THE STAEBLER STORY
H.L. Staebler Company Limited: Kitchener-based Insurance Brokers since 1873
Good service. Whether given to loved ones or to strangers, to community or to country, service is one of the most valued assets in our society. The quality of service that a company provides to its clients is, in many ways, measurable. A company that delivers good service with consistency can measure the quality of its service in terms unique to its league: loyalty, growth, and, in some cases, longevity.
J.M. Staebler. Berlin. So reads line twenty-two of a list of thirty-one agents in the Economical Mutual Fire Insurance Company’s annual report for the year 1873. However brief, this simple entry of name and locale is significant – it is the earliest record known to link the Staebler name with the insurance industry, while also marking the beginning of a relationship with the Economical Mutual Insurance Company that continues today. Yet to describe J.M. Staebler as an insurance agent is only partially sufficient, as he divided his considerable energy towards pursuits in the commercial, political, and civic lives of his town, and in that sense he exemplified the prominent Canadian citizen of his era.
The first of many King addresses for the Staebler Company was established on King Street East in Berlin (Kitchener as of 1916) sometime in the 1880s, and from it J.M. sold insurance, stocks, and bonds. Reflecting his keen interest in music, he co-founded the Berlin Piano and Organ Company in 1890. Three years later, he built a handsome brick commercial structure on 23 King Street West, and moved his insurance office into it.
He made his presence felt on the political stage of Berlin, which was by then a growing town of about 7,500 citizens. J.M. served on Town Council, became Mayor of Berlin in 1891, and boosted the local manufacturing industries as an influential member of the Board of Trade.
His civic contributions included being one of the visionaries behind Victoria Park. He lobbied enthusiastically for its creation in the 1890s, chaired one of the earliest Park Boards, and his love of horticulture left its stamp on the park’s landscape. During the same period, J.M. was a member of the first Hospital Trust, the body responsible for building the precursor to today’s K-W Hospital in 1895.
J.M.’s Berlin was a town of intensive growth, full of opportunities for energetic individuals, and he proved to be equal to its challenge. J.M. Staebler died in 1906, and his son, H.L. Staebler, took the helm at the company.
H.L. grew up in Berlin, attended its schools, and completed his education at the University of Toronto. Returning to Berlin, he worked for a while in a bank, for a while longer as a school teacher, and then moved to Fernie, British Columbia around 1900. While out west, he applied his thorough training in music as a piano tuner and music teacher, and was employed by piano manufacturers Mason and Risch when his father’s illness prompted a hasty return home. Several years after assuming control of the one-man business, he moved its operations to 11 Queen Street South.
His love of music again found expression during his tenure as chair of the Public School Board and president of the local music club. Through his efforts, music instruction became part of the region’s regular school curriculum. The long list of his affiliations with local and charitable organizations illustrates a continuation of his father’s legacy of service.
H.L. moved the company back to King Street West in 1923, to number 144, a building known as the Weber Chambers. The city had a new name, the company had a new address, was newly incorporated, and in four years would welcome a new man aboard – F. Keith Staebler. Keith remembered the Weber Chambers in a K-W Record article from 1967, noting that it was “the only strictly office building with a passenger elevator in those days, and for that reason it was considered a prestige location.”
Keith joined his father and a secretary at Staebler Insurance in 1927, but not before spending several years in Toronto. While there, he learned the insurance trade and pursued a love of popular music and jazz. Music ran in the family’s blood, and, as his father had done, Keith developed this inherited gift. He became an accomplished jazz pianist, and, after returning to Kitchener, played with bands across Ontario while working with his father in the business.
Keith was offered a full-time job in 1931 as a pianist aboard cruise ships running between Detroit and Duluth, and he approached his father, asking for a few months off to explore the opportunity. H.L. refused, and instead gave his son a week to think on it. Keith decided to stay on at the company. He learned the industry well, and continued his piano playing locally, performing with such accompaniment as the K-W Symphony Orchestra. Keith’s brother, Norton Staebler, was also a performer with the K-W Symphony Orchestra and was a first string violinist.
The company relocated its offices in 1940 to 183 King Street West, a building that had served as home for the Public Utilities Commission ten years earlier. The P.U.C. built its new headquarters in 1931, just across the street at King and Gaukel. Also in the early 1940s, Keith’s brother, Norton Staebler, came to work for the company. Experiencing steady growth throughout the intervening decade, the company purchased Carl Kranz Limited in 1954, thereby doubling in size. Hugo Kranz, Carl’s father, had been on the Economical Mutual Fire Insurance Company’s first Board of Directors in 1871. Combining the traditions of the Staebler Company with those of the Kranz Company, while acknowledging ties to Economical Mutual, was a poignant benchmark for these three stalwart institutions.
Along with the purchase of the Carl Kranz Company, Staebler’s moved into Kranz’s former address at 107 King Street West. The year was 1955, and a period of great loss would come to touch the Staebler family and the community upon the deaths of both H.L. Staebler and of Norton Staebler. H.L. had set his namesake company into fluid motion, and now in Keith’s capable hands it would be carried forward.
