How being a jock helped this CEO be a better leader

November 10th, 2016|Member Stories|
  • How being a jock helped this CEO be a better leader

Originally published by The Globe and Mail


Growing up, Michael Horne was a jock. You name it, he did it: golf, baseball, waterskiing. In the 1990s, his competitive hockey team ‒ for which he played right wing and was either captain or assistant captain ‒ was number one in Ontario.

Today, as a partner in employee benefits, pension, insurance and retirement planning company Meldrum Horne & Associates in Ottawa, he finds himself using many principles picked up on the field, fairways, water and ice.

“You learned that your team’s ability to win or lose was about bringing out the strengths in everybody. It’s no different in business,” he says.

This soft-spoken entrepreneur makes it a priority to listen to his employees and share the load with business partner Jamie Meldrum. (“He’s a details guy and I’m more of a big-picture thinker.”)

And yet, the champion spirit percolates just under the surface ‒ he’s very much the player who follows the rules, never draws a penalty, but can gracefully pull off a surprise team play and win the game.

“We want to be different, to be the best,” Mr. Horne says of both how his team deals with client needs, and the company’s larger strategic plan. “We’re trying to challenge conventional thought and not accept the status quo.”

The result: Mr. Horne strikes his peers as a leader with the right blend of skills.

“There’s no airs about him. He’s bright, he’s hardworking, very authentic. Very driven but in a good way,” says Michelle Van Tol, a seasoned financial and business executive who now guides other business leaders through TEC Canada, a leadership development community. She’s Chair of the TEC Small Business program in Ottawa, of which Mr. Horne is a member.

Before he joined TEC, Mr. Horne had been working in the financial sector since 2001. He joined a top tier financial services firm in 2007 and became a partner in 2009.

Three years ago, a U.S. company tried to buy out the company. The due diligence process turned into a larger re-evaluation for all the partners, so much so that one decided to leave. But Mr. Horne, Mr. Meldrum and his father, Bob Meldrum ‒ a mentor to the younger men ‒ were convinced of the partnership’s growth potential. They refused the buyout, renamed the company and put in place a plan to grow the company and stay innovative in what had become a somewhat staid industry.

But change was still afoot for the new partnership. In 2014, Bob Meldrum suddenly fell ill and shortly after passed away at age 66 from cancer. Personally and professionally devastated, the younger partners did what they had to do. “Bob as our mentor taught us to always be three steps ahead. We had a plan in advance if anything were to happen. But it was the toughest thing to go through,” recalls Mr. Horne.

Managing growth

Recent years have proven some of the most successful in the company’s history. Mr. Horne says the partnership has been notching 20 to 30 percent growth year over year for the past few years; the majority of the growth has been organic, by way of referrals.

The company manages growth by prioritizing innovation in efficiency ‒ often led by the employees. “All of our staff have an equal voice in how to improve our business,” says Mr. Horne. For instance, Meldrum Horne built proprietary software to reduce a task that routinely took an hour down to 10 minutes.

Sometimes Mr. Horne and Mr. Meldrum find it wise to hire outside expertise, bringing in consultants to solve problems and make sure they can focus on their own core skills. By bringing in strategy consultants to do workshops on personality assessments, for example, the communication amongst staff has improved and people are collaborating more effectively.

Mr. Horne places value in ongoing professional development and counsel: “Since graduating university, I’ve pretty much been in university ever since.” (Designations are key for the benefits industry, so the company insists staff be constantly upgrading their education to seek new accreditations.)

Mr. Horne joined TEC Canada earlier this year. With the opportunity to acquire another firm on the horizon, Mr. Horne felt he needed to be among objective peers for no-holds-barred feedback.

Already, the group meetings have helped Mr. Horne do due diligence with a broader focus. In particular, the group has highlighted how business expansion could impact Mr. Horne’s personal life. With a wife and small son, and hopes to further expand his family, his peers’ advice was a wake-up call.

“I now set aside a half an hour every day to reconnect with my wife,” says Mr. Horne. He’s trying to offload more tasks to others at work, limit how much he works in the evening and generally better balance his work ambitions with his personal life.

Luckily, the benefits industry is ready for young, forward-thinking entrepreneurs like Mr. Horne. Clients appreciate his stable and calm team approach. The company seeks out clients willing to create things such as benefits and retirement planning packages from scratch, often in a completely fresh way.

“The average age in our industry is 60 years old. We’re still the youngest at the table,” says Mr. Horne. “There’s a huge opportunity to move forward and grow, and we’re taking it.”