Attracted by the Portland area’s reputation as an insurance industry hub, a financial services firm that is also one of Canada’s largest insurance companies plans to open a satellite office in Scarborough that could eventually house 200 employees.

Sun Life Financial’s new office will become a primary part of its disability insurance business in the United States, said Dan Fishbein, president of Sun Life’s U.S. subsidiary, headquartered in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

The Scarborough office, called the Sun Life Center for Healthy Work, is scheduled to open in April in an office building on Ashley Drive formerly occupied by Cole Haan, which announced in October 2013 that it was leaving and consolidating operations in New Hampshire.

Sun Life is immediately looking to hire 100 people, with plans to grow the workforce to 200 over the next few years, Fishbein said. He wouldn’t reveal any salary information, but said “generally these are well-paying jobs with a quality benefits package.”

The company conducted a competitive site-selection process and ultimately chose the Portland area because of the city’s reputation in the disability insurance business and its proximity to Sun Life’s other offices in New England, Fishbein said. Toronto-based Sun Life’s U.S. subsidiary employs roughly 2,400 people, the majority in its Wellesley office. It also has satellite offices in Windsor, Connecticut, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“Portland is really the center of excellence for disability insurance in the United States,” Fishbein said.

He estimates there are 20 or so companies in Greater Portland focused on disability insurance, employing roughly 5,000 people.

“There’s really no better place in the country for us to find great talent and a great workforce to help us grow, expand and improve our disability business,” he said.

SEVERAL REASONS TO PICK THIS AREA

The anchor of the Portland area’s disability insurance industry is Unum, which has had a major presence in the city since 1881. Unum is now based in Tennessee, but still employs roughly 3,000 people in the Portland area. Other local companies in the disability insurance space are Professional Disability Associates in Portland, Westbrook-based Disability RMS and South Portland’s Smith Group. Several other multinational disability insurance-related companies also have satellite offices in the Portland area, including Aetna, General Re Corp., Willis Re Inc. and consulting firm Milliman Inc. The industry’s trade association, the Council for Disability Awareness, is located in Portland.

“It really is the cluster that has attracted us to the market,” Fishbein said.

Also helping to drive Sun Life’s decision is Portland’s reputation as a “dynamic, growing small city,” Fishbein said.

“A lot of professionals are moving to the community in a variety of disciplines, so in addition to hiring people with disability insurance experience, more broadly we think we can hire great people who might want to learn that business and become part of what we’ll be doing there,” he said.

HUNDREDS OF JOBS ‘THE BEST NEWS’

Fishbein, a 30-year veteran of the insurance industry, is no stranger to Maine. He works out of the Wellesley office but has called Cape Elizabeth home for the past 20 years.

He originally came to Maine for a job with New York Life, so he sees a parallel with his experience and the company’s recent decision-making process.

“It’s not so much I’m bringing a part of the company to where I am, but really the same thing that brought me to Maine is driving (Sun Life’s) decision,” said Fishbein, who plans to keep his office in Wellesley.

Peter DelGreco, CEO of Maine & Co., a nonprofit group that helps bring expanding companies to Maine, called Sun Life’s decision “the best news in the world.”

DelGreco assisted Sun Life in its expansion plans. He said he can’t remember the last time an out-of-state company decided to open an office in the area with promises to employ up to 200 people.

“I think it’s fabulous,” he said. “I’m pretty excited for such a well-established company to recognize the talent and opportunities that are here.”

DelGreco said the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development also played a role in helping the company realize its expansion plans.

In a written statement, Gov. Paul LePage said he was pleased with Sun Life’s decision, and he thanked the company for its investment.

“This is a global company that could have gone anywhere in the world,” LePage said. “They recognize that Maine has the right mix of talent and expertise to make this project successful.”

TOWN WELCOMES LARGE EMPLOYER

Thomas Hall, Scarborough’s town manager, had heard rumors that the Ashley Drive office space had been leased, but he didn’t know the details until DelGreco called him Friday evening.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Hall said Monday. “This is an upper-echelon firm.”

Assuming Sun Life eventually reaches 200 employees in Scarborough, the company would rank as the town’s sixth-largest employer of full-time workers, said Karen Martin, executive director of the Scarborough Economic Development Corp. The town’s largest private employer is Hannaford, with roughly 1,000 workers, Martin said. Other major employers include the U.S. Postal Service, with nearly 600 workers at a processing center; MaineHealth, with nearly 400 at its Scarborough campus; and Nordx, a medical laboratory associated with MaineHealth, with slightly more than 200.

“The selection of Greater Portland is one of the most significant corporate locations for the region in the last decade,” Martin said. “They’re bringing 200 new jobs, high-paying jobs, into the region, into one of our core competencies. It signals that Greater Portland is really a great place to do business.”

Hall and Martin both suspect that Sun Life and its employment opportunities will act as a recruitment tool.

“If these jobs are as ‘quality’ as I think they are, then they could potentially attract folks from away who will want to come here,” Hall said.

A ‘CENTER FOR INNOVATION’

Sun Life Financial is one of the largest group benefits providers in Canada, but its U.S. subsidiary is a smaller player in this country.

Fishbein said the new Sun Life Center for Healthy Work in Scarborough will look to grow the company’s share of that market.

The office will house a range of employees – those who handle insurance claims, but also occupational therapists, social workers, work coaches and even nurses.

“Something that people don’t immediately know about disability insurance is that it’s not just about sending a check and getting claims paid when someone is not able to work,” Fishbein said. “Your disability insurer is your partner to get you back to work. … It’s a major part of what we do and what our competitors do, but we expect to do it better in the future.”

Fishbein said the office space in Scarborough fits the company’s vision for creating what he called a “center for innovation.”

“It is a really innovative, open, contemporary workspace, and that was really important to us,” he said.

If all goes according to plan, Fishbein believes the Scarborough office will play an outsized role in the company’s future.

“We’re really hoping that if we get the right teams in place in the right work environment, we’ll see more and more innovative solutions come out of this office,” he said.