London Life – More Than 130 Years of Service
London Life occupies a special place in the history of London and Canada. The company has a rich heritage, built by the pioneering spirit of the people who made London Life the success it is today.
The company was founded in London, Ontario, in 1874. Just seven years after Canadian Confederation, the city was a thriving community with a population of about 20,000. London was a financial and distribution centre for western Ontario. Businesses included the head offices of five savings and loans companies, eight banks, 21 insurance companies, and three daily newspapers.
Transportation was mainly by horse or on foot, and the city was the centre of a small but growing oil industry. Gas and oil were used to light homes and businesses, as electricity was not generally available until about 1890. London boasted 10 oil refineries in the suburb of Lilley's Corners, now part of East London, processing crude oil from shallow dug wells in the Oil Springs and Petrolia area to the west.
London Life was established by five London businessmen and obtained an Ontario provincial operating charter on March 24, 1874.
The five provisional directors and founders of London Life were Edward Harris, a lawyer; William Woodruff, a leading doctor who became the company's first consulting physician; Colonel John Walker, who had commanded the local militia during the Fenian Raids; James Magee, a young lawyer who became the new insurance company's legal counsel; and Joseph Jeffery, the manager of the local branch of Molson's Bank, who became the first president of London Life. Mr. Jeffery and his descendants continued their active participation in the management and ownership of London Life for more than a century.
Doing business a century ago
In the latter part of the 19th century, medical risks and underwriting decisions were different than today. For example, because of dangers on the job, London Life would not insure hotel and tavern keepers, and was also reluctant to insure railway workers or sailors on the Great Lakes. Accident policies were not granted to people planning to travel to the wilds of Western Canada or to the Southern United States, because of difficulties in settling claims.
The company was particularly concerned with tuberculosis, then a major cause of illness and death. Immediate family members of anyone dying from the disease were disqualified from obtaining insurance until reaching the age of 35 in good health.
The company widely promoted the story of its fourth death claim, that of a man who drowned three days after taking out his life insurance policy. This helped agents illustrate not only the need for life insurance, but also the good faith and fair practice of London Life.
Initially, agents of London Life would travel by train or horse and carriage to towns in southwestern Ontario.
In October 1874, two agents named Smyth and Stoney visited the town of Brussels, north of London. In less than two weeks, they signed up 20 people, including four carpenters, three clergymen, two harness makers, two blacksmiths, a manufacturer of woolen goods, a grocer, a druggist, a music dealer, a mill owner, a jeweller, a school teacher, a lumber dealer, and the town's physician. The town doctor, who was usually signed up first, was paid a 25 cent fee to give medical examinations to other applicants.
Growth and expansion
The year 1884 was pivotal in London Life’s history. The company not only received its Dominion Charter but also gained the services of John G. Richter who joined the company as general manager. An actuary by profession, Richter was a man of firm conviction and vision. Under his leadership, the company set an early pattern by designing policies and payment schedules for the "average" person. Insurance was no longer an instrument sold strictly to the upper class. Richter’s management style was also one of caution and conservatism, qualities that would serve the company well in times of economic hardship.
1906 was another key year in the company’s history. South of the border, American anti-trust investigations revealed improper business practices. Many life insurance companies, including a number of Canadian ones, were indicted by the courts. In response to this, the Government of Canada established a Royal Commission to investigate insurance practices within this country. London Life emerged from the inquiry not only unscathed but upheld as an outstanding example of a properly run company.
The good press that was generated by the Royal Commission’s findings added to London Life’s success. Insurance in force grew from $10 million in 1906 to $296 million in 1926. In the same period, the head office staff grew to 250 from 22.
The company had also expanded across Canada, laying the foundation for its present national network. By the end of 1902, London Life conducted business in Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. By 1920, the company was a leader in the Canadian insurance business. In 1924, London Life set up agencies in Quebec while business extended to British Columbia in 1937.
