Nearly 10 years ago, Laura Bennett set out to start a pet insurance business in the United States, an ambitious move for anybody, let alone someone limited to actuarial experience.
Bennett, originally from the United Kingdom, got her start with Canada Life Insurance in Toronto where she was hired as an actuary: "I had the best time ever, it was fantastic-it's mathematics but with a practical business application." Over the course of 12 years, increasing responsibilities and corporate pressures began to impinge on her enthusiasm, so she stepped away to get her MBA at Wharton School of Business, where she soon found inspiration from a friend's cat.
This friend-also from the United Kingdom, where at the time, more than 10 percent of pets were insured-paid thousands of dollars in vet bills, lamenting the lack of U.S. pet insurance. Bennett and a group of others put together an assignment that eventually won them the Wharton business plan competition and provided Bennett with exactly what she was looking for after Canada Life: an opportunity to establish her own company, her own culture.
To get there, Bennett and Alex Krooglik, Embrace's CMO and co-founder, canvassed for more than two years for investors and an insurer to underwrite their fledgling idea before they were able to move onto the logistics of building a company from the ground up.
"I had a vision of how we would set up technology, and Alex made it happen," says Bennett. This is when the insurer made what she claims to be its smartest decision: centering the company's policy administration system around a Microsoft customer relationship management (CRM) system.
"By doing that, we're direct to the consumer, customizing the system for claims, pets-obviously pets are not normally in a CRM system-and things such as vet clinics and different entities we work with. It enabled us to track all of our communications," says Bennett. "Our culture is very much driven by personal, but professional communications and having a great relationship with our customers."
That's one example, among many, highlighting the fact that in entering a green market, Embrace needed to seek out cutting edge technology and adapt it to their unique needs. The company quickly obtained a highly sophisticated quote engine to provide the customization necessary for pricing pets, navigated an effective transition from early .NET software to a service-oriented architecture, and most importantly, maintained system simplicity.
Indeed, Krooglik and Bennett still do a large portion of the company's heavy lifting, though it wasn't until recently that they felt comfortable enough to look beyond day-to-day success. "We started selling in October 2006, and of course, the minute you start, the cash flies out the door," she says. "I had many sleepless nights where I was physically ill because we only had a few weeks' left of money, but we were able to make it through. It wasn't until 2010 when I felt I wasn't worrying about cash anymore."
Embrace experienced a revenue growth of 67 percent over the last year, not only a credit to Bennett and Krooglik's technological foresight, but even more so to Bennett's one-of-a kind risk-based pricing model for pets as well as her marketing vision. Bennett translated her MBA thesis into the core of the company's business strategy: Women make decisions about pets. Therefore, women need to be the target for pet insurance. One WIL judge pointed to Bennett's market ingenuity as a rare trait and one worth recognizing.
A long time in the making, Bennett is now the head of a prospering company and culture, and a strong example for her two daughters-just like her own mother, who opened a bookstore in a small Canadian town, was for her.
Bennett remembers her mother's friend telling her daughter, who was enjoying working with food at the time, that she may become a chef someday; Bennett recalls thinking to herself, "my mother would've said to me, 'maybe you'll be a chef to the queen.' There was no just being a chef; I'll do something amazing as a chef."
Fittingly, Bennett, after her success with Canada Life, was offered a handsome position in the finance department of a British company, but declined. Instead, she's done something amazing.
Number of years in the industry: 21 years
Number of direct reports: 5
Embrace's gross written premium: $7.7 million
Nominated by: Alexander Wayne, Alexander J. Wayne & Associates Inc.
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