With Young Broker of the Year, Adam Mitchell
Norah Black—Director, Marketing & Communications, IBAO
Photo By Andreas Trauttmansdorff
You may be rolling your eyes at yet another article on Adam Mitchell. I’m rolling mine at the prospect of interviewing him a third time for this magazine. The guy keeps winning awards—Innovator of the Year, Brokerage of the Year and now Young Broker of the Year. I mean, what else is there to say about him? Turns out, a lot.
His brokerage Mitchell & Whale continues to grow at an impressive pace, now 70 employees with plans to become a $1B national brokerage by 2030. He sees 30% growth year-over-year and has implemented a transformation strategy with significant investment in tech, data and marketing.
As I’ve always done with Adam, I take the opportunity to capitalize on his transparent approach to business—it’s not often you come across someone so invested and in tune with the insurance and business landscape, who speaks so openly about the intricate and intimate details of their business.
So you’re welcome! Here’s me taking advantage of the situation, getting Adam’s take on the industry and how he sees a successful future unfolding. Setting aside the eye rolling for just a few minutes, we may all benefit from and perhaps even apply what Adam’s learned and adopted at Mitchell & Whale.
INVEST IN YOUR BRAND
I’d been harassing Adam on this one for years, but “… as with any big investment, it needs to percolate. You need to shop it around, see the vision. You start to own that vision and then you go for it.”
He’s referring to a recent investment not just in a marketing role but an entire marketing team.
“We’ve invested a lot over the years in generating and converting leads, but not in our brand. I’ll be honest, it was tough to get my head around it. But seeing other organizations step up their marketing game, there was certainly an element of, if we don’t do it, we’ll drown.
“We’re distilling down to an industry where you need to be a really well-run business. And well-run businesses invest in things like marketing and branding. Marketing is a giant funnel inside most organizations but for whatever reason, it isn’t within the broker channel. Traditionally, brokerages haven’t had to be finely tuned machines. Anyone under scrutiny would have a hard time defending that 30 years ago the industry was filled with well-run operations—it was a collection of handed down businesses and people who fell into the industry. There were some really intelligent players, but not many efficient systems or beautifully run teams.
“This is what it’s come to, right? There’s private equity and real money and big things happening in insurance. Ten years ago, there were one or two billion-dollar operations. Now you can rhyme off a dozen. As you plot that trend line, it’s obvious it’s going one way.”
CRUNCH THOSE NUMBERS
Last month, Mitchell & Whale announced an expansion of its workforce by more than 30% this year, with growth to 1,200 employees over the next ten. They’ve always kept talent at the forefront, but I’m curious about the acceleration and their plan to reach this public target.
“The very crude math on how we grow to 1,200 in a decade is the conclusion of a 20 line excel spreadsheet. The top of it starts with leads, which turn into a certain number of clients. Those clients need to be managed by a certain number of salespeople. There’s an admin ratio at our current level of efficiency that needs to underpin both, and a leadership team that needs to guide the numbers.
“Part of the 1,200 teammates and billion-dollar goal was picking a number that was just big enough. Part of it was to have a 10 or 20-year target for the team to move towards together. And part of it was to clarify our vision and put it out there publicly to stay accountable. So a billion became our North Star and we’ve worked the numbers backwards to get there.”
There’s private equity and real money and big things happening in insurance. Ten years ago, there were one or two billion-dollar operations. Now you can rhyme off a dozen. As you plot that trend line, it’s obvious it’s going one way.
WHEN FAILURE STILL MEANS SUCCESS
“The numbers crunched down to an additional 8 percent growth in 2021, which comes down to leads and didn’t feel impossible. To support additional leads, we’ll need 5 more salespeople, which seems completely doable. You just cascade down the line year to year, translating numbers into business decisions. What the numbers don’t account for are efficiency and experience—the top line will likely be much higher, and we’ll need fewer people to get us where we’re going.
“Although the numbers seem gargantuan, when you ask the team if they think incremental increases are attainable with unlimited resources, the answer is yes. And if we fail by 50 percent, we’re still $500M and likely still relevant. I owe a duty of care to get us aiming this high where failure is still success.
“It felt like it was worth putting out there. Like alright, hold my beer. Egg on my face if we don’t do it, but now I have public accountability to make it happen and a narrative for all the decisions and change to come. It’s very possible we reach our target earlier if we get everything and everyone flying together.”
EVEN GRANDMA ORDERS OFF AMAZON
Something that always stands out to me in conversations with Adam is his impulse to make moves. It’s encouraging and reassuring and quite frankly, it’s inspiring.
“I don’t understand the argument that if you wait and do nothing, the world will get better. If you don’t want to grow—that’s cool. But then what needle are you trying to move? Maybe it’s profit. Maybe you’re waiting on market timing. A very real attitude out there is the recognition that brokerage owners have a pretty good thing going. You might have a pretty good business, you probably draw a pretty good salary, you likely make a pretty good dividend. But your markets are likely disincentivizing you to experiment. If you try writing risks online to strangers, to people who respond to your marketing, the narrative is unfavourable—they’re shoppers, they’re bad risks, the devil lives online. Well now Grandma orders off Amazon, so that narrative needs to go. This is the new retail and it’s here to stay.