London Life spent its first 32 years in rented buildings in downtown London, moving into permanent headquarters in 1906. Situated at 424 Wellington Street, the new head office housed a staff of 22. The building still stands today and is known to Londoners as the Wright Lithographing building.
By 1922, London Life was forced to consider larger premises. The company considered building a new head office on Dufferin Avenue. The proposal was initially opposed by some city councillors who feared a commercial establishment would mar the serene setting of neighbouring Victoria Park. A bylaw was proposed to prevent its construction. London Life was promptly invited by the city councils of Toronto and Hamilton to move its headquarters out of London to their cities. As a result, London city council reconsidered its decision and allowed London Life to build. The building’s grand neoclassical design succeeded in allaying the council’s fears, conveying a sense of stability, permanence and dignity. The new premises included a bowling alley for employees and a large auditorium for meetings and social functions. The Dufferin Avenue site opened in 1927 and is considered a London landmark.
London Life planned to expand its head office in the early 1940s to meet the requirements of its ever-expanding staff, but World War II and the restrictions on steel and other building materials delayed construction until 1946. Instead, London Life parlayed its building funds into the war effort, purchasing $11 million in Victory Bonds. From 1940 to 1944, London Life employees volunteered their time and talents to the war effort. Like many towns and cities in Canada through the war years, London formed a Citizens’ Auxiliary War Services Committee. Under the auspices of this committee the London Life Troupers was born. The main goal of the revue was to provide entertainment for the military men and women who were stationed throughout the province. Training started in August of each year and the volunteers gave up many evenings to ensure the shows were entertaining and professional. The Variety Show format included dance numbers, solo and group musical performances, and skits.
Only after the war did London Life complete its head office expansion. The resulting seven-storey extension opened in 1948 and housed a staff of 847. Postwar expansion and a prosperous economy further propelled the company’s growth. In 1951, plans were made to extend the Dufferin Avenue facade towards Clarence Street with the addition of a west wing, thus completing the original 1927 design. By the time construction was completed in 1953, there were 1,083 people employed at head office.
By 1963, London Life was among Canada’s leading insurance companies with over $6.5 billion in life insurance in force. A new and modern building was planned to house its growing staff of 1,600. Fronting Queens Avenue, the building was completed in 1965 with each of its four floors comprising a full acre of work space.
In 1993, London Life was co-developer of the adjacent One London Place tower, the city's tallest building.
Modern business practices
London Life has a history of introducing better ways to serve its customers. It was among the first to provide group insurance to businesses in 1919. In 1922, London Life began in-house training of its sales representatives, something not usually done in the industry. Close attention to training and recruitment is one of the company's strengths, and its financial security advisors are widely recognized. Meeting clients’ changing needs by developing new and innovative products also helped London Life become a leading Canadian insurance company.
From its early days, the company appreciated and encouraged new technology. London Life installed its first telephone in 1886 and purchased its first typewriter in 1892. The president, Mr. Richter, typed the first letter, which is preserved in the company's archives. By 1919, secretarial staff used Edison dictaphones and a state-of-the-art Lansom pneumatic tube messaging system was installed in the new head office building on Dufferin Avenue, built in 1927.
London Life set the pace for insurance companies by using the most advanced information technology as it became available. In 1959, it was one of the first companies to install a computer. The original Univac system was so large that an outside wall had to be torn open to get it on the premises. In 1965, London Life was the first company in the world to install a new generation of computer, the IBM 360/30. The company acquired on-line communications in 1984, giving staff the ability to communicate instantly, coast to coast from their computer terminals.
In 1996, London Life acquired most of the Canadian operations of The Prudential Insurance Company of America.
In 1997, London Life was acquired by The Great-West Life Assurance Company, which also acquired Canada Life in 2003.
London Life rebranded its financial security planning division as Freedom 55 Financial in 2000.
Together, Great-West, London Life and Canada Life serve the financial security needs of more than 12 million people across Canada. Great-West, London Life and Canada Life are members of the Power Financial Corporation group of companies.