Featured Profile: Gerard Kerr
Never a dull moment in life
One thing certain about life insurance is that there is never a dull moment. ANZ Wealth head of life insurance Gerard Kerr tells Karren Vergara what keeps him fascinated about the ever-changing industry.

There's a line in a U2 song that says 'the more you have the more it takes.' It reminds Gerard Kerr to appreciate more often what he does have and not get wrapped up in chasing all the things he doesn't.

Being in life insurance for some 30 years, the one thing he really does appreciate about the industry is the importance of having excellent health.

There are two things you should always have in life - one is music and the other is a sense of humour.
Understanding people's health and wellbeing, and the stresses and strains of everyday living, and gaining valuable insights on medical conditions such as cancer for example, are the most fascinating aspects of the life industry for Kerr.

Early in his career he considered going into geological surveying, but after landing a role in underwriting in his native Ireland, it left him fascinated with the industry.

"It was great because it wasn't pure insurance stuff; it was day-to-day insights that you could take outside of work and there's so much to learn when it comes to underwriting and assessment of risks."

Over the last 20 years, much of the industry has changed rapidly and "we're learning a huge amount" about conditions ranging from mental illness, to genetics, to obesity.

There might be a lot of unknowns about people's health and wellbeing, but if it was incredibly predictable it would become very dull, he says, adding that it keeps the variety going.

The experience at the first insurance company he worked for was memorable, Kerr says, but it was the people he worked with that brought great energy and created an enjoyable working environment that left a strong first impression.

"Some of these people I started working with have gone on to do really well in the industry; and we've kept in contact, dare I say it, even though it was more than 30 years ago. We've forged good friendships and whenever I'm back in Ireland, we meet up very easily just like old times."

After working in England for a couple of years and then spending some time in the US, Kerr moved back to Ireland before deciding to uproot and 'give Australia a go.'

Having young kids at the time and without a permanent a job lined up didn't stop Kerr and his wife Jennie flying to Australia just after the Sydney Olympics.

They set a six to 12-month timeframe to find employment and if that didn't work out, it still would have been nonetheless a "really nice holiday."

Fortunately, after finishing up some short-term contract roles, it led to someone at Royal & SunAlliance (now Asteron) taking a chance on Kerr and appointing him to a role managing products - an opportunity he says he'll "always be thankful" for.

In 2006, he became the head of Asteron's claims division and received an Investment and Financial Services Association (IFSA) award the following year for his work on underinsurance.

He was also commended for co-chairing the IFSA Protection Gap Working Group, which established a credible figure on the extent of underinsurance in Australia.

Kerr has a tendency, common to inspirational leaders, to attribute his accomplishments to team effort.

He says the colleagues he worked with at the time were just as energised and motivated in getting the underinsurance and protection gap message across.

It was really about galvanising and bringing everybody in the industry together; to align and have a single statement and number showing how big the gap was; and to ensure that the message is simple and sticks - which is what makes him most proud, Kerr explains.

In mid-2008, he joined ANZ Wealth and has been leading the three main channels of retail, group and direct life insurance since.

Even with the widely reported sale of ANZ Wealth in the works, Kerr likes to channel his energy in 'getting on with it' and just getting the job done - the day-to-day tasks of delivering its promises to customers rather than focusing on something beyond his control.

That's one of the things that's quite meaningful, he says, which is being there for customers when they need it the most.

"They may well claim it in 10, 15 or 20 years' time and I, or my current team, may not be around to deliver on the promises that people put in place with us."

Cognisant of "just passing through the portfolio," Kerr counters this by striving to make sure what he and his team creates is fair, reasonable and clear, and will stand the test of time.

If the person who takes over the portfolio can say, 'it's in a good space, it was well run and looked after,' then that would be a legacy to be proud of, he adds.

With any role, three things are most important: an honest boss to admire, respect and learn from; working with people of like-minded values; and finding a sense of achievement in knowing he's made a difference.

"If you can get all three of these you're in a really good sweet spot. I learned this from my previous managers. They created this environment and I try to create that environment for me and my people," he adds.

"When you move on from a role, to a new one, I actually think if the people around you in your departing role [say] to you, 'you know what Gerard, you were alright to work for and I'm going to miss you', [it's] as big as an accolade as you can get, and I think that's a good benchmark."

The self-confessed sports enthusiast names playing tennis, golf, running, and soccer (he's been playing fervently for years and also coaches his two younger boys' teams) as a great release from the stresses of work.

"I leave work early every Thursday afternoon to go out and do their training and ANZ has been very supportive of this.

"I've told people I can't do certain meetings; and I'm going to be off limits for two to three hours. I talk to some other parents who say they are too busy - my advice is if you get the opportunity to coach you should take it," Kerr says.

He likens playing sports and coaching to being in a working environment and on many aspects, both provide personal development opportunities and a window in understanding people.

In a football game, Kerr says, there are 11 players on the pitch who each have a different job to do; they all have different motivations and specialities; they must encourage each other whether win or lose - similar to a successful team in work.

The inveterate traveller says crossing paths with different people all over the globe have helped influence and mentor him throughout his career.

A funny thing he's come to realise is wherever he's been in the world, people will eventually gravitate to other people of similar personalities, values and work ethics.

Something he's noticed about the life insurance industry, he points out, is that it probably doesn't recognise that it's got some very capable and passionate people scattered across the globe.

Moreover, Kerr lauds his parents, siblings and his wife for shaping him to be the person he is today, along with his Irish roots (his kids give him a hard time about his strong accent).

Before his brother sadly passed away some eight months ago, one of the things he said that struck Kerr is that there are two things you should always have in life - one is music and the other is a sense of humour.

"That's all you need - and he's absolutely right," he says. Kerr has even set himself a challenge - to see as many musicians as he can that took part in the Live Aid concert back in 1985.

While Kerr's sense of humour and positive outlook on life is evident, it's his love of music and some "brilliant one-liners" that give him real insight into day-to-day life - the trials and tribulations - and even the power to inspire.

Bono comes out with some good lines, but being from Dublin and when it comes to U2, Kerr admits he's a bit partial.

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