Sovereign chief executive Nick Stanhope has just celebrated his first anniversary in the job. It’s his first role at the top of an organisation but he says he is loving the challenge of trying to innovate an industry selling something most of us hope never to need.
Has there been anything that has surprised you about your first 12 months?
It doesn’t come with a manual so a lot of it you need to learn quickly, but also it differs depending on the person and your personality and your leadership style. I’ve had some big roles so it’s kind of been a natural evolution of all the things I’ve done before and all the skills I’ve had.
READ MORE: Sovereign appoints Nick Stanhope as chief executive
What are the biggest challenges?
It’s a great job, I should say that. The things you really draw your skills on are things like stakeholder management. If it’s not the board, the shareholders of the business, its customers, staff, regulators, suppliers. It’s about communicating and positioning and presenting the business to those parties. The buck stops with you – for the first time everything flows to me. Even when I was running the second-largest wealth business in New Zealand at ASB I was one of many. Now if anything happens, good or not so good, it’s something I handle and manage and work through with the various stakeholders. You certainly rely on personal resilience. I am an optimist, I focus on what’s possible. In these roles a lot of things come up and a lot of things challenge you. Having strong personal resilience and being able to accept and understand the issue, work out a way forward, are really important parts of the role. And not to worry about things. I don’t really worry about a lot. It’s not something which is helpful.
Do you think New Zealanders’ attitudes to insurance are changing?
I think a lot of that is driven by immigration. People who come into New Zealand from other countries where their health systems are different, they don’t have ACC for example, look at the value of health insurance and life insurance quite differently. We see a high proportion of immigrants that will take on life and health insurance.
Having worked in this job for a period of time you get to know the data around what can happen to people and you certainly, on a personal level I make sure I’m well insured. This business is all about data and decades and decades of data which tell us what can happen to people and what has happened to people. With technology one of the things I want to be able to do is enable people to have that information so they can assess for themselves the likelihood of things happening and do their own risk management. We all don’t want anything to happen and nor should we – we should focus on the positive. But things do happen and what’s the strategy to deal with those circumstances?.
Do you think it’s that ‘we hope we never have to use it’ that makes us reluctant to buy insurance?
I don’t think anyone dwells on the fact they might get sick. We all die, the question is when and what is the circumstance you leave. The thing I’ve been so impressed with is you see our advisers talk to customers in such an eloquent way. “Let’s talk about you, your situation, how we can ensure those things aren’t things that are concerns in the future.” When something goes wrong it’s too late. The thing I’m really passionate about is giving people the opportunity to make a decision. It’s up to them to decide what they want to do but if I can put something in front of them, then they have good knowledge and can make a decision and I’ve done my job.
You’re taking more of a wellness approach, rather than being an ‘ambulance of the bottom of the cliff’?
I think with any new CEO, you bring your own slant. A big part of my life has been athletics. I’ve done ironman and a lot of triathlons, cycling, pretty much any sport. What we try to do is work with people who provide good balanced advice. We work with a woman called Nicola Smith who provides good nutritional advice, not extreme stuff, through our website you can get information on a whole lot of things that may be beneficial to your life. We’ve been trialling Healthy by Sovereign which is a programme that rewards people eating certain types of food – we don’t look at the detail but if they get whole foods in their supermarket shopping we give them points for that, if they go to the gym… we know a certain degree of activity and dietary direction can make quite a difference to people’s health and wellbeing. We’re just trying to deepen the relationship with our customers. Health information is mutually beneficial because we don’t want people to claim and they don’t want to claim either. If we can help them it’s a win/win.
When you start to understand the good [insurers] do in the New Zealand economy and for New Zealand Inc – $350m a year goes into the economy to help people in their time of need. It’s not just the money, I go out in my visits and see claimants and how we’ve turned someone who’s been in their deepest, darkest moment to where they’ve come to – happy, back in employment – that’s the second thing that gets me up in the morning, What a fantastic thing to be involved with, helping brother and sister New Zealanders be the best they can. There’s not many jobs that do that.