Success in business and philanthropy came after an early stint as a barman

Wild Geese Robert Kearns, Kearns Insurance Corporation, Toronto

Robert Kearns stepped into his first office, austerely fitted with a rotary telephone, a 1950s leather-bound rate-book and an ashtray. "I will always remember what was on that desk," he says of the day 35 years ago when he took his first tenuous steps into Canada's insurance world.

Things were very different in 1980. Computers were emerging and industries everywhere were about to change. In that respect, Kearns was getting in on the ground floor.

A few years later in March 1983, in the bustle of downtown Toronto, he opened his own office, Kearns Insurance Corporation, which to this day deals in executive policies.

It provides personalised insurance planning advice for both private individuals and companies, as well as employee group insurance and executive compensation plans.


Boutique business

Once an agent for a single company, Kearns had recast himself as a broker offering clients access to multiple firms. Today his boutique business “engineers insurance solutions” for unspecified clients. There is a staff of four and two other partners and that is all you are likely to find out.

Kearns grew up in Dartry in south Dublin and later studied Archaeology and Greek and Roman civilisation at UCD, an early interest in history that would play out in later life.

After graduating he spent a couple of years in fashion sales but 1970s Ireland was not quite business as usual. It took six months to get a phone installed, he recalls. "I had to run down three flights of stairs to conduct business on a payphone inside the Old Stand pub across the street."

Then there was the matter of an oil crisis, postal and bank strikes. "You couldn't get to your customers because there was no petrol; you couldn't mail out invoices because there was no post and if you got a cheque you couldn't lodge it in the bank." Off to Canada so.

In emigration terms, Toronto was the poorer North American cousin of New York and Boston. Kearns immediately landed a job as a bartender.

“A group of guys came in one day and they were great fun. They seemed to have no end of money to spend. They worked in insurance,” he recalls. Their manager, also a Dublin native, offered him a job.

“In those days 90 per cent of people recruited left the business within a year. He convinced me that if one persevered with it, it was a very good business to be in,” he explains.

“It wasn’t easy because I didn’t know anyone in Canada at the time and you had to give 25 names of people you could sell insurance to. Somehow or another I was appointed and I got my licence.

“In the 1960s and 1970s the word on the street in accounting was life insurance was a bad deal. It wasn’t a glamorous profession but that all changed.”

First came the computer revolution “making it possible to do things that had never been done” in the industry. Specifically insurance policies, static for generations, began to change. It was a period of consolidation: about 140 life insurance companies melding into a dozen. In the 1980s, executives discarded cigarettes and gin for treadmills and salads. Insurance policies became the way to ensure post-mortem tax bills were paid; money left to loved ones or charity. “This was all a bit of a revolution in how insurance worked,” says Kearns.

From his days as a barman pouring (very un-Canadian) martinis at lunchtime, Kearns quickly adapted to his new world working for what was then Excelsior Life. Today, he speaks fluently of the industry’s history and development, and talks about how the concept of “underwriting” materialised from insuring 17th century cargo ships in London.

Kearns’s success allowed him to venture into philanthropy. Heritage is his passion and has helped establish him as a leading figure in the Irish-Canadian business community. In 1980 he joined the volunteer committee on the Ireland Fund of Canada, a benevolent organisation. He says: “Living in Canada, it was a way to be involved in the Irish community here in Toronto and raise money to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland.”

At that time the Troubles were taking hold and yet, in Canada, Irish Protestants and Catholics integrated easily. “I found that very interesting and I felt the Ireland Fund of Canada had a great responsibility to promote that message.”

Annual fundraising lunches mushroomed from 85 in 1983 to as many as 1,300 today, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the hunger strikes focusing much of the world’s attention, people asked where the money was headed. “Is it for guns?” It was not and the transparency of the fund is something Kearns remains proud of. He rose to vice-chairman in 1987 and chairman in 1989, standing down in 1992.

Later his focus switched to promoting the rich historical links between a famine-depleted Ireland and Canada, something he fights to highlight to this day as one of Ireland’s greatest unknown stories. In 1992 he became a founding director of the Ireland-Canada Chamber of Commerce.

Five years later, he established the Ireland Park Foundation, a charitable non-profit which has just announced a strategic partnership with iNua, an investment company with strong ties to Canada and which will now set about campaigning to raise awareness on the charity’s work and fundraising.


From 1997 to 2000 he lobbied Toronto for a parcel of quayside where replicas of Rowan Gillespie’s famine sculptors on Dublin’s Merchant’s Quay stand, symbolically completing the voyage of coffinship migrants (there are five in Canada to Dublin’s seven, signifying those lost on the crossing).

In 1847, almost twice the 20,000 population of Toronto arrived in the city and Kearns undertook to cement these Irish ties 3,000 miles across the Atlantic “because cities are built for the ages. It’s important that what happened there isn’t lost to history”.

“My business success has enabled me to meet many, many people here. I couldn’t have one without the other,” he says. “There is more to life than just making money and it’s very important to give back to one’s community.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times