The company had grown to twenty-two employees by 1963, the year in which two of them, Selwyn Sangster and Donald MacPherson, bought the company from Keith Staebler, with Keith remaining on as Chairman of the Board. Mr. Sangster had been the head of the company’s mortgage department since it began offering mortgage services in 1959, and in 1963 was president of Standard Management and Appraisals Limited, mortgage brokers at Staebler’s. Mr. MacPherson was quite active politically, having served as chair of the Waterloo County Board of Health, Warden of Waterloo County, and reeve of the village of Bridgeport. He also ran for a seat in the Provincial Legislature.
One more move was being planned by the company in 1963; this time into a modern facility made with Staebler’s specifically in mind. The $135,000 building was completed on schedule, and opened the morning of August 31, 1964. The company’s long history at 618 King Street West is a testament to how well the location has worked. That same year, the company’s written premiums exceeded $1 million.
The middle 1960s saw Keith Staebler’s enthusiasm for the arts and music take on a sharp focus. He organized the first meeting to discuss the creation of a Kitchener convention and arts centre in 1965, and his ensuing fifteen-year effort would yield the Centre in the Square in 1980. Keith was becoming more involved in community affairs by the late 1960s – he became president of the Kitchener Chamber of Commerce in 1967 – with Mr. Sangster and Mr. MacPherson assuming direct responsibilities for the company. Staebler’s also became cover holders for Lloyd’s of London at that time; an association that has endured.
The team that would lead the H.L. Staebler Company into the twenty-first century was already taking shape in the late 1960s. With Selwyn Sangster as president and general manager, Don MacPherson as vice-president and assistant general manager, and Keith Staebler providing a well-seasoned, veteran’s perspective on the industry, the company drew from a deep well of expertise. Staff at Staebler’s now numbered about thirty-five.
Mr. Sangster and Mr. MacPherson provided the company with ample momentum through the 1960s and 1970s. Their efforts were carried further by their successors, Richard Forler and Lorne Philpott, who bought the company from them in 1977. Mr. Forler had joined the Staebler Company in the 1960s – he was office manager in 1964 – and would fill the position of vice-president. Mr. Philpott had come to Staebler’s from Dale and Company of Toronto in 1966, and now became president of the company.
As a company acquires longevity, it will also gain a healthy respect for mortality, it is attentive. Those that are adaptable to a changing world can enjoy continued health, and the H.L. Staebler Company is ever-mindful of that fact. It has evolved; always recognizing and responding to the shifting needs of its clients, the changes in technology and its own needs for expansion of both space and activities. This kind of evolution has meant longevity for the company. Staebler’s was ranked amongst the largest of the independent insurance and mortgage agencies in western Ontario by the time of its centennial in the 1970s. The 100th anniversary was marked by festivities including an art competition, an orchestral concert, and many gala events. The Concordia Club hosted a party that capped a year full of celebrations. The venerable Concordia happens to be the same age as the Staebler Company, and the two have enjoyed many decades of close ties.
Growing to forty-five employees by the late 1970s, the company moved some of its operations into other quarters on Frederick Street. An office expansion at 618 King Street West effectively doubled the building’s capacity in 1981. Guelph gained a branch office of Staebler’s in that year, increasing the region’s access to that Staebler hallmark – personalized service.
Sadness came again to the company in 1980 with the passing of Mr. Forler. A member of the Kitchener Water Commission, alderman for the city, president of the Kiwanis Club, and dedicated staff member, he embodied the Staebler tradition of community involvement.
As sole owner, Lorne Philpott strove to build upon the company’s knowledge, and developed services of increased relevance to the client. He was a tireless student of the industry, and knew its trends. His educational contributions of teaching many courses and seminars were recognized in 1977 with a special award from the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers Association of Ontario. He was honoured in 1987 by being one of the first presidents of the Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario, the industry’s provincial governing body. He formed a management team at Staebler’s which would apply more skills and resources to the long-term success of the company. When he joined Staebler’s, the company handled premiums totalling $1 million. Upon his retirement in 1995, the total had exceeded $30 million. The H.L. Staebler Company of today is as flexible and responsive as it is thanks in large part to Lorne Philpott’s active pursuit of excellent service.
With Lorne at the helm of the company, he had an expectation that his son, Stephen, would follow him into the business. At the time, Stephen was interested in becoming an architect and he had been accepted into an architecture program at the University of Waterloo. After some experience at the University of Waterloo, Stephen decided to transfer over to Wilfred Laurier University to their business program. During his time at Laurier, Stephen made plans to join the insurance industry. He enrolled in some evening insurance classes at Conestoga College while completing his degree at Laurier. When he graduated from university in 1982, Stephen had also achieved the equivalent to today’s Chartered Insurance Professional’s (CIP) designation.
Being a staunch believer in education and professional development, it was important to Lorne that Stephen got industry experience outside of the broker channel to prepare him to succeed Lorne when the time came. After graduation, Stephen’s father arranged for him to work at the Continental Insurance Company in Toronto as a commercial underwriter.
