LONDON IS a beacon for entrepreneurs like Gary Hirst. It’s the beating heart of business and finance in the UK, and it’s home to the world’s oldest insurance marketplace, Lloyd’s of London. It was the hustle and bustle of the city that attracted Hirst fresh out of school and gave him the drive to walk the streets of London, knocking on door after door in an attempt to follow his father’s advice: “Go and find a job working at Lloyd’s.”
Hirst’s persistence paid off when he landed a job in 1984 at Fenchurch Group, which was the largest independent wholesale broker in the London market at the time. He started at the bottom, tasked with filing, photocopying and making the occasional run to the sandwich shop, before he was given the opportunity to shadow a senior broker and learn the craft of broking to underwriters and Lloyd’s syndicates. He started in the North American department and later joined the international department, where his experience spanned international property, construction, multinational programs, general liability and personal accident placements.
By the age of 26, Hirst had become the youngest director at Fenchurch Group, taking a leadership role in the international division. Reflecting on his early successes, Hirst says, “I think the exposure, trust and responsibility I gained during that early start has helped me to give direction and opportunity to the people I’ve worked with throughout my career.”
Coming to Canada
In 1993, Hirst left Fenchurch Group for JK Buckenham, where he spent five years building a book of facultative business for the Lloyd’s broker. After that, he became a founding director and shareholder in Chesterfield Group, which was made up of Chesterfield Canada, Van Wagoner Companies (based in Dallas, Texas) and a fully accredited Lloyd’s broker known as Chesterfield Insurance Brokers.
From the founding of Chesterfield Group in November 1998 to its eventual sale to Kaufman Financial Group in January 2012, Hirst and his fellow core shareholders grew its gross written premium from $0 to more than US$120 million, expanding from one small office in London to three offices across two continents and three time zones.
“The Canadian market turned out to be a real jewel in the crown,” says Hirst, who moved from the UK to Toronto in January 2012 to become head of Chesterfield Canada. “It was full of great people, and there was so much growth potential.”
Hirst departed Chesterfield two years later and, after a short stint as a Lloyd’s market consultant, purchased the Canadian MGA CHES Special Risk, where he remains to this day as president and CEO.
“I was attracted to CHES because they were in the MGA space, which I have always found extremely exciting,” he says, adding that his experience with the London market enabled him to set an effective strategy for the business, built around strong partnerships at Lloyd’s and with domestic carriers and retail brokers.
“In the early years, we spent an awful lot of time and energy trying to find a good software system that would enable us to capture the best data. That’s key to being a successful MGA,” he says. “We also focused on building out our team. We have a mantra at CHES of employing the best person for the job, regardless of their educational background or their life experience. What we’re attempting to do is build an organization that attracts top talent, while also attracting business partners that feel we can deliver quality distribution of their products.
“If there are insurance companies and/ or Lloyd’s syndicates that are interested in a particular class of business, we will go out and hire a team that will make that particular class of business successful for them. We’ve found that the combination of collecting data and having the best possible team to deliver the distribution has actually attracted a lot of support from Lloyd’s syndicates and domestic carriers in the Canadian marketplace.”
CHES thrives on what Hirst describes as “out-of-the-box thinking.” Often, new ideas come straight from the MGA’s retail broker partners, and the CHES team is always happy to explore them.
“They give us the business,” Hirst explains. “It’s important for retail brokers to know they’re dealing with someone who understands their local market issues and can provide unique solutions.”
The MGA advantage
In addition to running CHES Special Risk, Hirst is the founder, president and CEO of has already taken place, so we’re now in a very stable but hard market. We know what domestic partners and Lloyd’s syndicates want and what they don’t want. That allows the MGA industry to develop new product offerings and bring new capacity to the market.
“We’re seeing a lot of new startups in the MGA industry, as well as new investors and a lot of mergers and acquisitions. International players are now looking at the Canadian marketplace and buying an existing distribution, which allows them to come to market far quicker. The MGA industry – not only in Canada, but elsewhere in the world – is very exciting. Retail brokers are making this segment of the market innovate because they’re desperate for new ideas and new capacity.
“I always say that Canada is one of the best-kept secrets in the world. Previously, not a lot of people really understood Canada or thought of it as a very fertile place to come and invest – but our thriving MGA market says differently.”