Although Traci Boland first began working at an insurance brokerage as a teen, it took a few years, career changes and international moves for her to find her true calling within the insurance industry.

Now a partner at Ontario West Insurance Brokers – which has offices in London and Simcoe, Ontario – growing up, Boland worked as a summer receptionist at a brokerage. When she graduated from high school, she knew she wanted to help protect people but saw herself doing it in a different way and had aspirations of becoming a police officer.

She enrolled in Law and Security at London’s Fanshawe College, but quickly realized that law enforcement wasn’t the right path for her. After finishing the program, she moved to Finland to coach figure skating full-time before relocating to Cleveland, Ohio to do the same. Then the September 11 attacks happened and Boland decided it was time to return to Canada.

Unsure about her future with international coaching, she soon found her way back to the insurance industry and began working in her father’s office. It didn’t take long for Boland to realize that insurance was, in fact, her forte.

“After obtaining my RIBO (Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario) licence in 2004 and attending the very first YBC conference – I was hooked. I figured out exactly what I wanted to do with my life and started my action plan.”

She hit the ground running and turned that action plan into reality. Along with her work at Ontario West Insurance Brokers, Boland has been heavily involved with the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario (IBAO) where she was formerly President and then Chair. She’s also held a board position at the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada (IBAC).

At the beginning of this year, Boland and Jamie Marshall from Ontario West Insurance Brokers set out to bring transformational change to their organization.

“We realized that our story was not reflected in how we were carrying out our day-to-day business, so we decided to make changes to our processes and team,” she says. “We also refreshed our brand, changed our logo, updated our website, created a new client app, began hiring ‘perfect fit’ staff, and providing media and marketing training.”

According to Boland, the early results of these changes were amazing and well beyond what her and Marshall were hoping for. However, the pandemic has since brought some new challenges. Boland spoke with us about learning lessons through adversity, the benefits of open communication and how, now more than ever, there’s an opportunity for local brokers to shine. As an added bonus she also discussed dressing up as ‘80s cartoon characters and and Salt-N-Pepa too!

Why do you like working at your brokerage?

We’re a family. In our brokerage, we all have each others’ backs and look out for one another. We work well together and have a lot of laughs. Realizing that we are only as good as our staff, our first job is to keep everyone happy and I constantly strive to do that at Ontario West Insurance Brokers.

The last few months have brought new challenges for all businesses. What are some of the things you’ve learned as you and your team have worked to overcome these obstacles?

The past few months have taught me some very valuable lessons. What might have been very important to me before is not so important now.

When we moved all our staff from the office to their homes to work in this new environment of unknowns, it was very apparent that everyone was overwhelmed. New technology, isolation, not having a team physically there to help you out in tough situations – it was wearing people down. We came up with the idea of Thoughtful Tuesdays to help our staff overcome these obstacles. We brought in guest speakers for virtual town halls to support everyone as we worked through the issues we were facing. We had Olympic figure skating medalist and motivational speaker Elizabeth Manley, comedian James Cunningham and workplace resiliency expert and author Allison Graham.

We also did special porch drops for everyone in our office. During Thoughtful Tuesdays, we didn’t discuss insurance – we talked about life, worked through our feelings and spoke about what we needed to not only survive but thrive in this new normal.

As for myself, I reached out to some friends in the industry and we started having weekly video calls where we discussed what companies were doing, how everyone was handling new procedures, what kinds of technology we were all trying out, the pros and cons of said technology, the HR implications of remote work and so much more. This was and still is so helpful for me and in turn, for our whole team.

All in all, what have I learned? Communication is key. Listen with your heart, observe what is happening with your team and talk about it.

Why is it more important than ever to foster a strong workplace culture?

The past six months has proven to me that when you have a strong team, you can overcome anything.

If employers hadn’t taken care of their staff during this pandemic, they would have lost them – people would have walked out. At our brokerage, our perspectives on life have changed drastically – we value caring, communication and relationships more. We no longer take our jobs for granted as we’ve watched others lose theirs, and our families’ safety and health became our first priority.

