Michael Giansiracusa’s gap year has extended well beyond the 12-month sabbatical he took from his business studies. Not only has he remained in the industry he “fell into” nearly 18 years ago, he’s also CEO of the company that lured him there. The head of Whitbread Insurance Brokers was on a vague path towards becoming a tax accountant when he decided to opt out to find “something else” to do for a while.
“I was just 20, a country boy who’d spent six years at boarding school and was a year in on a business degree,” he remembers. “I thought I’d take a year off to find my feet. Through my football connections I met John Paul Whitbread, who suggested I have a go in insurance for a while to see if I liked it. That’s how I fell into the industry.”
John Paul Whitbread is the son of John Whitbread, CEO and Founder of Whitbread Insurance Brokers, a boss Michael remembers as tenacious but fair, and one who taught him that no matter how good relationships were with their insurance partners, their first obligation was always to the client.
“Geez, he was tough,” Michael laughs. “He would always tell me that as brokers we don’t owe insurance companies anything, that our duty of care was always to our clients. As a small business owner he could relate to his clients, their pressures, expenses and employee matters. He’d say, ‘I get it, and our job is to make them feel safe and secure when it comes to protecting their business.’”
When John died in 2010, Michael admits he was lucky to still have the guidance of the three Whitbread children – Angela, Claire and John Paul. He remembers Angela, the company chair, as a particularly strong influence.
“She was very professional, strong in finance and business acumen. Our CFO, Jenny Rodgerson, who still works with me now, has also always been a great mentor. She’s an accomplished artist on the side, so we’ve got this really creative person governed by numbers. I’ve been really lucky, and you’ve got to be smart enough to realise that and then run with it.”
“I’ve been really lucky, and you’ve got to be smart enough to realise that and then run with it.”
Part of that so-called luck included learning from his older peers and using their experiences to cultivate his own. Recognising at a very young age there was a path of opportunity ahead of him, Michael shamelessly took advantage of every occasion to network and advance.
“I’d attend functions at 20 and the guy next to me was in his mid-40s, and I thought, ‘Well, hang on, if I’m half smart and motivated and do the right thing, I can climb it a bit faster.’”
Whitbread, employing 71 and headquartered in Melbourne with a national footprint, was founded in 1978 to focus on the general insurance market for SMEs. Today, it specialises in personal, business, strata and life insurance and insurance claims, risk and crisis management.
Michael started his career with the company in 2002 as a servicing officer supporting brokers with their portfolios. Within two years he was an account executive and in 2009 he was promoted to Broking Operations Manager – Commercial Lines, where he was responsible for key client relationships, ensuring service standards were met and overseeing the placement of insurance programs.
In 2017, the Steadfast Group, Australasia’s largest general insurance broker network, acquired Whitbread for A$95 million. The two companies had enjoyed a working relationship for many years and Steadfast was eager to grow its SME client base.
Michael was appointed CEO at the time of the acquisition, but not before the Whitbread children reminded him of the legacy he had to protect. “They had done really well with the business and ran hard with it, but they just got to a point where they felt they needed to exit,” he explains. “And they did, all at the same time, leaving me there and putting me forward as their next guy.
“As everyone does, they sold the business with some pretty bullish numbers in their projections. ‘Look how much money we’ve been making,’ they said, with me thinking, ‘Thanks a lot, now I’ve got to run with that!’ But we achieved those forecasts, which was a good endorsement of the team and the business itself as we proved it can go on without the family presence or involvement. You’ve always got to validate that and tick that box.”
Michael concedes the transition to a public company wasn’t without complications, particularly dealing with apprehensive long-term staff used to working within a family business. Michael was well aware that those reluctant to accept change could hold the company back and tough decisions had to be made after some hard conversations.
“Post-acquisition we had to re-engage on the particular behaviours and values we wanted to adhere to in order to move forward,” he explains. “While we’ll always respect family values, obviously, it wasn’t the Whitbread family business anymore. So we had to reflect and figure out what we wanted to stand for over the next 40 years.
“Other than our founder, John, passing away, selling the business was the biggest thing in the company’s history. There were always going to be loyal employees who would struggle with that, so we had to allow them enough time and space to process everything professionally and personally.
“Then, at the right time, I had to have an honest conversation to see if they were in or out. It was nothing personal, it was about looking at people across the business who I felt could be a roadblock to us forging a new path.”
Michael doesn’t underestimate the benefits Steadfast brings to Whitbread. While his company is still an independent business governed by its own board and Australian Financial Services licence, the Steadfast relationship is important as it enables the business to leverage its position to provide better outcomes for clients and staff.
“I do get more attention from insurers because they know we’re owned by Steadfast, and if I have any concerns, they know I have a direct line back to the largest general insurance broker network in Australasia.”
While Michael describes the past two years as challenging, he’s also learned the importance of empathy, discovering that much more can be done to improve emotional intelligence across the workplace. To further develop his own inner compass, Michael will soon be completing the Authentic Leader Development Program at Harvard University.
“This course will focus on my leadership style, discover blind spots and improve my reactions to critical thinking and situations,” he says. “It will develop me professionally and personally to become a better leader and motivator.”
Michael has always been passionate about sharing that emotional intelligence with Whitbread clients who rely on their brokers for support during some of their darkest moments. He admits it’s always challenging to deal with the despair from a client calling about a claim.
“It definitely is an art to listen to what a highly emotional person on the end of a line is trying to tell you,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better to just listen and let them talk. Then you have to relay that back so they realise you understand where they’re coming from and that we’ll get an assessor in, along with one of our people, to get things moving as fast as possible.”
