Women of Influence: Terry Zavitz

By Rosemary McCracken | August 18 2014 09:00AM

Terry Zavitz

A business born of necessity

Necessity is the mother of invention, so the saying goes, and Terry Zavitz’s entry into the insurance world is a perfect example.

After graduating with a degree in music education from the University of Western Ontario in the late 1970s, Zavitz and her husband Doug took out a high-interest loan to open a music studio in London, Ont. When interest rates skyrocketed in the 1980s, they found themselves with 22% payments and two small children.

 If anyone ever questioned why they needed DI, I could tell them exactly why they did.

To pay the bills, she answered a newspaper ad for a job as an insurance advisor at the London branch of a large insurance company specializing in disability insurance. Zavitz’s father had just made a disability claim with that insurer and she knew the benefits that DI provided. “I was hired and I loved the work from the start,” she said. “If anyone ever questioned why they needed DI, I could tell them exactly why they did.”

She was the only woman advisor at the branch, and one of two women advisors at the company in Canada. “It was a different era back then,” she said. “Some people took issue with mothers who worked outside the home. That never bothered me because I knew their comments weren’t malicious. But I had to work very hard to be taken seriously.”

In the following years, Zavitz grew her business through cold calling, and walking up and down Dundas Street talking to people. Along the way, she had another child. “My greatest accomplishment was keeping it all afloat in those early years: my marriage, raising three children and building the business.”

In 1993, she rented premises in London and opened the doors of Zavitz Insurance Inc. Today, the company has two offices, in London and Toronto; 3,000 clients; two insurance advisors – Zavitz, its president, and her daughter Justine; and a support staff of 12.

And although living benefits are Ms. Zavitz’s passion, the company now places an increasing focus on financial planning. “This can mean many things,” she said. “A full financial plan, a retirement analysis, an estate plan or a budget for a younger client. And we do a lot of interacting with our clients’ other advisors.”

One of the most challenging aspects of building her business has been finding the right people to build a highly functional team. “We’ve taken on several graduates of Fanshawe College’s professional financial services program,” she said. “They come with the Canadian Securities Course, and courses completed for their life licences and their Certified Financial Planner designation.”

Zavitz has served as chair of Advocis, and as a member of the board of directors of the London Health Sciences Centre. Her contributions to her community recently saw her inducted into the London Business Hall of Fame, and earned her the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the YWCA Women of Distinction award.

Moving forward

A new challenge is determining how to move her business forward. “Will there still be a place for a small company in years to come?” she asked. “I can ride it out, but my vision is for Zavitz Insurance to move forward into the next generation. Financial planning will need to take on a larger role, and we will need more advisors. Justine will certainly have a big say in this.”

At age 57, Ms. Zavitz is far from ready to retire. “I don’t plan to ever fully retire,” she said. “I’ve worked my whole life to get here.”

She offers this advice for people entering the industry:

Recognize that this is a tough business. “The hours are long and dedication is extremely important.” The clients’ needs come first.

But financial services is a career that offers women a great deal of flexibility. “Many successful women have wonderful family lives, but they need to plan carefully to make that happen.”

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