Fifty years ago on Valentine’s Day, Victoria resident Gene Potvin gave his wife, Pat, something that went beyond chocolates and roses: he opened up the doors to their new business, Thunderbird Insurance.
“It’s one of those gifts that’s lasted five decades for his wife and his kids,” said Jessica Asano, their first-born granddaughter who works at Thunderbird, located on Yates Street.
“He truly wanted a family business, but I don’t know if he realized what he was creating. How many loved ones and how many community members in Victoria that we were going to touch.”
Gene and Pat Potvin, originally both from Ontario, fell in love and started a family after meeting in the Air Force. The pair moved to Victoria after Gene worked his way up in Allstate Insurance, eventually opening up his own company in an office building that Allstate once used.
The business has continued for four family generations with some of the staff being there as long as 28 years. Asano, who has admittedly thought to herself back in the day, ‘We should be a reality TV show,’ reflects fondly on a culture that stands out from corporate workplaces. Moments like in the ’70s, when her grandmother, aunts, uncles, wives and husbands would all come in and help with the renewals in what would sometimes become almost 24-hour crunch days.
Today, seven of the staff are family members, and the ones that are not are still treated like they are, said Asano. For instance, staff member Chelsea Hall wasn’t a family member, but “what we did is we hired her sister,” Asano said. “And you know, she comes for Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner, sometimes.”
While Asano is now happily part of the business, she, like some of her family members, initially thought she would break off from the family trend.
“I thought, I could never sell insurance, I could never be a part of that business. It’s all just paperwork,” she said.
But when the local coffee shop she worked at for 15 years got bought by Starbucks, she decided to trade her apron for a desk.
“At the end of the day, insurance is very much the same (as working in a coffee shop). It’s about the relationships with the people that you interact with on a daily, weekly or monthly basis … And that’s what you get at Thunderbird. You get the same people year over year, decade after decade.”
Many people’s perceptions of the industry are different than what the industry is really like, she said.
“Once you’ve had a big insurance claim or you know someone who’s lost everything and insurance has to come to the rescue, then your perception changes of the industry.”
Thunderbird Insurance, which currently serves over 9,000 individuals, families, and businesses in Greater Victoria and B.C., has remained a family-run enterprise due to the deep pride her grandfather took in his work and the “passion he instilled,” Asano said.
“It becomes something that you talk about at the dinner table, at the holidays that we spend together.”
“You see that people in your family are getting older and something that they’ve developed, stood by and are so passionate about and care so much about the clients, that you feel like you don’t want to see it get bought by another company,” she said.
Significant consolidation has occurred in the industry over the past decade, making independent brokers rare to find, she pointed out. And that personal touch of service that comes with intergenerational customers and staff is something worth holding onto.
“I remember my very first home insurance client from 15 years ago. I can’t imagine her picking up the phone with some questions and having a more corporate kind of call centre person and response on the other end of the line.”
Though Gene Potvin passed away in March of 2020, seven years after Pat, their legacy lives on.
“When people speak about my grandmother, she was the nicest, funniest and sweetest person you would ever come across. And my grandfather was just so driven. And together they created a beautiful family,” Asano said.