As New Zealand insurers continue to count the costs of a horror cat season, Steadfast New Zealand CEO Neil Cousins says climate change and the risks associated with poorly constructed housing in vulnerable locations should be near the top of the industry’s agenda.
“Emerging risk is a very important area for all insurers, but we already know about the biggest risk we face as a species,” says Cousins, who will be a panelist at ANZIIF’s 2023 New Zealand Business Breakfast in September.
“Rapidly changing weather patterns have already resulted two large storm events in New Zealand this year, costing an estimated NZ$1.65 billion across house, contents, motor and commercial sectors.
“In particular, we saw the risks associated with housing in terms of vulnerable locations, such as the use of poor-quality materials and below-standard construction, which is a topic up for discussion at the breakfast.”
Balancing profit with customer needs
It’s not only homeowners and renters who are under threat, Cousins says, adding that insurers must be allowed to make a profit, but catastrophes on this scale cut deep and could leave some struggling to survive.
“It’s time for all of us to stop complaining about the weather and start doing something about it by wielding our power as consumers,” he asserts.
“If we spend our money in more sustainable ways, suppliers ranging from large businesses to governments will be forced to change the way they operate. This is where the power of the individual lies.”
Breadth of experience
Cousins grew up in the United Kingdom, taking his first job in insurance when he was 16.
“This was in an eight-month gap between school and college,” he says. “And, thanks to that experience, I found it easy get work in the industry while I studied to help fund my education. When I finished university, insurance was the obvious choice of career.”
After working for 15 years as a broker for several UK companies, Cousins and his family moved to New Zealand and never left. “We love it here – it’s a great place to live,” he says.
Cousins was surprised to find that underwriters in New Zealand tend to specialise earlier in their careers than those in the UK.
“Both approaches have their pros and cons, but my breadth of experience has worked well for me,” he says. “At Steadfast, for example, I’ve been able to offer advice to members in different areas.
“We’re unusual in that we have a relatively small team of general insurance brokerages in New Zealand but we’re by far the largest insurance intermediary in Australasia.
“That means we have the resources to create new products, new software and new technology for the benefit of our local members and their customers.”
Steadfast New Zealand has more than doubled in size in terms of both premiums and the number of brokers since Cousins joined as a broker services manager in 2017.
He was appointed CEO in September 2022, and the network has added approximately 50 new members taking it to over 60 broking organisations.
“I’m particularly proud that that people are coming in for the right reasons,” Cousins says. “They’ve seen what we have to offer, such as tried and tested IT platforms and a high level of support, then made an active decision to join us.”
While climate change remains a key focus, Cousins is also keen to find new ways to improve the industry’s reputation in the broader community.
“The only time insurance gets into the news is after a big event, like those in Auckland or Hawke's Bay,” he says.
“Even though insurance companies are paying out millions and millions of dollars, there’s always something for the community to criticise, or something negative for the media to report.
"It frustrates me that the industry doesn’t spend more time and energy explaining the role insurance plays in our society.
“Without insurance, we wouldn't be able to drive cars, buy homes, get finance or run a business. It’s absolutely essential to how we live our lives today and how we will live our lives in the future — yet we still hear the negative talk.
"This not only affects the way customers think about insurance, it also stops people from wanting to work in the industry.”
A contribution to society
Cousins would like young people to know more about what he sees as a good, varied and interesting career.
“When we moved to New Zealand I didn't even question whether I'd be able to find work,” he says. “I was confident I’d get a job and, within in a month, I was fully employed.
"Insurance gave me the scope to travel and be employed anywhere in the world. We need to let people know more about the opportunities that come with working in the industry and talk more positively about the contribution we make to society.”