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Daughter’s drug overdose fuels insurance exec’s new life mission

Michael Ortoll scaled the peaks of the insurance industry for 30 years. But the challenge that brought him to his knees didn’t come from work.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. April 28, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mike Ortoll started a nonprofit for his daughter, Christne Ortoll, in 2021.
Mike Ortoll started a nonprofit for his daughter, Christne Ortoll, in 2021.
Photo by Mark Wemple
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Tampa Bay area insurance industry executive and entrepreneur Michael Ortoll is a numbers guy and, as such, he knows at his current age, 64, he should be in the last act of his career. Ortoll has founded and grown companies, sold businesses, run an insurance services unit of a national bank and more in some 30 years. He’s currently a partner with BRP Group, a billion-dollar, Tampa-based, publicly traded insurance firm. Ortoll also runs a Tampa-based brokerage for Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs).

But instead of climbing one last insurance mountain, Ortoll is doing something entirely new — something even an actuarial junkie like himself couldn’t have projected 15 years ago. Ortoll is running a nonprofit with a mission dedicated to “create media content about mental health issues and substance use disorder that is both educational and inspiring, so our audience can feel empowerment to take control of their lives, find the support they need and move forward with hope.”

For Ortoll, that mission is personal: The nonprofit is the Christine Ortoll Charity — named for his daughter, Christine. A Tampa resident and 2012 graduate of Carrollwood Day School, Christine Ortoll died in November 2020, when she was 26, of a fentanyl overdose. In the decade before that, she’d been in 20 drug and substance centers, including one 18-month period in which she was in seven.

MIke Ortoll says this photo, at his 2017 wedding, is "one of the best moments of my life."
Courtesy photo

The two-year old nonprofit hit a big milestone in late March, when a movie Ortoll was executive producer on, “One Second at a Time: Battling the Monster of Addiction,” premiered at an event at the Tampa Theatre. Mike Ortoll and the writer and director, Tampa-based Tim Searfoss, are working with some of the major streaming networks on a distribution deal, which they expect to be done by the end of 2023. 

The movie includes reenactments and interviews with Christine Ortoll’s family and inner circle, in addition to substance abuse professionals, such as an addiction psychiatrist. Having never known anyone with a substance addiction, Searfross says directing the raw and heartfelt film was “an eye-opening experience.”

The movie is also told through the life and voice of Christine Ortoll, via her journals, with an unyielding theme of hope, Mike Ortoll says. “I don’t want to be defined by my disease,” she wrote, “but remembered for it.”

And while addiction is the focus, it’s bigger than that, he adds. “It’s about faith. It’s about love. It’s about self-care. It’s about the human condition.” 


‘My little girl’ 

Simultaneous to the nonprofit, and a significant part of what’s now his life’s work, Ortoll is on another mission: to help other people like him — hard-charging, highly visible, Type A executives long used to winning who double as fathers — overcome a pair of stigmas. One is admitting your child has a substance issue. The other is coming to grips with the reality you can’t solve it. “I didn’t want to believe that this was happening to me,” he says. 

The "solve Christine" theme remains painful and comes up regularly for Ortoll, in conversations with his therapist, people in support groups, friends and others. 

“I had all the big clients and all the multimillion-dollar deals,” he says, “but I couldn’t do anything to help her.” 

Ortoll’s ex-wife Kim Ortoll, Christine’s mom, told Mike often when their daughter began showing some signs of issues that “you can’t fix her like you can a work problem.” 

But Ortoll plowed forward like he could do just that, he recalled in an interview before the movie debuted March 27. 

In the decade Christine was in and out of rehabs, Mike Ortoll says he spent more than $1 million on a variety of treatment programs and protocols for her, in-patient, outpatient and everything else. The rehab center stays — “all the best ones in the country,” he says — were nationwide, from Chicago to West Palm Beach, and Tampa to Nashville. For a time, it worked, as Christine was clean and sober for three years before a massive relapse. 

All the while Ortoll laments he was both codependent and in denial. 

“I didn’t want to think about all the things she was doing,” Ortoll says. “This was my daughter. This was my little girl.”


