How Great-West Life became an insurance titan – Manitoba

Great-West Life’s roots date back to 1891, when the company was founded in Winnipeg and a man named Jeffrey Hall Brock had a dream that many called impossible.

At the time, there were 40 insurance companies in Canada and 31 of those were foreign-owned. None of the nine Canadian ones were based in Western Canada, according to George Siamandas, a Winnipeg historian who runs The Winnipeg Time Machine blogsite.

Brock was a local insurance agent who promoted the idea of a Winnipeg-based insurance company, thinking a local company would be more sensitive to the needs of westerners, Siamandas wrote.

Brock was scoffed and told that his dream would not fly, that it was impossible. But he persevered and the company was incorporated on Aug. 28, 1891, and had leading citizens like hardware magnate James Ashdown on its board. Brock’s goal was to take in $1 million worth of premiums in the first year, Siamandas wrote.

At the board’s first annual meeting, he reported they sold $2.7 million.

The company’s first death claim was in 1893 for $1,000, and in 1912 two policyholders who died on the Titanic were covered.

By 1896, the company served clients across Canada and in 1906 it opened its first office in the U.S. in Fargo, N.D. The next year, it was the largest insurance company in Canada and had 100 employees in Winnipeg and 600 agents across the country.

Still headquartered in Winnipeg and a publicly-traded company, Great-West Lifeco (GWL) is now one of North America’s largest financial holding companies.

Indirectly controlled by Montreal billionaire Paul Desmarais, through his stake in the Power Corporation of Canada — a Canadian holding company — GWL now serves more than 13 million people across Canada, offering insurance as well as investment, savings and retirement income plans and annuities.

In 1997, it took over the then-123-year-old London Life and in 2003, GWL acquired another one of the country’s oldest insurance…

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