Work–life balance will also be on the agenda at Harvard, an area in Michael’s life he concedes needs improvement. As the father of four children under nine, he’s the first to advocate an efficient split of time between work and home life, but admits it’s a concept he should focus on more himself.
“Family is my first priority and I am continuing to focus on managing the balance between work and family time,” says Michael. “I feel that because you spend most of your life working, you’ve got to put something into it to get something out of it, and I want to get the best out of it. That’s what motivates me.”
“I feel that because you spend most of your life working, you’ve got to put something into it to get something out of it and I want to get the best out of it.”
It’s clear that despite Michael’s elevation to CEO, he’s still very much driven by his responsibility to the clients he’s helped over the past 17 years. If he had to highlight a particular strength in his role as CEO, it probably stems from his greatest strength as an insurance broker: integrity and commitment.
While at the helm with a business to run, he knows he shouldn’t still be as heavily involved in the day-to-day practice of advising clients, but it’s a habit he can’t, or refuses, to break. “I’ve had clients for 15 years who asked if they could still talk to me when I became CEO,” he says.
“My attitude is that, as long as I’m in the business then of course they can. I do try and delegate as best I can, but if it means going to meetings and talking to people and helping them through an issue, then I’ll do that every time.
“After all, they’re the people who have been there since I began this journey at Whitbread, so you can’t abandon them, and I never will. Also, many of those clients are now transitioning into second- and third-generation business owners. That means they’re now my age with mortgages and young children starting school. So we relate well to each other about the pressures inside and outside of business.”
Michael has that same loyalty towards partners, including longstanding relationships with CHU, established the same year as Whitbread, MBCM, Re-Leased and IQumulate. Although, remembering John Whitbread’s words, he makes it clear there’s no blurring of the lines when it comes to whose side he’s ultimately on.
“No-one can survive without strong relationships. We respect and appreciate what our partners do and what they bring,” he says. “They are vital cogs in our machine. But our clients always come first.
“It’s a hard one to manage at times,” he admits. “Brokers and insurers don’t always see eye to eye. It’s a delicate balancing act that can require a lot of negotiation, but that’s the reality of the situation.”
Michael believes that one of the advantages of becoming the CEO of a company you’ve worked for over many years is being able to improve systems and processes that irked you along the way.
“I’ve watched how things have been run over a long period of time, and as much as I have captured the good things over the years, I’ve also thought about the things that I would change if running the business.
“Now I’m trying to slowly change some of those things to make them better. For example, we are introducing a new, more efficient broking platform. At the moment it’s an outdated process to renew a client’s policy, and while the client doesn’t necessarily understand how long it takes, brokers want a more efficient way of doing things so they can engage more with their clients. I know and understand their pain because I used to have to do it. So we’ve invested heavily in systems that enable us to be more efficient. This is ongoing, to maintain a competitive advantage.”
The new systems will assist Michael with another major priority, which is to bring back old-fashioned one-on-one service to clients. His innovative solutions will allow his brokers to be more mobile, to get out and visit their clients more frequently, rather than spending the majority of a day at their desk inputting data.
“Whitbread’s point of difference has always been that we will be there with you when you need us,” he says. “We want our clients to be comfortable with the person they are trusting their business with. It’s about much more than sending an email and an invoice to a client. We strive to be partners in their business.
“Whitbread’s point of difference has always been that we will be there with you when you need us.”
“When I started, we were still working to a fax machine; there was no pressure to respond to things as they came in and you were able to get out of the office and have a conversation with a client. These days, clients and partners can email you at midnight and you respond when you come in the next morning, so it’s becoming more difficult to leave your desk. I’m trying to invest in better systems and solutions that allow our brokers to get out and have those conversations face-to-face more often. I want them to come to work on a Monday morning, do the pre-planning, get out on the road and see their clients, all the while knowing that the back-end systems and processes have been automated to manage the administrative aspect of the workflow.”
It’s the professional advice, tailored insurance solutions, claims management consultants and personalised service that also sets Whitbread apart from online insurance options. While a client can visit a dozen sites to get the best quote, that doesn’t mean they’re getting the best deal.
“If you go online, you can’t engage in any advice that specifically suits your needs. The only thing you’re really looking at is the price,” Michael explains. “You’re not necessarily reading the disclosure documents, nor the policy wording, so you just get what you pay for. This can leave clients in a vulnerable position.
“Whereas, by engaging us – whether it be for global businesses or the average mum and dad wanting to insure their home – we’ll take the time to understand their needs, go to the insurance market, research options and analyse the most appropriate products that suits their needs. We’re always looking for the best fit for the client in terms of their needs. That’s made very clear throughout the process.”
Michael says that an extensive number of options can be considered during the search to find the perfect fit before the client is advised on the best solution.
“Even if it means paying a little more, we advise what is right for the client at the time and explain why it’s worth it. If all we do is validate what they’ve found themselves, then fine, that’s a good exercise. But if we do discover a better solution, that’s a bigger win.
“Every year we conduct a review to ensure our clients’ needs are still being met. If they have a claim, we represent them to negotiate with the insurance companies, doing our utmost to have the claim resolved in the client’s favour. We know how to argue the point on the policy wording and get things across the line.”
With clients varying from the largest residential properties across Australia to SMEs, corporates, right through to personal insurance, Michael admits he’s always learning. Each client has different needs, with vastly different risks requiring different approaches.
“I love the diversity offered within this industry,” he says. “You’re always meeting new people and you’re always having a different discussion. I think that’s exciting.”
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