At the office

Mary Johnson, director of risk management for BRP Group’s PEO unit, worked with Ortoll through most of the crisis. Johnson met Ortoll in 2010, and she would occasionally meet him for lunch after that to talk about the insurance industry and seek advice. (Others in insurance in Tampa, Johnson says, sought counsel from Ortoll, who was generous with his time and knowledge.) 

Johnson joined Ortoll and his PEO team at BRP Group in 2015, when it was under the name BKS Partners. She worked with Ortoll and others, closing deals and solving issues for all kinds of clients, she says. It wasn’t a 9 to 5 gig, but something more akin to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. If not working, the team was talking or texting about the next deal, the next opportunity. 

At times, Johnson says, Ortoll was clearly distracted. He would talk about the issues going on with Christine when someone asked him. But he also compartmentalized it really well, Johnson says.

“He’s a great executive; he could close any deal. He’s exemplary; he’s amazing,” Johnson says. “He had all these contacts all over to connect people from New York to California to get something done.”

“But then he would say ‘I couldn’t rescue my daughter.’”

One conversation the pair had about Christine left Johnson back in her office in tears. “He told me, ‘I think I’m going to lose her.’"


Hard times

Christine Ortoll, her dad says, was funny and kind, a high school soccer player with an energetic personality. She also began using substances as early as middle school. “She started with beer, worked her way to marijuana, then opioids, pills and heroin,” he says. 

When she started on harder drugs and opioids, Ortoll quit working for three years, from 2012 to 2015. He had been a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Insurance Services in Tampa then, after the bank acquired a commercial insurance brokerage specializing in private equity, health care and PEOs he founded. “That’s when it was all hands on deck,” he says. “I knew it would be hard, but I had no idea how hard it would be.”  

After his daughter died, Mike Ortoll, who also has a son, learned how much his divorce with Kim Ortoll impacted Christine: She wrote down her emotions about that in her journal. In addition to the divorce, another entry from Christine cuts Ortoll deep: “‘I love you for you,” Ortoll says his daughter wrote, “but sometimes I think you love your work more than you love me.”

Christine Ortoll died in November 2020, when she was 26, of a fentanyl overdose.
Courtesy photo

“She was medicating her pain,” Ortoll says, “and she started hanging out with drug dealers.” 

Then came the in-and-out cycle of rehab. The final relapse before her death, in 2020, was particularly horrific, Ortoll recalls. She crashed her car, and then took a $15,000 insurance check to buy heroin — running it dry in two weeks. “It was a dad’s worst nightmare,” he says. 


No more secrets  

Ortoll pauses when asked what he would tell other executives facing a similar situation to what he went through with Christine. “I would tell them family secrets kill,” he says. His advice: Even when it’s painful, or, especially when it’s painful, talk to your kids about the hard things, like divorce or mental health issues. 

Even though Ortoll speaks proudly of the three years Christine was sober, he knows, looking back now, they made a mistake in not dealing with the reasons — secrets — that led her to addiction. “We never got to the root cause,” he says, “which was trauma.” 

Going more introspective, Ostoll doesn’t use the word regret. But he talks wistfully about having misaligned priorities during his prime working days, his divorce and when Christine was a young child. “I worked 70-80 hours a week,” he says, adding that post-divorce, when he was single for 20 years, he rarely slowed down from his chase-the-deal lifestyle. “I was successful on the outside but not the inside. I didn’t do anything that fed my soul.”

Ortoll says he found faith, which is now a big part of his life. He also remarried, in June 2017. The wedding, in now what’s one of his favorite pictures, represents a fond memory for Ortoll. In the photo he and Christine are embracing, eyes closed, her head in his shoulders. His eyes are closed, too. “That’s one of the best moments of my life,” he says. 

Ortoll encourages others to find what feeds their soul, from religion and faith to meditation and yoga. “Don’t wait until the second half of your life,” he says. 

Ortoll remains a partner with BRP Group — though he’s only working with current clients and not really going after new business. His attention is focused, instead, on promoting the movie, working on various projects the Christine Ortoll Charity supports and giving keynote speeches about substance abuse and his experience. “This,” Ortoll says, referring to all of it, from the movie, to de-stigmatization of abuse to helping other parents and families, “is my purpose now.” 

He adds: "This is redeeming for me. We were all living one second at a time.”

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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