Partners Life guru takes on big boys // Partners Life

By: Partners Life  05-Apr-2012
Keywords: Insurance, Life Insurance

She's played a major role in creating two of the best-known life insurance companies in the country – now Naomi Ballantyne is doing it again.

Last week a small group of investors formally agreed to back Partners Life, a company Ballantyne has founded with Richard Coon, the founder of reverse mortgage company Sentinel. The intention is to create a fast-growth rival to challenge the likes of Sovereign, Onepath Life, AMP and Axa.

It's familiar territory for Ballantyne, who was instrumental in building up the giant life company Sovereign, now owned by ASB Bank, and was the founder of the successful ING Life, now called Onepath Life.

Rumours had been circulating for several weeks about the possible creation of a major new insurance venture selling through financial advisers and insurance brokers, but they generally credited the plan to Sovereign founder Chris Coon, brother of Richard, who is working as a consultant on the new launch. He is neither a shareholder nor a director.

The plan is for Partners Life to start offering a suite of products in March, starting with life insurance, income protection, medical insurance, disability insurance and trauma cover.

Ultimately, fire and general insurance would be added to the mix, as would mortgage lending, said Ballantyne, but the company would be unlikely to enter the low-margin investment and KiwiSaver markets.

Ballantyne said the aim was to create a company that changed the life insurance industry, as Sovereign and ING Life did.

Sovereign launched into a market of 32 insurers who almost universally treated independent advisers as "absolute pariahs", said Ballantyne.

"There was no focus on the consumer," she said. "It was all very closed and secretive. Those where the days of the whole of life products.

"They were products with which everybody got rich, except the client."

Sovereign led the shift away to pure risk-only products.

"Sovereign changed the landscape for the better for consumers," Ballantyne said.

"Margins are much lower now [compared to] when Sovereign launched."

Quickly, the new company found advisers flocking to it, and some advisers tied to the big incumbents jumped ship so they could sell the new products, which led to the "old boys club" employing dirty tricks to kill Sovereign, Ballantyne said.

Allegations were made that Sovereign did not have the cash to pay claims, Ballantyne said. "The Securities Commission climbed all over Sovereign for a year and nearly shut them down."

Sovereign had to fly in reinsurers from overseas to convince the commission that it would have the ability to meet claims' spikes.

"That can't happen today because now there is regulation," said Ballantyne.

"You either meet the regulations, or you don't.

"It is much harder for someone to throw an unfounded accusation and have it stick."

The lower margins following Sovereign's establishment led to consolidation, said Ballantyne, leaving an opening for a new company. Ballantyne launched Club Life in 2000 to fill it.

Club Life, which would be bought by ING and end up in ANZ National Bank's hands, wooed advisers with top-end policies, including innovations that are now industry standard, such as paying income protection benefits a month in advance, rather than making policyholders wait.

One of the key attractions with Partners Life will be that loyal clients will get lower premiums than new clients, said Ballantyne.

"That will be us giving away a little of the profits that we will be making," she said.

"It is about making sure that every stakeholder shares in the value we will create over time," she said. Ballantyne said the company would adopt "the right philosophy at claims time", something she said did not always hold in the industry.

She said from time to time things like poor underwriting, or unexpected spikes in claims appeared to have led to insurance company managements demanding an occasional claims' clamp-down.

The attitude in such cases was: "Keep saying no until you push hard enough" which was not fair on policyholders.

Partners Life's claims philosophy would be "if it's grey, you pay" but never to be browbeaten into paying, even by Fair Go, if the company would be right to decline a claim.

Ballantyne said she is not universally liked in the insurance industry, in part because, over the years, she has provided help to advisers whose clients have been fighting claims' refusals by rival insurers.

"I'm not popular with everybody. I don't need to be popular with everybody.

"I just need to know I am doing the right thing," she said.

The aim was to build real value for shareholders, she said, and when it comes time to sell, she hopes it will be through an IPO.

- Sunday Star Times

Keywords: Insurance, Life Insurance

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