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Naomi Ballantyne is a pioneer of the New Zealand insurance industry, who has founded two insurance companies. She talks about being an entrepreneur, raising capital, and disrupting her own business.
Naomi Ballantyne is the founder and managing director of Partners Life Insurance. She was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the insurance industry.
Ballantyne is the only woman in the world to have founded two life insurance companies. She has served as the chief operating officer of Sovereign, and is also the founder of Club Life.
Founded in 2010, Partners Life is an innovative new life insurance company that has grown rapidly in the New Zealand market. Today, it has 170 full-time staff, insures 130,000 lives, has NZ$190 million in annual premiums in force, and has raised a total of NZ$315 million in equity – including an NZ$200 million raise from Blackstone in March 2016.
When you’re advising young people today who want to get into business, or start their own companies, what do you say to them?
Well, I’d be a hypocrite if I said: “You need to study.” Obviously, if you want to be a doctor then you have to study, or if you want to act as a lawyer you have to study, because there are educational barriers to enter those places, and so there should be.
But for something like being an entrepreneur, there wasn’t any textbook that could teach me how to do what I did.
The experiences that I had in the companies that I was fortunate enough to be employed in gave me some knowledge and some confidence. And then 99 per cent of it was stubbornness, common sense, a belief in myself, and being willing to make a decision even when I didn’t really know whether it was the right one.
And if you’ve got that combination, you really are truly an entrepreneur. Because most people won’t make a decision. They won’t stick their neck above the parapet and say, “I’ve got this great idea,” in case other people pooh-pooh it. So, if you’ve already got ideas and a willingness to speak to them, and a drive to see them through, then probably you’re not going to be very happily employed for very long.
Back in March 2016, you raised NZ$200 million from global fund manager Blackstone. What was the biggest lesson you took from that process?
One of the interesting pieces of feedback we had is that with the sort of deep-dive due diligence that
they do, they end up knowing more about the market, and the company, and the competitors, than the company that they’re looking at investing in. Which gives them a slight balance of power, right?
But in our case they couldn’t, because I am the industry expert in New Zealand, because no one’s been here doing what I’ve been doing as successfully for as long. So I had that deep knowledge of the industry and the company.
I think also, scary as it is, we stood up for ourselves. The relationship wasn’t combative, but there was their vested interest in getting in at the lowest possible price. Our vested interest was getting the right amount of capital at the right price, but also the right partner to take us forward. So we stood our ground in those discussions.
That’s scary to do, because at any given time, you could be kissing goodbye to NZ$200 million because you pushed too hard. So, you know, you have to back yourself, you’ve got to know your worth, and you’ve got to know your market.
How are you disrupting your own business and your own model?
That’s been the challenge. When you grow this fast, you build businesses and you think that they’re going to work. You have to go, “What if they don’t? We’ll change them over time.”
The hardest part is to take the time to change them when you’re just running to keep up with this massive growth. We’re probably a little more mature now; the growth rates have slowed down. We’re not going to be at 500 or 600 per cent growth a year forever. This has allowed us to take a breath and say, “Okay, what worked then or worked well enough then that we now need to continue to disrupt?”
What’s would you say to a business leader trying to deal with technological disruption in their industry?
I think you can get lost in it. I think you can get overwhelmed by it, and think you should be doing something just for the sake of doing something.
It needs to be a deliberate strategy, not a panic attack. People keep throwing technology around and you feel like you may be missing out, so you say, “Let’s jump on a bandwagon”, without really understanding why you’re doing it.
I think what you want to do is make sure that you understand where you want to get to, who your customers are, how they are going to best buy your products, and how they’re changing. Then determine what that means you need to change in order to deliver against that.
In any high-growth business, you want the culture to be high-performance, and extremely fast-moving. How do you encourage that? Does it come back to how you act as a leader?
It does. It’s not about being the be-all and end-all, because some leaders can’t let go. They don’t have a high-performance culture – they’re high performance, but they don’t want everyone else to be high performance. It’s a weird thing, right? But there are people who lead like that. It makes them feel good about themselves. It makes them feel indispensable. What you are is stuck because you can never get out of what you’re doing. So it’s really about encouraging people to let go. It’s trusting people. It’s being willing to let them make decisions, or even mistakes.
What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Be yourself, because people buy into you. Be brave, and back yourself. You are fantastic.