– Words by Tess van Straaten Photography by Don Denton
When Laura Bolster started working at an insurance office in her hometown at just 19 years old, she never expected it would lead to a successful, decades-long career in the insurance industry—let alone an opportunity to lead one of Vancouver Island’s top firms.
“I was right out of high school in Powell River and I had no post-secondary education,” says Laura, the partner, president and COO of Megson FitzPatrick Insurance Services. “I worked there for a couple of years and then I decided to come to the big city of Victoria. Megson FitzPatrick hired me and I got all the education I needed here. But if someone had said, ‘you’re going to be here when you’re 53, and you’ll be president and a shareholder,’ I wouldn’t have believed them. It’s crazy to reflect sometimes!”
“It’s really such an inspiring story,” adds Luke Mills, Megson FitzPatrick partner, risk advisor and commercial account executive. “I think for the team to see you walking around every day, as a shining example of what you can achieve, it’s just amazing.”
Luke also never planned on a career in the insurance industry, despite working for his mother’s insurance brokerage in Toronto.
“I worked there for a little bit in the early ‘90s and didn’t think insurance was for me,” the 52-year-old father of two explains. “I was casting around, trying to decide what to do, and I kind of ran off to the Caribbean, to Dominica, and opened a restaurant. And against all odds, it actually worked.”
But after five years, Luke says, he and his wife needed a change and moved back to Canada.
“Everyone thought we would go back to Toronto, but we hopped in the car and drove to Victoria.”
Luke’s mother had met David FitzPatrick, one of the founders of Megson FitzPatrick, and was impressed. Luke was also impressed when he met David, but the company didn’t have any openings.
“I just got such a good vibe and David was very generous with his time, so I got licensed. I had some other job offers elsewhere but, ultimately, I waited,” Luke explains. “This was where I wanted to work and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Culture has been a big part of that, and Luke and Laura say working for a growing and evolving company has also kept things interesting.
“There’s been lots of change, so I think that’s what’s kind of kept it exciting for me,” says Laura, who took over as president just two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We had to completely change how we conducted business, and she’s led us through what’s probably the most dynamic growth the company’s ever seen—which is quite something,” Luke adds. “The steady hand that Laura had, and her extensive knowledge, really made a difference.”
Sending everyone home and pivoting to remote work in the early days of the pandemic also opened up new opportunities for the company, and has helped with staff retention and recruitment.
“It really just opened up our eyes to what is doable, and we’ve taken a lot of the good that came out of COVID-19 and put it into our day-to-day business practices,” Laura explains. “Before, when someone asked to work from home, I said, ‘No. We’re a retail organization, we’re open to the public, and you have to come in every day.’ And now it’s just completely different.”
“We just didn’t conceive of the fact that you can do your job elsewhere, and if someone left the community, we had to part ways,” Luke says. “Now, we have employees across Canada in PEI, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. We’ve been able to attract new, experienced people who want that flexibility; we’ve been able to keep people who moved away, and we’ve actually had a lot of people come back who had left us before COVID-19.”
Fostering a strong culture while teams were fragmented was one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic period. And now, with about 45 of Megson FitzPatrick’s 100-plus employees either permanently remote or working in a hybrid model, finding ways to keep people connected is one of Laura’s top priorities.
“For me, culture is everything,” Laura says. “Building a hardworking and fun culture keeps people engaged and makes people happier. It makes us all want to perform and do well every day.”
“Our industry, like [many industries], is going through a very challenging labour market and what sets you apart—if people are being compensated appropriately—is culture,” Luke adds. “We learned from our founders, who had an open-door policy, and we want people to know that they’re heard and that their feedback is important.”
Megson FitzPatrick also has an employee share-ownership program and close to 30 team members, including Luke and Laura, are now shareholders.
“As our founders were retiring a few years ago, this was a big goal for us in our succession plan. So we partnered with Rogers Insurance out of Calgary as they had a complete share-ownership program in place,” Luke explains.
Last fall, Rogers merged with CapriCMW, forming a new company called Acera Insurance, and Megson FitzPatrick is now part of this.
“CapriCMW was also an employee-owned Canadian company, so that was really exciting for us as we’re still heavily into being an independent,” Laura says. “The plan is to do some co-branding (Megson and Acera) because those in our group of companies have strong local brands,” Laura says. “We’ve been on Vancouver Island for 50-plus years, so we want to be really cognizant of the brand recognition.”
The merger also helps Megson FitzPatrick diversify outside of the BC South Coast, where the earthquake risk is high.
“They say every year we don’t have an earthquake, we’re probably closer to one and it’s not just Victoria and the Lower Mainland that are exposed, but Seattle all the way down to Portland, so the risk becomes enormous,” Luke explains. “Actuaries are saying the financial exposure to potentially a single event is incredible, so they have to go buy insurance—which is called reinsurance—and what we’re experiencing now is that the reinsurance market has really pulled back because they’re worried they’re overexposed.”
It’s just one of the challenges insurance companies are facing. But after more than 30 years in the industry, Laura has learned that change is the only constant.
“It’s been a great ride and Megson FitzPatrick is a great organization,” she says. “I’m super grateful for the opportunities that have been presented to me over the years.”