Speedy rise spurs plans for insurer
For every $100 of new life insurance business written in the June quarter, $17 was written by Partners Life which only launched in April last year.
The insurer, which sells insurances like life, trauma, income protection and medical, does so through insurance advisers and does not advertise widely so is not yet well known to the public.
But in just 16 months, the company has drawn very close to its five-year target of taking 20 per cent of all new personal insurance being written, and now has over 30,000 policyholders.
The speed of its rise, and recent equity stakes taken by two prominent private equity firms, has seen it accelerate its plans to list on the stock exchange and take on a new chief financial officer with experience of listing companies.
It has also seen Partners Life cheekily move into the same Hurstmere Rd office block in Takapuna that once housed Sovereign, the company established by Chris Coon, one of the founders of Partners Life, and where Partners Life chief executive Naomi Ballantyne cut her teeth in insurance.
The rise of Partners Life has not come without controversy, and Ballantyne is one of the most polarising figures in insurance at the moment.
She says the success of Partners Life is down to timing.
She said the insurance advisers had been clobbered over the head with a wall of insurance company negativity. There was a lack of focus on creating fresh stories and product to sell to the public.
There were constant calls that advisers needed to tie themselves to one company to cope with a wave of regulation that would otherwise sweep them away.
“They were being beaten up constantly as advisers and they hadn't got anything fresh to go to their clients with,” said Ballantyne.
That created an opportunity for a new insurer, though Ballantyne says Partners has not been alone in exploiting that. Independent New Zealand-owned Fidelity Life has continued to grow well, and Australian-owned Asteron has re-emerged reinvigorated.
Critics claim advisers have also been wooed by the healthy commissions they can earn from switching, some even say "churning" business to Partners Life, and also from the “shadow share scheme” that Partners runs, giving advisers who put business with it shadow shares they can cash in at a later date as a reward for staying loyal to the company and leaving business on its books.
Ballantyne confronts each criticism, which she believes has been spread by insurance companies Partners is taking market share from, head on.
One accusation is that the companies she has been involved in before Sovereign and Club Life, which was sold to ING and then Onepath, both needed recapitalising by their buyers.
Ballantyne counters that the investment of fresh capital in Sovereign and Onepath was not to do with the companies being undercapitalised, but decisions by the new owners to take company assets on to their balance sheets and to replace reinsurance finance with its own capital.
It would be insulting to ASB and ING to suggest they were incapable of doing due diligence on businesses, Ballantyne said.
But she's been annoyed by questions asked about the financial strength of Partners, which has a credit rating and reinsurance, and about the attempt to stop Partners Life from joining insurer industry body the Financial Services Council which she believes was designed to enable rivals to claim Partners Life lacked credibility.
The FSC has now allowed Partners Life to join.
But the whisper campaign is beginning to tail away, “largely because it has not worked, and that every one of the things these guys have said, there is an answer to”.
The future path for Partners is quite clear now.
New Product is on the way, as is a new adviser and policyholder internet portal that could break the insurance sector model of providing little in the way of online access to policyholders.
Ballantyne said Partners is breaking new insurance ground, including guaranteeing that if it enhances policies, all policies even those already written will get the upgrades. It has also created a new type of insurance - total long term disability - but there are plenty of opportunities for more innovation.
Also firmly in train are preparations for that eventual stock exchange listing, preparations that are accelerating.
An 11 per cent equity stake taken by private equity firm Maui Capital will help continue that growth, joining a 5 per cent stake taken by another private equity firm, Rangatira, in March.
Ballantyne said the investments were a source of pride.
“We are very flattered for two reasons. They focus on companies with growth opportunities and in companies where they see quality in the management."
But, of course, private equity firms want to see an exit strategy for their money when they invest, Ballantyne acknowledged.
That meant it was more than likely that an initial public offering to sell the company on to the stock exchange would happen in around two years, earlier than the market had been expecting.
Ballantyne has made no secret of the IPO aim, which mirrors the path taken by Sovereign where she cut her teeth in insurance before launching Club Life, which was sold to ING, which in turn was acquired by ANZ National Bank and now operates under the name Onepath Life.
Despite its rapid growth, the Takapuna skyline is not likely to get a big Partners Life sign appearing over the Hurstmere Rd building into which it has moved, and which Ballantyne predicts it will slowly take over.
Partners Life has named each of its meeting rooms after locations in Lord of the Rings, but that is as far as it is going to get with naming rights in the building.
The sign up on the roof still says Sovereign, even though the giant life insurer moved to its headquarters in Smales Farm in 2007.
ASB sold the naming rights back to the landlord, Ballantyne said, but there was a condition: Partners Life couldn't have its name up there.
- © Fairfax NZ News