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The Insurance Disruptor

Partners Life CEO Naomi Ballantyne’s beliefs about culture and innovation have helped shape the New Zealand insurance industry. She talks to Brenda Ward.

9 March 2022

How did you get into the insurance business?

I was doing a marine biology degree at university, but I also wanted to get married and I couldn’t afford to do both, so I thought, ‘Oh, I’d better go and get a job.’

I saw one advertised for a management trainee in insurance. ‘Management trainee’ sounded good, so it’s the job I took and that was the start of it.

I didn’t even know what insurance was, but I very quickly realised that we paid out money to people when bad things happened to them.

Did you climb the ladder?

No, I bounced. I’d stay a couple of years and learn what I could learn, then I’d go to another company. It was the only way I could get promoted faster because, in those days, it was very much like the public service. You went up a grade each year on your anniversary and the guy at the top had been there for 50 years.

Was it a hard time to be female?

Yes, it was really old-school and there was no encouragement for girls in their careers. You had to wait for the guy above you to die before you could get his job.

Then, I landed at Sovereign when they were starting it. I was their first employee at 24 and they needed someone to build everything practically from the ground up, other than product and pricing. I’d done enough different kinds of work at different companies that I had the confidence that I could work it out. No one else applied, so they didn’t have a choice!

That was a tremendous opportunity. I didn’t own the company, but I built it, so that experience gave me confidence. You try things and if they don’t work, you change them, or you luck on something and you become the person who invented that for the industry.

When I left Sovereign, I didn’t leave knowing that I was going to start another company; I left because a bank had bought it and I could see that they were going to fundamentally change the culture.

I’d built that culture, and my people believed that I would protect them, but I couldn’t – I had no influence over the decisions that the bank was making.

Then, one of their team sat me down and said, ‘the cost of your units is more expensive than the cost of our units, so you need to change that.’

Cost? Units? She was talking about salaries and people.

No. I couldn’t live with that, so I just left with no job to go to and no idea what I was going to do. I just knew that I couldn’t do that.

So, what happened next?

I looked for a job, but no one would hire me because I was that annoying woman from Sovereign.

I figured that since I practically built Sovereign, I knew how to build an insurance company – I just didn’t know where to get the money from. I thought if I could figure that out, I could start my own company and that’s exactly what I did.

Which was the first company you founded?

It was called Club Life, and I started it in 2001. It became ING Life and then Onepath Life, and then Cigna bought it in the last couple of years and, hot off the press, it has now been bought by Chubb.

And then you started Partners Life?

Yes, I started Partners Life in 2011. I took it from zero to the second-largest life and health insurance company in New Zealand.

You took all those learnings with you?

Yes, 100 per cent, plus a whole lot more understanding of the industry.

We had a new regulator. So, we had whole lot of stuff we knew how to do, a whole lot of stuff we would have changed if we could’ve done it differently, and then new stuff that no one in the industry knew how to do.

But I also had more confidence that when you had a hurdle, you knew you could get past it if you had smart people around you.

The company’s now 10 years old. And growing…

We recently acquired the business of BNZ Life Insurance. Once we’ve completed the process, that will add an additional third to our book and make us substantially bigger.

Would you call yourself a disruptor?

Yes, since Club Life days. The way I’d describe it is we’ve dragged the industry kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. We’ve dragged them into consistently doing the right thing by their customer, which is through having good products and competitive pricing, and making sure your philosophies are right. It’s become a very different industry.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think you have to do the right thing by people. People are individuals so there’s not one size fits all. And you’ve got to lead by example, from the front.

If you want a certain type of culture, you’ve got to behave it, you’ve got to drive it in your executive team and then you’ve got to make sure that it passes down through the organisation.

I think I’m demanding in the sense that I’ve got this urgency, that I need to get everything out of my head and all my experience into the hearts and minds of the people who work for me, so, they don’t have to learn it the way I learned it.

We’ve got to keep doing and moving, and then we’ve got to keep learning and growing.

Why do you think insurance is important for Kiwis?

Because you need insurance most when you can’t afford to not have an income. That’s what it is. Life insurance is, basically, protecting your income, replacing what’s lost.

You need it most when you’d suffer the most. What we’ve found out from Covid is the minute we went into lockdown, we started to get some customers ringing, asking ‘How are you going to help us?’

We hadn’t even had a month in lockdown, but they literally had nothing to fall back on. Well, if that’s you, then the only answer is insurance.

We’re trying to change attitudes.

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