Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat, author, philosopher and historian had said years ago that when a conqueror acquires states in a province which is different from his own in language, customs and institutions, great difficulties arise, and excellent fortune and great skill are needed to retain them.
At 72 years old, Colin Brown understands this and has been using this ideology in a career that is no short of an inspiring adventure. The insurance veteran has spent the past 40 years building an empire that has become synonymous with solutions in auto insurance. “I have learned or assimilated a whole range of management styles and influences. I have been through Russian-style, Japanese-style, Sun Tsu, Tom Peters, dot com ups and downs and so on. Ultimately, I believe success must be of the moment. Ingredients must include satisfying the needs of your customer, staff and Board of Directors. Using the metrics of both that time and those people,” says Colin, President and CEO of the Vancouver-based Stratford Underwriting Agency Inc and a seasoned insurance professional.
Colin’s journey spans across decades, from the UK to Canada, and from a cushy government job to leading an underwriting agency that offers competitive optional auto insurance policies in the province, helping the vast majority of British Columbians save money. As a Chartered Insurance Professional and Chartered Arbitrator with over 40 years of experience in the British Columbia insurance sector, he has steered institutes and organizations to prosperous positions and yielded award-winning results.
Born in Pakistan, where his father, as an officer in the Royal Air Force, was stationed after World War Two, Colin was educated in Northern Ireland at a boarding school, and attended the Queens University Belfast for his graduation where he attained a bachelor’s degree in science. “I immigrated to Canada in 1973. I got my Charted Insurance Professional designation in the eighties and my Chartered Arbitrator designation in the nineties. I then changed direction from purely insurance education to getting my Masters degree in Liberal Studies from Simon Fraser University in 1997. I wanted to expand my range of experiences to the arts and literature to widen my base for thought.”
Insuring a Career Choice
Colin’s introduction to the insurance industry was what he defines as ‘Pure happenstance’. His first job application was to a start-up government ‘monopoly’ in auto insurance – Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC). “I was selected for the first management trainee group. I worked there for 22 years. I ended up as the Chief Underwriter with over $2 billion in premium. I led the first serious product reform in the early nineties. They only took a fraction of our recommendations,” explains Colin. Within a year he resigned and started his own company in competition for most of the business, using his own ideas.
Deciding to walk away from the comfort zone of over 20 years with a government monopoly, pension, nine weeks of vacation, and other such, would have raised a few eyebrows, but Colin wouldn’t flinch as he is a risk-taker. “Allowing my inner intuition, market knowledge and heart to guide me. I was helped dramatically in all this by Howard Wills, a coach who has worked with many industry leaders. He showed me how to rid myself of prior influences, bad habits and to embrace how my heart drove me, rather than over-analyze.”
Colin’s first startup, CDI, was the first direct writer in western Canada in 1996, the first to offer policy issuance immediately online and several other unique, exciting options. It soon grew to become became an industry leader in the direct marketing field, winning marketing awards and three consecutive J D Power Customer service awards. In 2015, they also won the mid-size company award from Waterstone for Best Corporate culture.
However, this road travelled was not short of a few bumps. “One of my biggest challenge was to take my first start-up into business (Canadian Direct Insurance) CDI, against a government-owned virtual monopoly! Pure madness. However, I used the David/Goliath circumstance in the press and media to get noticed as the little guy taking on the giant and beating him at his own game. That led to a much higher profile for the company in the early days that might be expected. I did the radio work and TV interviews extensively.” And by this, the David vs. Goliath circumstance, he refers to a situation where two parties clash, with one party having an overwhelming advantage, typically in experience or size.
Aside from insurance and the automotive market, Colin remains engaged in his capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the BC Sports Hall of Fame where he has ‘worked with a superb group of staff and volunteers to refurbish the Hall and open the 2010 Olympic Gallery’. He continues his association with UBCOB Ravens Rugby Club and the BC Sports Hall of Fame. And when he isn’t working with the community, for the community, he enjoys spending time with his family, especially his grandkids.
Stratford Underwriting Agency Inc.
Stratford is an MGA (Managing General Agency) that acts as a wholesaler of insurance products to a range of regular brokers, found in the marketplace and usually more difficult to find coverages, explains Colin. “In our case, I designed a new British Columbia auto product and found an insurance company to underwrite it. It is a quicker to market option.”
In 2022, Stratford starts its third year of business, having just crossed a challenging year two in which its main competitor changed the rules of insurance in BC and reduced the available premium per policy from $800+ to $500.
“We had to move very quickly to find an additional source of income and did so. After two months of development, we wrote $10 million of that new product in 2021, for a total of $28 million. On that we lost $170,000 in what was year two of business. In 2022 we will write $36+ million and be profitable by $2+ million,” explains Colin. He adds proudly that being agile and responding to a massive unplanned product change was a fantastic feat attained by his team, including their 200 strong network of broker’s offices.
“It is fairly simple: the customer is king and, treat your employees like you would treat your best customer. That is where we start and then we are committed to using the most up-to-date technologies to achieve all of the above. We stay abreast by hiring the best people and listening to them.”
Colin sees himself as a mentor and guide for the redhot staff that is ‘so much smarter and aware of the current world than he is’. He believes that if he hires the right people, as he always believes, ‘they run the ship’ when Colin asks the right questions to help them.
If there was one word to describe Colin, he would pick ‘Rainmaker’. “I am the face of the company. I have found that working in the community helps a great deal. My chosen area is amateur sports. I was the President of my rugby club for years, then President of the British Columbia Rugby Union and more recently the Chair of the BC Sports Hall of Fame. It has kept me in the public eye for over 20 years.”
Only Way North
The future of Stratford looks bright and confident. Stratford will be a $100+million annual operation by 2025, Colin believes. The company has just entered its third year and is ahead of plan to be profitable. They have already introduced a new product which sold $10 million in premiums in its first year.
Colin explains that they plan another unique product offering in mid-2022. They envision a profit of $2 million in for the year 2022. In addition, the company is planning to expand in its reach as well, by operating with three to five products in most Canadian provinces. “I want to make the company robust and strong. It is often said that ‘insurance is recession proof’ – that is obviously not precisely true, but the more diverse the product base, the more true it becomes. So, a few more innovative products and an expansion across Canada for the products that fit elsewhere,” says Colin.