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By Chris Atchison | January 13, 2014
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Joyce Usher-Mesiano

If the ability to turn adversity into advantage is the mark of entrepreneurial mettle, Joyce Usher-Mesiano may be one of the most savvy, resilient business owners in Canada.

From the moment she founded National Brokers Insurance Services Inc., in 1998— a leading Canadian and international broker of property and casualty insurance products and services—firm president Usher-Mesiano and her partners faced an uphill climb.

Not just to build a presence in the crowded Canadian insurance market, but to fend off a direct legal attack from a former employer, specifically a threat of a lawsuit to the tune of $15 million that could have easily crippled the fledgling firm. Usher-Mesiano was forced to curb National’s expansion and instead seized a strategic opportunity to build out key operational infrastructure. “For the first five years, we were very cautious,” Usher-Mesiano recalls. “We took (the threat) as a compliment because we thought they would only sue a start-up for $15 million if they thought we were worth something. It started a fire under us, but we made sure that the proper people and automation were in place.” 

That included taking time to hire only the best and brightest her industry had to offer, while also looking at some key innovations. At that point, paperless offices were unheard of in the document-driven insurance sector. Undeterred, Usher-Mesiano automated virtually all of her processes and paperwork to prepare National for future growth in an increasingly digitized world. She credits a series of simple, yet critical, steps such as those for driving her firm’s bottom-line success. With annual growth between 20 and 25 per cent, Usher-Mesiano is predicting that pace to spike next year thanks to the recent hire of a new vice-president of business development. The firm also recently acquired a competitor, Grant Jones and Stuart Insurance Brokers Inc., in a move to bring new talent into the organization to brace for expansion. 

But not all of the firm’s growth has been strategic. In one case, it was the by-product of a family crisis. When Usher-Mesiano’s sister Siobhan—one of her three business partners—was diagnosed with terminal cancer while pregnant with twins in December 2008, doctors in Toronto had difficulty developing a treatment plan. When a cancer drug failed to chase the disease into remission, the family sought a second opinion from leading medical centres in the United States. Several top American doctors pointed out that hospitals in Canada hadn’t yet recognized the rare cancerous mutation ravaging her sister’s body. After extensive lobbying by the Usher family and the US doctors a previously unavailable experimental drug was made brought into Canada. With access to that cutting-edge medication, Siobhan’s cancer soon slid into remission. 

After that initial recovery, acquaintances began asking the sisters for help in obtaining medical second opinions for their loved ones. The serial entrepreneurs saw opportunity and formed Monarch Intermediaries Inc., which offers a unique service benefit that allows individual patients or employees, members or customers of participating businesses who have serious illnesses to access second opinions from a network of top academic hospital specialists around the world in as little as five days. The product proved a resounding success with a range of clients including major multinationals, which offer it as a standardized benefit to their employees or members worldwide. Although Siobhan Usher lost her battle with cancer earlier this year, her legacy lives on: a US report has indicated that these second opinions have changed 15 per cent of diagnoses and 70 per cent of treatment plans among patients who access the service, according to Usher-Mesiano. And Monarch’s global reach is spreading. The firm now maintains a network of sales representatives in markets as diverse as the U.S., United Kingdom and South Africa, to name a few. 

While managing through gut-wrenching personal adversity is challenging enough, handling the rapid growth of multiple companies posed its own set of obstacles for Usher-Mesiano. One of which was ensuring her companies maintained a proactive approach when selling to clients, not only offering insurance products they might need today, but also commercial, personal or group products designed to suit their requirements in the years ahead. Constant client communication and consultation have proven ideal tools to achieve that goal. “Knowledge is power to our clients, and if we can help them understand why we’re doing something for them and we understand what they need, it works out for everyone,” Usher-Mesiano explains. 

While the entrepreneur has been able to maintain a high-touch approach to customer service, she concedes that protecting that key aspect of her culture will become more difficult over time. Given her impressive track record staring down even the most formidable managerial threats, there’s little doubt Usher-Mesiano will be able manage the task—and probably send her firms’ bottom-line growth soaring in the process. “As you grow, you tend to lose that close connection with clients, but I want to make sure we never do because then we’re no different than a call centre,” she stresses. “We get recommendations and referrals from clients all the time, and if that ever stops, we’ll have a problem.” 

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