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Steadfast Group COO Interview - Happy Familys


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Steadfast Group COO Interview - Happy Familys

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Steadfast Group COO Interview - Happy Familys

  1. 1. insuranceNEWS April/May 201538
  2. 2. Dana Williams started her career in a completely different line from insurance, but for the past 15 years has worked in broking, insurance and reinsurance. She grew up in Montreal and followed her father into engineering, obtaining a degree in mining engineering. After working in mining communities for several years and gaining an MBA, she joined Deloitte Consulting, working with the company in Canada, the US and Australia before joining Marsh. Later she worked in senior roles at a North American broker, a Bermuda- based reinsurer and an Australian earthmoving company. She credits Deloitte with introducing her to both insurance and Australia. “I had lived here about 15 years ago and I liked it so much I came back three years ago. I have always loved it here. I fell into insurance originally on the captive side in the Cayman Islands and on the reinsurance side in Bermuda, and then I came into broking with Hub International.” US-based Hub is one of the world’s largest brokers, and Ms Williams worked in the operations of brokers and underwriting agencies. “That experience has really helped inform some of the work I do here at Steadfast,” she says. “I really, really know how brokers and underwriting agencies work and that is very helpful in a head office environment.” She has experienced the risks that go with brokerages and has seen the pros and the pitfalls of acquisitions, both with Hub and Steadfast. insuranceNEWS April/May 2015 39 Happy families Steadfast chief operating officer Dana Williams says cultural fit and great people are key to the group’s successful acquisitions By Jan McCallum IT HAS BEEN A HOLD-ONTO-YOUR-HATS ride for Steadfast over the past couple of years, with a public listing and a series of acquisitions. The role of chief operating officer involves bringing acquisitions into the com- pany and ensuring seamless integration, and Dana Williams can tell early on if a potential purchase is going to work for Steadfast. “A large part of it, in my view, is cultural fit, great leaders and great staff, because it’s essentially a people and relationship-ori- ented business,” she says. “We’re really buying the whole entity – the clients, the people – so we get a very good sense early on if that’s going to be a fit with us at Steadfast.” There is also the number-crunching, and Ms Williams is responsible for the due diligence on a prospective addition. She says acquisitions involve both hard and soft analysis, “and they both matter”. No one hears about the times Steadfast walks away, but it does happen, usually for “non-fit” reasons or price. “We’re fairly streamlined, so there’s the initial meetings then a discussion around fit and then price,” Ms Williams tells Insurance News. That discussion can take two to four weeks, but the due diligence will take a month or two and the whole process gener- ally takes one to three months. It has been a rapid journey for Steadfast, which listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in August 2013, and for Ms Williams, who consulted to the com- pany in 2012 on its initial public offer. She joined Steadfast as executive gen- eral manager acquisitions in January last year and became Chief Operating Officer last June. Ms Williams enjoys the technical com- plexity of insurance, and having worked in (re)insurance and broking says it has offered plenty of variety. The job of chief operating officer can encompass many roles, but at Steadfast there are two primary components: opera- tions, which is working with equity brokers on improving their operations; and acquisi- tions, “which is bringing new companies into the Steadfast family”. Once a company is acquired, she has responsibility for its integration and ongoing results. “I like that connection,” she says. Is there potential for a culture clash when brokers, who are often entrepre- neurial individualists, join a listed corporate entity with responsibilities to shareholders? “We are an entrepreneurial company,” she says. “Many of us have worked in these entrepreneurial companies ourselves, or started them. “We have the right leaders in our opera- tions who grow with us as we become larger, but we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy or infrastructure that would stifle that entre- preneurship.” Ms Williams says Steadfast attracts entre- preneurial brokers who, having set up their own businesses, can see themselves pro- gressing further with a larger, growing organisation. Some see career possibilities opening, and Steadfast has a career-planning project
  3. 3. insuranceNEWS April/May 2015 under way to enable head office staff to move into brokerages and broker staff to come to head office roles. “There’s quite a breadth of career opportunities for people and I think they enjoy being with us. We’re entrepreneurial, we’re fun, we’re growing.” Some brokers are selling as they look towards retirement, which raises the risk of the person who makes the business valuable taking the money and walking out the door. But Ms Williams says brokers want to sell for a variety of reasons and retirement can be managed so the principal hands over to someone who is passionate about growing a business. Her team will look to match one of those people to a business whose principal is looking to leave. “It’s like a mentorship.” The younger broker might shadow the principal for a year or two during a han- dover period, being introduced to clients and getting to know them while ensuring continuity for Steadfast. Although there is talk in the market of fierce competition between broker groups keen to make acquisitions, Ms Williams finds this is generally not the case. Steadfast attracts brokers and under- writing agencies that are already affiliated to the company and which see it as a nat- ural fit. The parties already know each other. Bidding wars don’t work well and the field is fairly disaggregated, she says. “There are quite a lot of small and medium brokers still out there and if you’re attractive to them, then they approach you.” Sometimes Steadfast makes strategic approaches, and occasionally there will be a phone call out of the blue. After looking at hundreds of compa- nies, Ms Williams says “you get a pretty good sense if that person is going to be a good fit”. Steadfast has rapidly become a major player in the underwriting agency sector, buying eight Calliden agency businesses last December and QBE’s underwriting agen- cies in March. Ms Williams says expansion into under- writing agencies does not seem so unusual when Steadfast is recognised as the largest distributor of insurance products in the country. She sees brokers and agencies as the two parts of distribution, with similar business models. Rapid growth via acquisition always raises the issue of integration risk, but Ms Williams says it is a matter of resourcing for growth, such as hiring former Lloyd’s Australia general representative Adrian Humphreys as General Manager Business Development. “We want to stay lean, but you have to add a little bit of support as you grow,” she says. “We resource for acquisitions. When a couple of large ones come along we resource to integrate them properly.” She says the primary risks for acquisi- tions of brokerages and underwriting agencies are revenues and people in the first year. “Like any integration, it’s important that as they join our family, people are happy, integrate and settle in well.” Competitors may be attacking, and people need to be reassured that business is going to continue, so revenues are pro- tected in the first year. It will typically take three to six months for the change to settle down, but Ms Williams notes the business will still have its own leader running day-to-day operations. She does not see the acquisition pipeline dwindling, although it does ebb and flow, with a few quiet months and then a burst of activity. “But the process keeps going.” In the meantime, there are the daily operations, such as working with brokers to overcome the challenges of a soft market. “In a soft market it’s even more impor- tant to have client retention and new business, so we’re trying to support our bro- kers better on the revenue side, both in client retention and new business,” she says. With Steadfast now 18 months into life as a public company, what keeps the job interesting? “There’s a lot going on and these are very, very interesting times,” Ms Williams says. “It’s very interesting for me – and for everyone – to be part of a growing company.” She says the team knows there will be more opportunities as the company grows, but that Steadfast will retain its entrepreneurial spirit, in which individuals have an amount of autonomy and the chance to create a role that will facilitate the vision. “We have become quite a large com- pany with quite a small office, but it gives you a lot of responsibility and a lot of autonomy. There’s a lot of energy.” * 40 “We have the right leaders in our operations who grow with us as we become larger, but we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy or infrastructure that would stifle that entrepreneurship.”