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The 2013 Business Person of the Year: Peace Hills Insurance CEO Diane Brickner

Peace Hills Insurance CEO Diane Brickner hasn’t chased profits as much as she’s chased values, and it has paid off

Dec 1, 2013

by Tim Querengesser

It’s December 1981, and in a small Edmonton office Diane Brickner, Bill Holt and Brenda Simioni are gathered to talk about what they have to do next, which is pretty much everything.

They’ve just been headhunted from different insurance companies to build a new one from scratch. It’s new in several ways, too, the biggest being its ownership structure. Peace Hills Insurance is owned solely by the Samson Cree First Nation, which took $2 million it had in a federal trust fund (raised through royalties received from oil production on its traditional territory) and invested it in the new company. The idea was to make money for the community over the long term.

It’s a risky and relatively audacious plan, and in the company’s early years it requires a great deal of trust – and cash – from the First Nation. In many of the first nine years of operation, Holt, the company’s first CEO, had to make a pilgrimage back to Hobbema to request more capital investment from the First Nation to keep the company afloat. While provincial regulators set Peace Hills’ rates low – they were calculated based on the losses on its policies, which, because it was a new insurance company, were zero – those same low rates made it difficult to turn a profit. In 1990, Holt leaves the company and Brickner, who has been the vice-president, is appointed CEO. And now it’s her turn to make the pilgrimage, this time to ask the community for $750,000.

“I was scared to death,” Brickner says, reflecting on the trip.

“Oh, Diane, I know you could do the job, I know you’re capable, but I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that you’re on the road all by yourself.”

A young First Nation councillor sat across the table from her in Hobbema, stared at her for a while, and then asked, bluntly: “Will this company ever make any money?” Brickner reassured him that insurance was a relatively simple business, and that over time, Peace Hills would surely turn a profit. Then, she says, the councillor asked: “Is it ever going to make $1 million a year?”

“I said, ‘Oh no, it’s never going to make that much.’ ”

How wrong she was.

002_Brickner_story
Diane Brickner, CEO, Peace Hills Insurance
Photograph Bluefish Studios

It’s 8 a.m. and Brickner is in her third-floor corner office. Her window offers a view of the rivers of people flooding to work on Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue, but inside, the day has already begun. From her desk, jammed with piles of papers, she grabs a stack of project proposals that have recently arrived, each seeking a $100,000 grant, which the company provides yearly for projects in Hobbema, the municipal centre of the Samson Cree. As she flips through them, Brickner says her favourite so far is a proposal to build a nature trail connecting Hobbema to Wetaskiwin, something that’s badly needed.

“You see a lot of community members walking along the highway,” she says.

To most in Western Canada’s tight-knit insurance industry, Brickner is known as “Di.” But within that familiarity is a deep respect for a woman who worked harder than most to get to where she is today. Brickner is 62, tall, strongly built. Born in Saskatchewan, she’s self-made: no prestigious last name, no illustrious education and no coat-tails ridden. She was married once, but has recently divorced and now lives with her partner, lawyer Pat McAllister. In person she’s disarmingly humble and focuses on others rather than herself. The company she runs mirrors that personality. Peace Hills pays claims when there’s ambiguity in an event, which largely stands apart from the rest of the industry, which tends to seize on even the faintest of doubts to reduce obligations. But despite that unconventional approach, she’s managed to build a successful company. Under Brickner’s leadership, Peace Hills no longer needs to ask anyone for help. It has expanded its business to B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and the N.W.T., and employs 200 people. In 2012, it topped $200 million in revenue. “Building relationships is what I’m very good at,” Brickner says. “I believe, truly, that it translates into more business.”

