FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Jay Sinclair
July 11, 2017
Every time I take on an interview it begins with: “Where were you born?” That ‘always’ begins an interesting story with side-trails, recurring themes and often deep interesting character revelations – as this one does …
I met him at the Y – in Shawnessy. I used to think I work out, but when I’ve watched this guy in action, ‘he does a work out!’ … oh my does he go hard. The walkin-talkin picture of physique, fitness and good health – and busy guy, yet he has a soft voice and a kind word for most people in the locker room. I’ve watched him in action for a couple of years now and have been impressed. Recently I sat down with him … and learned so much more.
He’s Jay Sinclair – a Sr. VP at AON Risk Solutions in Calgary where he leads their Construction Services Group; a team of 12 - four surety and eight insurance staff in AON’s Calgary-office serving clients who do business all over Canada.
So, starting at the beginning: born in Melfort, Saskatchewan – the family lived in Meskanaw where dad ran the hardware store. Mom was a telephone operator with SaskTel – then stayed home to raise four children. Jay is the eldest. When Jay was 12 the family moved to Saskatoon when dad got hired to run Ashdown's hardware there. When his dad left the family, mom went back to work – shift-work on the university switchboard while raising four kids. Jay and his sister were part-time parents to their younger siblings.
School for Jay involved lots of sports and above-average academic performance with a strong emphasis on football. He played tight end in high school, for the Hilltops (his 1978 team was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame) and then for University of Saskatchewan Huskies. He was one course short of his B.Sc. Phys. Ed. when he took the proverbial ‘one year off’ to work.
One year at the Keg Restaurant began in the dish-pit, and ran for six years as Manager. That’s where he met his wife Julie. When an equity opportunity at the Keg didn’t materialize as expected, Jay’s soon-to-be father-in-law offered a job in his electrical contracting firm – Alliance Energy. Three years on, still in the queue for apprenticeship school, married Julie in 1988 (she is GM at Pyramid Productions; they have two sons, one works at Pyramid, one is attending UBC), his soon-to-be brother-in-law suggested Jay meet with his friend who worked at Reed Stenhouse (now known as AON). He was recruited as an Account Manager/Broker, got licensed and has been doing insurance and bonding work ever since. The Sinclair career had some moves – to Regina, Vancouver, Calgary – then a detour for four years at BFL (former AON guys came knocking) until AON came knocking in 2009 – and he’s been there happily overseeing his group of 12 in the Calgary office of 170+ AON staff.
Seems his connections through family and former colleagues who’ve come knocking – Jay’s never been out of or had to go looking for a job …
Why are you successful? “I’ve done OK. You gotta show up. Put your best foot forward every day. My approach to serving clients is – we have to understand your business.”
What has held you back? “Nothing really. You might think ‘my dad leaving’, but that didn’t hold me back – it shot me forward. I was scared at the time. The anger came much later.”
How do you see your business – construction insurance and bonding – going forward over the next quarter?
… things started slow this year, but it’s turned out great for us. While things may be slower in Alberta, a lot of our Calgary clients are very busy in B.C. and Ontario. And we are doing lots of P3 work. We’ve been dominant in terms of market share in our category for some time and represent most of the major construction firms.
And over the next five years?
… technology is going to become more important – and there will be an advantage to those who identify more useful and creative ways to use it. Other than that, the mechanics of how we do business won’t change much – it’s about skills, work and matching risks with coverage. The area of ‘cyber-risk’ will be a growing concern and growing segment of our business as more clients are becoming rightly concerned about this risk and need to insure for it …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… in terms of picking staff, we (the insurance industry) compete with banks and accounting firms a lot in our recruiting. Skill-fit is important, but I think it’s about 90% gut feeling. I like to work with people who weigh ‘what is good about this?’ vs. ‘what is bad about this?’ Sometimes we make bad decisions – everyone makes some, but by thinking things through, we make more better ones.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Jay Sinclair, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… they know they are going to get an honest effort – they get the best I can do and I bring the strength of a team and a great company behind me delivering the best we can offer.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’m not a top-down type. I’m ‘from the side’. I like making decisions mutually, working with people on decisions, for advice. You never stop learning in this game …
… there is no such thing. Work is always rolling in your head. Work-life balance doesn’t happen in the brain …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my mother’s work ethic and strength. My father, obviously, wasn’t a big influence in my life – but a number of teachers were. Bob Dilts, a principal, took a strong interest in me – and we are still in touch on a regular basis. Sports were important and occupy a lot of time – and that kept me out of trouble. Gerry Clackson, my leader in Venturers (it’s like Boy Scouts) was a great influence – took us on summer trips in northern Saskatchewan – helped me get some part-time jobs in high school days. And Paul Schoenhals, a coach with the Hilltops, taught me a lot about personal discipline. He was an outstanding coach. The Hilltops were a great help to players, particularly with regard to jobs; they got me a job with the City of Saskatoon. I was a ‘groundsman’ and member of IBEW …
… working out at the YMCA (that’s where I met him!), cycling (road bike), music (listening to), travel, most sports (watching).
What do you read?
… I always have a couple of books on the go; I’ve enjoyed Bill Bryson’s books, Pete Dexter books.
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