Anthony Jackson/Gotham Studios

Ensuring the longevity of a financial services firm is fraught with challenges. But one fact will always apply, says Jeff Macoun: when designing services, products and strategies, clients, not products, come first.

“You need to serve the 25-year-old, the 55-year-old and the 80- year-old,” says Macoun, who became president and chief operating officer (COO), Canada, of Great-West Life Assurance Co., (Great-West Life), London Life Insurance Co. and Canada Life Assurance Co., all subsidiaries of Great West Lifeco Inc. (GWL), in December 2018. “And it’s not about how we want them to be served.”

New tools must be developed with specific client needs in mind, Macoun says. Tools also must be flexible enough that financial advisors can use those tools as their client base changes. This is key for advisors who work with Great-West Life, for example, because many serve families “who may even purchase a life insurance policy for a young child,” Macoun says, “[which means] we’re making a commitment and an obligation for, perhaps, 100 years from today. If we have a product on the shelf, it [must be] well-resourced and well-capitalized.”

For the firm, understanding Canadian investors and families begins with the advice channel. Says Macoun: “I have not met anyone who doesn’t want to tell their story.” And once people find an attentive advisor, he adds, “they want to continue. They want to take the [investment] journey with someone who will help them realize their vision.”

Macoun grew up in Newmarket, Ont., and attended Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., on a hockey scholarship to study economics. After graduating in 1981, he began his career at London Life (acquired by Great-West Life in 1997) because the people there “really felt like a team.” He also liked the goals-based, competitive nature of the industry.

Despite some initial challenges, Macoun has never looked back. “I was just coming out of university, and when I asked what time I should be at work, my first boss said to me, ‘I’m here at six, so shortly after that.’ I just about fell off my chair. After all these years, I’ve sort of become an early bird.”

In Canada, GWL runs Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life – all of which have operated since the 1800s. As of Dec. 31, 2018, the Canadian segment of GWL’s business held assets under management of more than $167 billion and assets under administration of almost $181 billion.

GWL has more than 13 million Canadian clients and more than 11,000 employees across the country, not including advisors. It has ties with advisors through distribution relationships with Freedom 55 Financial, managing general agencies and national accounts, and via the wealth and insurance solutions enterprise, or WISE, network – the last is an offering for independent advisors affiliated with London Life, Canada Life and Great-West Life, replacing the insurance subsidiary’s Gold Key network and Freedom 55’s wealth and estate planning group in 2017.

During the past four decades, Macoun has worked in multiple cities and divisions of Great-West Life, including individual distribution, the mutual fund side and, in the past two years, “the life, health and wealth area,” he says. That segment focuses on clients’ retirement planning, estate, medical, dental and disability needs.

Macoun, in his new role, takes over for another company veteran, Stefan Kristjanson. Macoun will be involved in leading GWL’s Canadian transformation strategy, which was introduced in 2016. It began with analyzing the Canadian subsidiaries’ offerings, with an eye toward “eliminating waste that is not seen as beneficial from a customer’s standpoint,” such as paper-based statements and processes, Macoun says.

That transformation also involved cutting about 13% of GWL’s workforce in Canada, or 1,500 employees, over the past two years. “We had set a goal to take about $200 million of costs out of our business and to achieve that by 2018 – and we did achieve that,” says Macoun. Part of the process was a voluntary retirement program, and departing senior employees helped train incoming employees. “We took people out, but hired back some,” he adds, to focus on “digitally-enabled, forward-facing roles.”

Overall, Great-West Life’s “significant reinvestment” in technology is an ongoing process, Macoun says. After all, clients want to work with advisors who offer “tools that are seamless, effective and digital. So what are we doing about it?”

Great-West Life operates digital labs in Canada as well as several innovation labs led by teams of non-advisor staff from various business divisions and designed to develop tools or software. The labs also invite advisors and clients to test new offerings.

Through these efforts, the company now offers tools, such as Constellation, which reports on clients’ goals and assets for clients working with both Freedom 55 and WISE network professionals; FlexBox, which assists in group benefit administration for employers that have two to 20 staff members; and SimpleProtect, a term- insurance app.

This isn’t the end of the company’s transformation, Macoun says. “We’re doubling down on our reinvestment within the organization, in terms of process improvement.”

The human touch also is important. Another recent change is Great-West Life’s reorganization into three business units, a departure from the 2016 plan. Instead of splitting into group and individual customer units – led by Brad Fedorchuk and Paul Orlander, respectively – the organization carved out a third unit last spring: its advisory network came out from under the individual customer unit and is now being led by Hugh Moncrieff.

All three executives are working together, Macoun says, but “we wanted to elevate [the] advisory network to the top of the house [to lead] the charge in terms of everything we do.”

According to GWL’s 2018 Q4 results, year-over-year adjusted net earnings in Canada for the quarter were down by 13%, due in part to reinvestment of savings and declines in the equities market.

Domestically, there were lower individual and group wealth sales despite higher individual insurance sales, but the company expects to maintain its domestic market share and hopes digital innovation will attract customers.

Whatever the future holds, Macoun says, the investment industry today still is rooted in its past, similar to how people’s “beliefs and principles are based on [their] upbringing,” he says.

The longevity of the industry will hinge on striking a balance between maintaining strong, personal relationships – between advisors and clients, and within the industry itself – and striving for innovation.