If you were choosing a time to start a new job, two days before New Zealand went into unprecedented lockdown in response to a global pandemic might not be it.

But new IBANZ chief executive Melanie Gorham is upbeat and positive about the challenges she's been thrown into the middle of as she replaces retiring chief executive Gary Young.

She said the experience of starting a new job on March 23 was not as bad as you might expect, and even provided some benefits.

"It's been a challenge but an opportunity to focus. I can't go and visit people ± ordinarily I'd be out meeting people so there's more of an ability to focus and come to grips with the role, immerse myself in that - it's easier than trying to do that while also being out meeting and greeting."

While there have been long days from the home office, Gorham said she had been able to get a deeper understanding of the new organisation and what would be required in the coming months.

Faced with the sort of economic challenge that New Zealand had not encountered before, Gorham said there would be an inevitable impact on the insurance industry as a result of Covid-19.

But as long as the industry navigated it well and continued to cement its relationships with clients and customers, it should come out of it in good shape, she said. "Many have been through things like the GFC but didn't have the far-reaching impacts this is likely to have."

If the effect was short and sharp the focus could return on rebuilding and getting back to the new business as usual, she said.  Balancing the social, economic and health impacts of the outbreak was a challenge, she said, but something that needed more attention paid to it as the country moved further through its response.

While it would be tough, Gorham said she could see there would be the chance for businesses to flourish in the rebuilding phase. "There's always opportunities. but for many it will mean changing in some way.  As we have sadly already seen some businesses will fail whilst others will evolve because of what they have been through and learned."

Prior to being approached about replacing Young, Gorham was QBE's head of claims NZPAC.  It was a varied role which included leadership of the NZ claims operations and oversight of those in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, QBE having recently integrated these countries into the NZPAC region.

Gorham said she had reached a point at QBE where it was time for a new challenge and a fresh perspective. Former general manager Bill Donovan heard she was moving on and asked whether she would be interested.

"I like the idea of more focus back on the broking side."

Working at IBANZ would mean connecting back into the advice world, but removed from the client relationship, she said. "When you're broking there's a duty you owe to clients and I always took that very seriously. It's great to keep my hand in with broking but with more distance between you and the client."

Gorham has worked in insurance for almost all of her career, including as a broker for Marsh. She said her career success had been driven by being able to build strong, collaborative relationships with colleagues, clients and suppliers  and deploying sound analysis and negotiation skills.

Insurance offered a wide variety of experiences as a career, Gorham said. 

It often provided the opportunity to think about things from a different perspective, she said. Working on infrastructure projects such as roading allowed her to develop a good understanding of a sector she might not otherwise have been exposed to, for example. "I've got to meet a remarkable array of peopleº it's just incredibly interesting. Everyone buys insurance for all different reasons."

While she had managed a New Zealand based team of 47 at QBE, the IBANZ team is a much smaller one. Gorham said she liked the make-up of the board and knew many of the broker members well. "It's a diverse board, with good representation from local brokers and bigger corporates. A lot of them I have worked with or know of from previous roles."

While the industry is going through a significant period of legislative change, Gorham said the idea of getting into the "nitty gritty" of making submissions and fighting for better  outcomes for the broking world and its clients was appealing. "As odd as that sounds. I find it interesting, albeit a bit challenging and frustrating."

Gorham said there were positives out of the new regime for financial advisers and insurance brokers, but there was a need for the Government to have a fuller understanding of the industry, particularly how the fire and general insurance side worked and how it was different to life insurance.

"They've taken what they've seen on the life side and applied the same logic but it's so different. There are improvements that can be made for everyone. We would all be best served if the Government took on board what everyone had to say."

The Conduct of Financial Institutions bill, which is progressing through Parliament was somewhat at odds with the Financial Services Legislation Amendment Act rules, which come into effect next year. "There's a lot to work through there, a lot yet to be discussed, including disclosure requirements."

There was increasing focus on the social responsibilities of the insurance industry, Gorham said. "If I think back to five or ten years ago, businesses needed to look after clients but that balance of social responsibility was not at the forefront like it is now. 

"I feel like [the industry] has come a heck of a long way in 30 years but it needed to improve."

Young's last few years were inevitably focussed on keeping up with the significant amount of legislative and regulatory changes and this would remain so Gorham said. She also said she is keen to continue discussions with a cross section of IBANZ members to understand what else they thought was important for the association to concentrate on, balancing both would be a challenge for the future.

June 2020

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