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Greg Sutton's firm insures a number of professional athletes, including several NHL stars. He recently attended the Richard Ivey School of Business's Quantum Shift Program.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

For Greg Sutton, the timing was right.

Despite nearly two decades in the insurance business, the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Sutton Special Risk needed something extra to take his family company to the next level.

"There was some personal drive for me,"

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Mr. Sutton says. "When you're the second generation and you're taking over from your father, and at the end of the day he's done a lot of the early-going heavy lifting, there's definitely pressure to make it better."

So when the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario invited him to return to the classroom as a student in the Quantum Shift Program, he jumped at the chance.

The goal of Quantum Shift is to bring promising entrepreneurs together to share knowledge and discuss challenges, according to Eric Morse, associate dean of programs at Ivey. The program takes place over five full days, during which participants listen to lectures and work through case studies in groups. "It is a great outlet to learn best practices and to vent about problems that they are currently having," he says.

Mr. Morse hopes students will take away whatever they need to push their already successful businesses to grow. A number of students who have come through the program have been about to embark on a merger or acquisition, and the program provided important big-picture insight about how to proceed, combined with the experience of lecturers and other students who have been there before.

Another firm developed a new approach to marketing during the program, after being advised to focus on their key products rather than broaden their portfolio of products.

Greg's father William J. Sutton, had become the first entrepreneur in his family when he founded Sutton Special Risk in 1978. The Toronto company insured high-risk clients that regular insurance companies were hesitant to take on. His father's first client was the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Armed with a political science degree from University of Toronto, Mr. Sutton joined his father's company in 1995 and became a driving force in broadening its range of products. Sports coverage remained the company's main focus, with high-profile clients like cyclist Lance Armstrong and hockey star Wayne Gretsky, but it extended coverage to others needing special insurance because of their wealth, location of their work or risk of their occupation.

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Soon celebrities like Howard Stern and Robin Williams were calling, as well as journalists working in war zones and business leaders fearful of kidnapping.

The opportunity to take part in the Quantum Shift program, for which participants are nominated by Ivey and a sponsoring company, came just as Mr. Sutton was pondering how to take the business to greater heights. And, despite his considerable success, he says he had much to learn from Ivey faculty and the guest speakers, such as entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary, star of the TV show Dragons' Den.

Yet it was his fellow students he raves about most. "There is stuff you take away from the material standpoint, but the relationships and network is really invaluable," he says. "It's almost like they've become an additional advisory board for me. We meet fairly regularly and exchange stories, trials, tribulations and ideas."

Mr. Sutton has returned to Quantum Shift every year since as part of its fellows conference.

The program provided practical information Mr. Sutton has been able to apply immediately, such as improvements to his leadership style. But what was perhaps most valuable was the breadth of his network's experience, which he was able to tap when he began investigating expanding into the United States and western Canada.

Mr. Sutton's experience is precisely what Ivey was trying to promote when it launched the Quantum Shift program in 2004, says Eric Morse. He explains: "It's not a program for CFOs or next-in-lines, it's really a program for those guys who are running their businesses and have an ownership stake in them."

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For Mr. Sutton, the benefits of the supportive peer environment didn't end at case studies about marketing challenges. "The course really challenged you to look at not only your business but inward at yourself, personally."

Special to The Globe and Mail


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