A Venture South

Shortly after the 1969 election of a New Democratic Party government in Manitoba, the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation was established. Under 'Autopac', all motorists were compelled to buy coverage from the government. The plan was similar to the one enforced in Saskatchewan for more than 20 years. This move was clearly distressing to the private insurers. Wawanesa, in this period, was the largest insurer of automobiles in Manitoba, providing coverage for one out of every six vehicles. The impact was immediate - the company's premium income in Manitoba fell to one-third of what it had been a year earlier.

Protest march, April 1970

In April 1970, Manitobans staged one of the largest marches in provincial history to protest the government takeover of auto insurance.

The dust had hardly settled on the Manitoba experience when, in 1974, a third provincial auto plan took effect in British Columbia. The cumulative losses of auto business brought the question of diversification back to Wawanesa's board. The discussion this time was not about new types of insurance, but on the more daring step of expanding operations outside of Canada.

Did you know?Auto fraud is of growing concern to the insurance industry. Sophisticated criminal rings reap vast sums of money from insurance companies by staging auto accidents and filing false claims.

The San Diego branch of Wawanesa played an important role in cracking one such auto fraud ring in 1993. Working with police, Wawanesa issued dummy auto policies and provided target vehicles to investigators. Undercover officers infiltrated the fraud ring, and secretly filmed a number of alleged "accidents". The highly publicized police crack-down resulted in several convictions and sent notice to criminals of Wawanesa's tough stance on insurance fraud.

Wawanesa's directors decided a move south made sense. It soon became apparent that New York and California were the most promising targets. While investigating the venture into the United States, Wawanesa executives met with an American official who phoned California's Commissioner of Insurance. He said, "I'm sitting here with a couple of young fellows from Canada who are thinking of going into California. I have their financial statements in front of me; and, quite frankly, they've got better looking statements than most of the companies you've got in California."

In just over a year, Wawanesa had its license to sell insurance in California - a market as large as all of Canada. It became the first Canadian general insurance company to successfully enter the United States. The San Diego office opened in April of 1975. In its first month it wrote 102 policies. The six employees were gratified to receive 1,500 responses to their very first attempt at direct-mail promotion.

San Diego would repeatedly prove itself as the best choice possible for Wawanesa. The area's population would increase fivefold over the next 20 years and Wawanesa was positioned to grow with the region.

With the expansion to the United States, and continued prosperity in Canada, executive office functions required larger, modern facilities. Wawanesa moved its Winnipeg-based executive office to a newly constructed building in 1976. Four years later, the company opened its newest branch office in Calgary. While the Edmonton office had served Alberta admirably since 1954, Wawanesa was glad of the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to Canada with the opening of a second branch office in Alberta.

In 1981, after six years of development and a policy retention rate which exceeded 95 per cent, the California operation needed a major change of equipment to keep pace. Massive computer upgrades across all branches of Wawanesa soon followed. Former San Diego comptroller and current company president, Gregg Hanson, is pragmatic in his view of the computer age and its role in insurance. "Wawanesa has avoided change for the sake of change, but we certainly seize the opportunities where technology will improve the way we do business," says Hanson.

Wawanesa's 75th anniversary pancake breakfast, 1971

In 1971, Wawanesa's 75th anniversary celebration included a pancake breakfast on the front steps of the home office in Wawanesa.

The changes being made at Wawanesa were examples of the increasingly modern and professional approach being adopted by the insurance industry generally, and by Wawanesa in particular. Insurance Institute of Canada courses provided staff, in all capacities, with a greater understanding of their industry.


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