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  • Brickner receives the chairman’s medallion for chairing the Insurance Institute of Canada in 2005 Brickner receives the chairman’s medallion for chairing the Insurance Institute of Canada in 2005
  • Diane with her son, Jake Diane with her son, Jake
  • Brickner with the PM Brickner with the PM
  • Brickner with former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel (left) and Trevor Swampy, from the Peace Hills board Brickner with former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel (left) and Trevor Swampy, from the Peace Hills board
  • Off to the Grey Cup, 2011 Off to the Grey Cup, 2011
  • Brickner with former chief justice of the Court of the Queen’s Bench of Alberta, Allan Wachowich Brickner with former chief justice of the Court of the Queen’s Bench of Alberta, Allan Wachowich
  • Brickner with Samson Cree Chief Marvin Yellowbird and wife Shelli Yellowbird Brickner with Samson Cree Chief Marvin Yellowbird and wife Shelli Yellowbird
     

Brickner’s story begins in a small house in Colonsay, Saskatchewan, where she grew up. In 1965, at the age of 14, Brickner was thrust into a position of leadership after her 41-year-old mother, Edith, died of a blood clot after giving birth to the youngest of her three brothers, Andy. She was only in Grade 8 and her father, Jake, was a grain farmer and didn’t have much money. Her brothers, one older and one younger, weren’t going to take charge of the house, and so it was left up to her. “Of course if you’re the only daughter … and you have this three-week-old baby … a lot of that responsibility becomes your responsibility,” Brickner says. Overnight, she became the matriarch. To this day, Brickner says, Andy looks to her as something of a mother. But despite the pressure to remain the woman of the house – she says her father, when confronted with the reality that she would eventually leave Colonsay, would joke that “of course Diane will come back” – Brickner is adamant she never felt disadvantaged or hard done by. Her response was to adapt. She’d take Andy out with her in Colonsay as she socialized. And this response, she says, prepared her to thrive in the insurance industry. “I think that has shaped my life a lot. Tragic things happen. You just deal with it and you make the best of it.”

There were other pressures that she faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Following a turn in Calgary as an interior design student (“I had no artistic ability. What. A. Mistake!” Brickner says, head in hands), Brickner returned to Saskatchewan in 1972. A cousin helped set Brickner up with an interview at what was then Saskatchewan Mutual Insurance Company. “They hired mostly farm girls,” she says. “They thought we all worked hard.” Her next job was as an administrative assistant at Royal Insurance Company in Edmonton, where she’d moved to follow her cousin in the mid-1970s. Her boss, after seeing her dedication and her natural abilities with people, put her in charge of client engagement. “I loved it. Wheeling and dealing. I like to sell,” Brickner says. But her rise in the company was slowed by several glass ceilings. “One of the guys was retiring, so I applied for his job,” Brickner says. “At that time our branch manager’s name was Mr. Lake. And he said ‘Oh, Diane, I know you could do the job, I know you’re capable, but I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that you’re on the road all by yourself.’ ” Brickner’s response was telling: measured and adaptive rather than reactive. “I think some women would say I didn’t get the job because I was a woman, but I didn’t think that for a moment,” she says. “I wasn’t offended, I wasn’t angry. I left his office feeling good that he’d said I could do the job but that he was protective. When he retired, two years after, we had a new manager. A job came open on the road. I applied for it and I got it.”

“When I retire in a year or so, I’m sure someone will come in with different eyes and look at the company differently and take it in a different direction.”

It is October, and on this day, lunch at Peace Hills involves an Oktoberfest party, with a keg in one corner, and Brickner and everyone else indulging. Sure enough, one 30-something insurance adjustor does a fraternity-grade keg stand. Brickner – beer in hand – cheers loudly. Peace Hills has earned the reputation as “the Country Club” in the insurance industry and Brickner, still playing the matriarch, has made it her goal to foster a happy work culture, one that spills into all the areas in which Peace Hills does business. And people notice. “Whether it’s the individual in the mail room or the vice-president, she treats people as peers,” says John Szumlas, who’s been on the Peace Hills board for 10 years. “She’s principled. She’s not a pushover … but she’s principled as she discharges her responsibilities,” he says.

“And as a person she’s extremely caring.”

