I first met Dirk about 15 years ago – he was providing some advice to a board I used to sit on – and our paths have crossed occasionally over years since. I’ve always been impressed by the speedy, crisp and detailed answers to the most obscure or the most awkwardly asked question because Dirk doesn’t seem to get his feathers ruffled, doesn’t seem to mind educating the person with the inconsequential question. Now that I’ve interviewed him my perspective has broadened – and I’m tempted to use the term renaissance man, well-kept-secret and gem.
Dirk married Linda, an insurance underwriter he met in Vancouver, in 1980. They have two daughters, 26 and 29. Moves from Vancouver to Kamloops, and then to Calgary, each driven by downturns and work shortages in the industry – Dirk joined Toole Peet in 1986, and he’s been there ever since. These days his business card says Partner and Executive Vice President. That’s quite a ride for a kid who started in a mailroom …
His young life had some strife in it. Born in Ginneken, Netherlands, his mom’s occupation was stay-at-home cancer patient. His father – trained as a heavy duty mechanic who worked at nearly everything but that – brought the family to Toronto for better cancer treatment. Dirk’s younger sister was born in Toronto. His mother returned to Holland where she died – leaving four and eight yr.-old children to be raised by his father and extended family. Dad drove a truck mostly. After high school, Dirk attended Western but dropped out after one year, not for lack of interest but for lack of money. His first job, in the mail room, was in Toronto at St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance. He’s been in the industry ever since – a lifer! His career has moved across the country to Vancouver, Kamloops and then Calgary. He met his wife in the industry. She works for an insurance company. They talk issues, cases, at home. He has worked in small brokerages and large insurance companies – spanning every type and specialty.
He loves archaeology – so much so that his children both studied it as a result of his passion. In school, he performed in a play with John Candy. They weren’t close and he’s not been near a stage in ages, but he’s thinking about getting involved in some community theatre – if not acting, in some supporting role. Or sweeping the stage.
He’s writing two books – short stories too. His books are long term projects. He told me he’ll write more on vacation and in retirement.
What has contributed most to your success? “My willingness to fail. I’m really smart in a strange kind of way. My mind works really well with concepts – I’m an auditory learner. And, I’ve been in the right place at the right time.”
What has held you back? “Partying back-in-the-day, I was kind of lazy – not that I made that many mistakes, but I could have been and done a lot better.”
People surprise me, often – not so much by their unique gifts, interests, hobbies and diverse background – but by things they are most modest and private about. Not that these things are secrets, but just not worn on their sleeve …
If you want to talk Mexico .. or most of all literature, archaeology and history, Dirk is keen to engage in conversation. Sure, he’ll talk about insurance and answer your most obscure question – but he won’t try to sell you. That’s just not him.
Our interview took place in his choice of venue – in the library at the Ranchman’s Club, and continued long after the lunch that followed. We were surrounded by one of his favourite things – books. And an appreciation for quiet, for old things, for history.
Some people I interview hold back. Some don’t. Dirk is the second type. In this case, far more interesting than I expected.
I asked Dirk how is business? – insurance brokerage business – generally over the next quarter?
… business is good in Calgary – very competitive, but it always has been. Changes are coming. Roof insurance coverage issues (due to storms), some upheaval with insurance company markets (consolidations). Condo insurance has gone sideways – unprofitable for companies and coverage is difficult to place but condo boards have a legislated requirement to place coverage which is increasingly difficult to obtain.
And over the next five years?
… more steady change in consolidations. Smaller firms will have difficulty competing. They need to find a niche. Our industry is not attracting enough young people, to train them, in this fascinating business.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I’m a creature of habit, like consistency and quality. Things that last. Integrity, reasonable quality and reasonable prices. I like good design. I’m an Apple kinda guy.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Dirk Moerkens, why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… once they have a chance to know me – I tell them what they need to know, not what they want to hear. I work at putting solutions together. People who have a question get an answer, and get it instantaneously. I’m a detail focused technician, a consultant – not so much a salesman. We end up with the clients we deserve. I’m reasonable …
How would you describe your leadership style?
… I’ve mellowed considerably. I used to be angry, a jerk. I would describe myself as an empowering type.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… about being financially secure (doesn’t everyone?), my family and health issues. I don’t worry about things I cannot control.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… a summer job, in the reserves – the 48th Highlanders of Canada. I was a private. I had become socially awkward, completely introverted. That changed me. I grew up, became more confident. I was 23, and out of work – a friend, Barry Sims, encouraged me to try ‘the good life’ in Vancouver when I was out of work. My wife and kids. I never thought I’d be very good at parenting because of my father’s influence. Father John Geary, my English lit. teacher in high school who saw my passion for literature and encouraged me.
Work life balance, do you have it?
... I think so. I write every day – just not what I would prefer to be writing! I put in a solid work week, play on my computer, reading. I see insurance as an art-form and I think I’m really good at insurance, just not that good at the ‘selling’ part of sales.
… one month a year at our condo in Huatulco, Mexico overlooking the water from a cliff-top. I love photography. I like guns and have more than my wife would like me to. Voracious reader, like to hike, back-country ski touring.
What do you read?
… speculative fiction. Lots of historical fiction. Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet (first book I ever read), Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov. The classics – Dickens, Dumas, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, C.S. Forester. Kant. Shakespeare.
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