Business Hub: Amanda Whiting on why NZ’s largest insurer wants to get even bigger

You might think that a business with 2 million customers already, in a country with a population of 5 million, would be content with its lot.

But Australian insurance giant IAG – whose brands include State, AMI and NZI – has ambitions to add another 250,000 customers to its books in the next five years and Australian Amanda Whiting is at the forefront of the big push.

Appointed New Zealand chief executive in July, Whiting has been with IAG for nearly 15 years and sees the move as an opportunity for New Zealand’s largest general insurer to have even more impact.

“I’m really passionate about growth,” she says.

At the top of the company’s target list for new customers are young drivers and landlords.

Whiting says there are gaps in those markets.

“We know that 20 per cent of young drivers are uninsured and many more are under-insured, and I just know from the experience that I’ve had working with the insurance industry how catastrophic it can be if the uninsured young driver has an at-fault accident.

“It can actually change their life forever economically.”

Traditionally, insurers have charged high excesses for younger drivers who are seen as a higher crash risk because of their inexperience.

Whiting acknowledges there is a bit more risk in taking them on but, says it will look to provide a wrap-around insurance which includes driver training, where the excess can be reduced once that training is completed.

Landlord insurance has been another fraught area for insurers in past years, with a surge in meth-related insurance claims until 2018 when the Government’s science adviser produced a report stating there was no evidence that third-hand exposure from methamphetamine smoking caused adverse health effects.

“The reason there are opportunities is because there are challenges, right?,” Whiting quips.

The insurer wants to offer products for both landlords and renters, so if some event damages the property, both parties will be catered for.

“We can see ownership is changing here in New Zealand and there are more landlords and therefore more renters, and I think we’ve got an opportunity to play to both of those different needs.”

Alongside its expansion plans, IAG also aims to cut cost through automation and simplifying and improving its processes, as well as consolidating some of its smaller brands.

Whiting says at the most simple level it’s taking the “dumb stuff” out for its customers.

“We’ve got processes that I think need to be reviewed and refined. We are asking customers questions that are not relevant to them.”

Asked if that means customers will be dealing more with chatbots and automated services, Whiting says that will only happen if customers choose that route.

“I’m still a big fan of customer choice and trying to make sure that we are in different channels, where we are needed.

“And if the AI [artificial intelligence] is working well the customer won’t even know it’s there – they’ll just be surprised that we’ve completed something for them, and so there won’t be any connection that there is a robot in the background, doing it.”

Last year IAG announced the closure of its 53 AMI branches, in the process culling 65 branch managers at a cost of about A$20 million.

Whiting says that decision was made due to falling foot traffic in those branches.

At the same time, it set up a vulnerable customer support team to help customers with specific needs, and provided some training for older clients through SeniorNet to help them move to the new online self-service model.

Whiting says while the branches are not there anymore, there is still the opportunity for the company to be face-to-face with customers.

“The example of that is the Westport floods. There were lots of people that didn’t have access to the internet or their mobile phone wasn’t working so we very quickly stood up a pop-up office down there.”

She is now mulling how IAG could use more of these pop-up services.

“I want to think about that differently. It shouldn’t just be at claims time. There might be something else that we want to be in a community for, and so I think we’ll still be able to provide that face-to-face service, but not necessarily in a traditional kind of branch.”

Insurers are dealing with margin pressure on a number of fronts, with rising natural disaster events caused by climate change, while Covid has also brought inflation.

For the first time, the cost of replacing second hand cars has risen, and parts are harder to get from overseas, taking much longer to arrive than in pre-Covid times.

Whiting says it is trying to counter that by using second-hand parts as much as possible.

“We’re experiencing some increase here but not a lot and we are keeping a really close eye on it to make sure we are pulling all the levers that we can.”

IAG has bought vehicle repairs in-house in recent years, starting its own panel beating service called Repair Hub.

It is about to open its third hub in Ōnehunga and has plans for another three or four in urban centres around the country over the next year, with the next one in Hamilton.

Whiting says the hubs aim to take the inconvenience out of getting a repair done and have gone down well with customers so far.

But the move has ruffled feathers among panel beaters, with industry body the Collision Repair Association accusing the insurer of anti-competitive practice.

Whiting says it needs to be competing in the market for repairs just like anyone else is.

“So if we are providing a better customer experience it comes down to customer choice really.”

On the house insurance front, Whiting says building inflation is more of a worry.