Meanwhile across the pond, Kim Philpott embarked on a career in insurance when she became a receptionist at Royal Insurance in Leeds, England in 1974. She moved back to Canada in 1981. She worked as an underwriter for Allstate and then relocated to British Columbia in 1982. While living in Vancouver, B.C., she worked as a commercial service broker with a brokerage called Morris & Mckenzie. There, she assisted the Principal Broker in drafting presentations for large, national accounts and for their board. Kim moved back to Toronto in 1983 where she took on a role at the Continental Insurance Company as a commercial underwriter. It was there that Kim and Stephen first met.
After a 2-year period with the Continental, Stephen had an opportunity to move to the UK to get some exposure with a broker at Lloyd’s called Harris & Dixon. Stephen asked Kim to go with him and she agreed so they went together. Stephen worked “on the floor” at Lloyd’s of London negotiating with Lloyd’s syndicates and placing commercial risks for brokers from all around the world. Kim worked for a Lloyd’s brokerage in London called Leslie & Godwin where she managed a portfolio of very large commercial customers.
In May of 1985, Kim and Stephen returned to Canada and to Kitchener, Ontario. Stephen started his career at Staebler in a commercial producer role. Stephen hit the pavement and worked to build a book of customers from the ground up. Stephen set his sights on honing his skills and knowledge as a broker by completing more and more training and education, and acquiring quite an impressive list of letters behind his name. His investment in education and professional development was a great differentiator in the value proposition he offered potential customers, and he grew his book of customers quite successfully because of it. Stephen continued developing his strengths as a commercial producer for the next 10 years until his father’s retirement.
During that time, Stephen suffered a health scare. Stephen was in intensive care in a coma for several days and there was serious concern for whether he would make it. He had suffered from a fever that developed into encephalitis, which would lead to other complications in the future. However, Stephen did (thankfully) recover and then resumed his role at Staebler.
Lorne Philpott retired at the end of 1995 and, as planned, Stephen took over for him as President. The rest of Staebler’s senior management remained in place after Stephen took over. Stephen was concerned with the Company’s sales results and discussed some of his concerns with his wife, Kim. They agreed that Kim would join the Staebler team in 1999 as a personal lines group producer. Kim was incredibly successful in growing the personal lines group book. Stephen later appointed Kim to the role of VP Sales where she was responsible for growing and fostering a more ambitious sales culture across the organization.
Stephen’s personal passion for education and professional development came through in the form of incentives and encouragement for everyone at Staebler to do the same. Stephen implemented a corporate policy whereby Staebler would cover all costs related to training and development, and he planted the seed that grew into the strong value we place on education today.
The business had gone through a challenging period. A close business partner offered Staebler an Operational Review in an effort to support the business and help the senior management to determine what changes needed to be made. When the review was completed in early 2000, the findings highlighted the very serious nature of Staebler’s financial position and raised some profound concerns about certain members of the senior management team. Kim and Stephen rolled up their sleeves, and prepared to “clean house” and turn the company around. They formed a new executive team that would institute best practices, stabilize the business, and carry it well into the future.
Stephen had some on-going health complications as a result of the encephalitis. Those complications developed over time and began to have a greater affect on his ability to work as President. Stephen was finally diagnosed with epilepsy in 2006 and with the diagnosis being confirmed, was then able to treat his condition more effectively. Nonetheless, Stephen made the difficult decision to step back from his frontline management role and in 2007 Kim Philpott took over as President. Stephen took on the role of Chairman at that time and continued to promote and support professional development at Staebler. Stephen’s primary focus as Chairman was to coach, mentor, and develop up-and-coming brokers. His impact on the next generation was oft spoke about and he became a trusted mentor to many.
In her role as President, Kim undertook the mission of modernizing the business and had the tough job of instituting standard practices, structure, and consistency. Kim’s mantra that “we must always do the right thing” very much lives on at Staebler today.
Kim and Stephen certainly left their mark on Staebler. They imparted so many lessons and values; honesty, transparency, a strong moral code, and the desire to work hard in our clients’ best interests. The business that they took over handled $30 million in premium volume, and the business that they passed onto the next generation handled close to $50 million. The business that they passed on was a robust and stable one that had a strong financial position and a solid reputation.
The third generation of the Philpott family to take over the business was Kim and Stephen’s children, Russell and Joanna. Russell took on the role of Executive Vice President and Joanna took on the role of President upon their parent’s retirement at the end of 2018. It was January 1, 2019 that Russell and Joanna became the third generation of the second family at the helm of the H.L. Staebler Company Limited.
Whether creating insurance packages customized to suit a client’s needs or working cooperatively with numerous partners in the field to provide broad-based expertise, the highly valued staff at Staebler’s is perhaps its best resource. Service is the tenet practiced by all members, and they deliver it both to clients and to the company itself.
The tradition of civic responsibility is ongoing at Staebler’s, which endowed a piano scholarship to Wilfrid Laurier University in H.L.’s name, creating the opportunity for a young artist to add music to their community.
Many things have changed since 1873, when Kitchener was Berlin, and King Street was a dirt track running between two villages. Service is still of great value to our society – that has not changed. What has not changed at Staebler is the understanding that the link between community and company IS service.