“I’ve heard smaller brokers say the ship has sailed. They only have a few more years. They’re not going to write that client—they’ll move it to a bigger broker like us. It’s been really eye opening for me that these brokers have checked out and are counting the days. It’s now just a game of who will scoop them first.”
CHECK THE DATA
Given my role, I’m always interested in consumer perception. Once again, I want Adam’s take on the shift that’s taken place during the pandemic—specifically insurance moving into mainstream media. I want to know the implications it’s had for Mitchell & Whale.
“I’m not sure. I struggle with the press. I wonder how true an image it paints—are we getting the right pulse?”
He challenges my perception with hard, raw data, walking me through the 5-year trend line of car insurance. This is what happens when you talk to Adam.
“Of all Google searches from last August, we’re down 50 percent in search traffic. People searching for insurance have slid off. It always drops in fall and winter, so we expect that bell curve every year. But generally, the trend line goes up, proving that more and more people are searching online. There’s something very counter trend right now. It could be the current lockdown, or the current lockdown coupled with the rate decreases coming in. So I read this particular graph of what’s happening in the market to say, for whatever reason, people aren’t shopping for insurance at the same rate they used to.”
Broker technology is an emotional rollercoaster, but more and more options are emerging, it almost feels like a bright spot for brokerages looking for answers.
“We’ve certainly never been closer to more solutions. We created one ourselves with Quotey, our commercial solution. Tech companies are pumping out great things. Companies are getting APIs ready. As they come online, there will be a snowballing cascade. The technology’s never been cheaper or more widely available. I mean, 15 year-olds are coding better than anyone right now—tech is just amazingly available.
“What will be really disruptive is robotic process automation. It’s now this middle ground where you can take all the antiquated tech and BMSs and interface them with modern systems. It’s no longer cost prohibitive. It’s still a little clunky to program, but likely not for long. You already have no code development where you and I can drag and drop, and the program works. I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been on the tech available to brokers right now.”
MOVE THE GIVE-A-SHIT-O-METER
Given the target of growing to 1,200 employees, I want Adam’s take on recruiting and how Mitchell & Whale brings on new talent, especially in light of remote working. He says what it comes down to is awareness.
“If you were going to a funeral, you’d dress the part. If you had a job interview, you’d dress the part. If you’re trying to attract talent, you need to dress the part. That’s legitimately how your business looks online and what it stands for, but also the words you use, your tone, your values. Insurance is one of the oldest industries out there. It’s been done the exact same way and you look the exact same as the next hundred brokerages. Good marketing tells you to pick a different lane that you can own. Whether it’s the winner take all lane or not, stand for something that matters.
“We’re taking talent very seriously and investing a ton in that file. We just rolled out group RRSP contributions because that mattered to our team. We moved to a new benefits program because eye coverage was important to the team. Compensation’s big. Vacation’s big. Our opportunities are with a growing company so if you prove yourself, you’re starting on the ground floor and here’s exactly where we’re going.
“We’re winning a lot of talent right now because we’re willing to be fully remote forever. Some brokerages are knee-jerking their teams back to the office and some teammates are saying nah, I’m good. I don’t need mentorship. I get it and I like seeing my kids get on the bus each morning so I’m going to fire my resume anywhere else in the world that doesn’t have that rule in place.”
I BELIEVE YOU HAVE MY STAPLER
Mitchell & Whale moved to a giant new office space in 2018, filling 40% with the vision of eventually growing into it. They’d been there less than two years before the pandemic moved everyone home.
“The good part is the metrics haven’t changed. Our modelling financed the office based on growing to a certain size, and we’ve grown throughout the pandemic. There were hiccups, but the numbers still work. I have a feeling if we catch this freight train to the billion-dollar track, even if 80 percent of the team is decentralized across Canada, we’ll still need a lot of space.
“No one would have bet in 2019 that the next year, work from home would be the number one priority for years to come. The toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube. A lot of brokers are asking when they’ll be able to manage their teams like they used to, when insurers will treat them like they did before. You won’t. They won’t. Get good at whatever the new game is. The sooner we learn to embrace and excel at remote, there’s your competitive advantage.
“The office will become the social place no doubt. You’ll go somewhere for focused time—maybe it’s the office, maybe it’s your bed. Nobody should care. There are a lot of CFO hypotheses that rotate everyone through to maintain the smallest footprint. There’s Harvard Business Review that says everyone should come in Tuesdays and Thursdays to bring the entire team together for purposeful networking but disband otherwise. It’s a challenge for people running a business, but you can now work for or hire someone from anywhere in the world. What a cool opportunity for front line staff. We’ve had teammates move to the east coast and just keep working. It’s amazing the flexibility that’s now built in.”