the proper support for our clients, so we’ve surrounded ourselves [with] team members who have the same vision we do, and we treat our employees like they’re our family. But we have to balance the growth of our team with cash flow.”
Vital Benefits’ approach, by all measures, has been a success. Since inception, the company has grown from 2 to 17 team members, seen its revenue climb 25–40 percent per year, and accumulated a client roster of more than 150 companies and 1,000 individuals across Canada. However, Barkley, now cancer-free, is most proud of the relationships she’s formed. “We wanted to be different,” she says, “and one of our core values is that clients are like family, and it’s nice to see that our vision has come to life.”