Brickner’s caring nature has been put to the test many times over her 23 years running an insurance company. In the 1990s, technological change started redefining the industry, and Peace Hills responded by building its own claims software at considerable expense. But the recent decade and a bit has perhaps been the hardest. Take the fire in Slave Lake. Peace Hills had to cover 114 claims after an out-of-control forest fire ravaged the community in 2011. Peoples’ homes and livelihoods were destroyed. The claims cost Peace Hills more than $27 million, and Brickner was already feeling financial pressure from other directions. The company had eaten more than $15 million on claims after freak hail storms struck southern Alberta in 2010. And before that, in 2008, there was a triumvirate of financial pain – a series of costly fires, government-imposed changes that required insurance companies to set aside more capital, and the global downturn. Peace Hills’ investments suffered, its capital cushion fell by a startling 50 points, its loss ratio grew and its financial rating was downgraded. The ultimate victim for the company was its bottom line.

“Tragic things happen. You just deal with it and you make the best of it.”

Her touchstone through it was the same, though: values. Put yourself in Brickner’s shoes, then, in June 2011. Profit was way down, costs way up, and it’s the same across the industry. To respond to the Slave Lake fire as economically as possible, the insurance industry proposed that all companies with insured liabilities share one contracting firm to clear the debris and prepare for a rebuild. It was smart in a business sense but something didn’t sit right with Brickner’s principles. “It rained in Slave Lake like crazy – they had flooding after the fire,” she says. “All of that contaminant was seeping into the soil. This contractor they hired was just taking the debris off. So we went down and had geotech engineers test the soil and found we had to take off 13 or 14 inches until we got to clean, uncontaminated soil.” So Brickner told her own industry no. Peace Hills instead hired its own contractor, had the contaminated soil fully removed on its claims and, sure enough, watched the increased costs roll in. “We felt it was the right thing to do,” Brickner says. “It wasn’t popular. We stood up to the industry to say, ‘We are going to do this on our own, even though it’s more expensive.’ ”

She may have been right in 2011, but Brickner was wrong back in 1990 when she said Peace Hills would never make $1 million a year. Last year, Peace Hills had profits of $5.1 million, even after a hefty dividend payout. The company’s asset portfolio is also impressive. The downtown Edmonton building Peace Hills bought for $2.3 million in 2000 (a decision Brickner opposed, and now concedes she was wrong about) is worth $19 million. Peace Hills now owns assets of more than $325 million. The cheap rates have been replaced with ones that tend toward the high side compared to competitors. The difference, Brickner says, is that Peace Hills now has more than a business approach – it has a cultural one. Customers and brokers, the two key relationships for an insurance business, are willing to pay more for it. The motto at Peace Hills is now, “If it’s grey, we pay” – essentially, if there’s ambiguity whether the policy covers a claim or not, the tie goes to the customer rather than the company (within reason. As Brickner says, “We’re still running a business”).

The culture behind the company stems from both Brickner and the Samson Cree. It includes a longer-term vision for the company and the financial returns it can deliver to its investor which, including the original $2 million, has pumped $11 million in capital into Peace Hills over the last 33 years. The First Nation has received nearly $9 million in dividends on its original investment and holds $65 million in equity in the company. “These people are looking at long-term growth,” Brickner says. “If we were owned by an equity company, we’d be a different company.” Indeed, Brickner says Peace Hills could “easily” double in size, but doing so would involve a break from the slow, steady path, and the culture that marks it.

That’s not to say growth isn’t happening. Revenues at Peace Hills are projected to be 10 per cent higher this year than last, partly due to large increases in policy premiums in southern Alberta to cover rampant water, fire and hail claims. And Brickner says the Samson Cree and other members of the board are interested in leaping ahead – she says they want to see revenues hit $250 million by 2015.

But how the company achieves that will be left to Brickner’s successor. “It’ll be interesting, because when I retire in a year or so, I’m sure someone will come in with different eyes and look at the company differently and take it in a different direction,” she says. But to do so, she warns, might change the company. “In the insurance industry, when you grow too quickly, your losses grow faster,” she says. “Our best business is our renewal business, our existing clientele. New business takes a while to mature into good business.” She would know, and the company would be wise to listen to her.

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