“In terms of inflation, New Zealand is no different to any other country; at the moment there is a massive building boom going on and that drives inflation and supply constraints.

“We’ve got relationships with a proven network of builders that we use, and while we are seeing some labour rates increasing, we’re continuing to work them to make sure that we make it sustainable for them, but also wanting to make sure that repair costs are kept to a minimum.

“The other thing is, because of course we’ve got scale, so we do buy a lot of building products, and with that we can get cheaper rates and can then pass it on to the claims cost. But it is something we need to watch definitely.”

Whiting says the company is tackling climate change through reducing its own carbon footprint, working with communities on education and with both local and central government to influence where houses are built to avoid floodplains.

“It’s such a big issue that it’s not something you can do on your own. So it feels like we need to collaborate a lot more with all the interested parties across New Zealand, so we can have more of an impact.”

Covid impact

Covid has already resulted in the insurer subleasing a large chunk of its Auckland office space.

Last year its workers were not encouraged to return to the office until alert level 2 and under the traffic light system they won’t be back until the green light.

“We have always seen flexibility as a very important part of attracting and retaining teams so even before Covid we were already working flexibly. We won’t go back in the orange and red traffic lights.

“We will allow people to work in the office if that’s what they choose to do … we’re just not directing anyone to be back in the office under those traffic lights.”

Whiting says it makes no sense for people to return to the office only to spend their time on video calls.

Going into the office should be about driving culture through collaboration and brainstorming together, she adds.

Keeping those aspects going have been a challenge while working from home.

“In terms of connection and driving the culture it’s been hard, our leaders have had to do a lot more. They’ve been really having to think about ‘have I spoken to so and so today’ and I think they’ve done an outstanding job actually.

“We’ve done all kinds of weird and wonderful things to make sure that people are feeling connected. [But] it’s not all about wearing funny hats, it’s not all about doing fun stuff – it’s also about being just a little bit more open around how you’re feeling.

“You have to lead with that. I’m very comfortable saying I’m not having a great day today. I’m not feeling particularly excited about what I’m doing today because I think you need to do that to show that bit of vulnerability so other people feel like it’s okay to speak up if they’re not feeling right.”

Whiting believes the future of the office is going to look really different.

“We will see less workstations and more collaboration zones, more places to sit it and just have a chat. If you’re going to come and do focus work at work, unless you’re really extroverted and need people around you, it makes much more sense to do that at home.

“There’s a need for more open zones where people can come together, have a chat and do something that connects them all or help them solve a problem.”

Pandemic move

Moving countries to a new job might not be everyone’s idea of a good time but Whiting sees it as a good opportunity to grab.

“I’ve always had a view that if there’s an opportunity available, you should take it. That’s how I built my career. I haven’t always looked for what my next job should be, but what sort of experience do I want to have.”

Whiting’s husband is a Kiwi from the Hawke’s Bay and while she’s missing her two adult children who live in Sydney and Perth, she has been able to spend more time with her New Zealand family.

“I’ve got nephews and nieces here, they’re taking advantage of auntie and uncle’s Auckland pad … so you know that it wasn’t really a hard decision.”

Whiting moved from Sydney but grew up and has spent much of her career in Western Australia. She grew up in a small town on a wheat and sheep farm.

She fell into insurance as a career after first joining a health insurer. “I fell into it. I didn’t know what it was really. As time wore on I started to understand more about insurance.

“I had a long career in insurance over the last 25 years but I have also owned my own businesses, we had a pub in the goldfields for a period of time, which was a bit crazy.

“But I keep coming back to this business in particular because it’s just so purpose driven … you can really see that play out when you’re managing big events and helping people through even a small claim.”

Amanda Whiting:

Job: IAG New Zealand chief executive
Grew up: On a wheat and sheep farm in a small town in Western Australia called Wamenusking
Education: Graduate Certificate in Business Management
Career: Began her career working for a health insurer. She joined IAG from iiNet in 2008 and has more than 20 years’ experience in the insurance industry in both general and health insurance, having held senior roles in these industries as well as telecommunications. She was appointed CEO of IAG NZ on July 1, 2021.
Family: Married to a Kiwi with a 22-year-old son and 26-year-old daughter who live in Australia.
What was the last movie you saw? Buckley’s Chance on the flight back to Australia
What was the last book you read? Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
What was the last holiday you went on? She went back to Perth to be there while her daughter’s now-fiance proposed to her as a surprise.

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