With all of that going on, we as employers stepped up to foster a sense of security and well-being and a sympathetic shoulder to lean on, all while navigating through this new normal. Companies were providing various types of relief measures, provincial and federal government regulations were changing rapidly. For brokers, business went on uninterrupted while the workload doubled overnight. Without a strong team and a strong network of people around us, it would have been very difficult to get through this. Now is the time to double down on our teams and ensure that we have the strength and skills to manage a second wave – if it hits – and anything else that the future has in store for us.

There is a lot of change happening in Canada right now. How is this impacting the work insurance brokers do? What opportunities do you see for brokers and customers going forward?

For years, we’ve been touting the benefits of choosing a local broker – now is the time for us to prove it. Although technology can help brokers streamline their procedures and communicate better with clients, it should not take the place of client interactions. We’ve seen a surge in support for local business and encouragement to shop where you live and help your community. Brokers need to use this – this is where we excel and where we’re needed. Throughout this pandemic, our clients have turned to us for help, whether it was due to low funds, change in risks or businesses closing their doors. It’s our job to help them overcome these challenges in any way that we can and to secure and solidify our relationship with them. Now more than ever, there is an opportunity to shine in your community as the local broker.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever been asked to insure?

A medical technology company that started out in London and moved an office to Minsk. For any Friends fans out there – I thought of Phoebe’s boyfriend David every time we spoke to the client!

What was your first job? What’s something that you learned or took away from it?

Not many people know this, but my first job was working in a London mall during the 80s playing various cartoon characters. I walked around and greeted shoppers and their children. My favourite costume was Rainbow Brite’s sidekick and favourite sprite, Twink. During the Christmas season, I was an elf and brought children up to meet Santa. One thing I took away from that job is the importance of having patience – and lots of it! And how to get up after you’ve fallen down without using your hands because they’re stuck in your costume.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

There are two important pieces of advice that I follow to this day. The first one is that you not only have to be clean, you need to be perceived to be clean. Meaning, be a good person all around – don’t put on a show for some people and not for others – and follow the rules. Reputation is everything in this business, and I’ve worked very hard to maintain a good reputation.

The second piece of advice is to treat everyone with respect, fairness and gratitude. You never know when you will meet someone again and need their help or advice. There is a meme going around the internet that says, “Treat the janitor the same way as you treat the CEO,” which is a very powerful message.

What’s your favourite song to sing along with during your drive home from work?

My life is a constant soundtrack of songs. My favourite songs to belt out in my car have to be “Freedom” by George Michael, “Stay” by Lisa Loeb and “Shoop” by Salt-N-Pepa. I think the fact that I know all the words to the latter song is my superpower! Just looking at these choices, I think I might be stuck in the 90s.

Tell us something about you that most people don’t know.

Okay, here it is. Most of the time, I’m scared – scared that I’m not doing it right, that people will judge me poorly, that I have let down my company, my staff, my family, my friends or that I’ll be hurt. I deal with anxiety and sometimes it’s very overwhelming. I keep moving forward and powering through because it keeps the anxiety at bay. When you’re busy and focused, that feeling of fear doesn’t have time to push its way to the surface.

Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t working in insurance, I’d be …

a sports manager or Broadway star.

What are some of the reasons why you like working with Gore Mutual?

Gore Mutual is a company that will work with you as a broker, and that is paramount. The company is big enough to make a difference but still small enough to foster those genuine relationships.

I’d like to thank Gore Mutual for your actions during COVID-19. Your customer relief measures made it so easy for our staff and office procedures. It also made the calls to and from Gore Mutual clients pleasant. Thank you for stepping up and doing the right thing. It’s appreciated and strengthens the trust that we have in working with you.

Last year you won a pair of Gore Mutual custom Vans sneakers at our Fast Forward Idea Accelerator forum. Be honest, those are some pretty awesome kicks, right?

They’re totally sweet! I’m afraid to wear them outside because I don’t want to get them dirty, but you can find me every Saturday cleaning the house wearing them and singing all the songs mentioned above.

Check out Ontario West Insurance Brokers’ website here.

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