Featured Profile: Debbie Kennedy
Life pioneer
Debbie Kennedy was making waves in the UK life insurance industry before MLC Life Insurance appointed her as chief underwriter and head of new business. The highly sought-after expert shares her exciting vision for the Australian market. Karren Vergara writes.

When Debbie Kennedy relocated to Melbourne from the UK last year, one of the first things she did was become a member of the National Gallery of Victoria, a place she frequently visits.

Passionate about art, her interest stemmed from an early age. Kennedy was inspired to study art history at university while working casually at an insurance company in her native Scotland.

I was in Australia at the start of bancassurance and came back 20 years later to find out that everyone is moving away from that model.
What was originally intended as summer work suddenly prompted a life-changing career decision much to the "horror" of her parents: dropping out and working as a trainee underwriter full time.

"That exposure to the industry, Kennedy says, left her fascinated with underwriting right down to its origins. Under the guidance of a chief medical officer she learned about different health and medical topics and would sit a weekly exam.

"That put me in really good stead because I got some excellent on-the-job training. What we need to do as an industry is create more of these apprenticeships and bring young people to undertake great training programs," she says.

Armed with her Masters in leadership management, it wasn't long before she moved up the ranks. In 1989, Kennedy became the youngest female chief underwriter at Scottish Equitable, a UK life insurance, pensions and annuities provider now known as Aegon.

Five years later Swiss Re tapped Kennedy on the shoulder asking if she'd move to reinsurance. During that period, Swiss Re acquired Mercantile and General Reinsurance, one of the biggest reinsurers in the market.

"At Swiss Re I felt I learned my craft there. That's where I became involved in product design and strategy and understanding what the market needed," she says.

Bancassurance, the sale of risk products such as general and life insurance through bank distribution channels, took flight in the UK in the 1990s.

Banks saw it as a new way to sell more protection for holistic financial management, mortgages and loans and so on, she says. The Australian banks soon followed suit.

This was about 20 years ago; and while expecting twins, Kennedy seized an opportunity to move to Melbourne and share her insights into income protection.

"I was in Australia at the start of bancassurance and came back 20 years later to find out that everyone is moving away from that model. It's interesting that it lasted two decades," she says.

After a two-year secondment, Kennedy felt it was time to return to the UK. She went on to work at Capita and AXA Life Insurance before joining Royal London.

At Royal London, Kennedy built new products and made a name for herself, using technology and data analytics to help the life insurance industry punch above its weight in innovation.

To list some of her achievements, Kennedy helped launch a diabetes product, streamlined underwriting proposition for mortgages and developed automated underwriting tool UnderwriteMe.

In 2017, Kennedy then received another tap on the shoulder - this time it was MLC Life Insurance.

The decision to take the offer and return to Australia, she explains, made sense professionally and personally.

Two drawing points were MLC's bid to try something different in the Australian market and its investments in new technology.

"To be in an organisation where you can have an impact and have your 'hands on the levers' was also attractive. I saw it as an opportunity to come into a different market and help change it," Kennedy says.

Meanwhile, the twins who were born in Melbourne were all grown up, leaving Kennedy and her husband an empty nest.

"A door opened and we thought, 'Why not? Let's do it.' I wasn't overthinking it and sometimes you have to take a leap of faith in your career," she says.

What she often tells a lot of people she mentors and works with is to "push yourself in areas you're not familiar with."

Throughout her career, Kennedy has taken time out of underwriting and insurance to try something new in areas such as business change and servicing.

"That's probably one of the best career weapons you can have, discomfort seeking out what you haven't done and setting yourself a challenge that you can really learn from," she says.

MLC Life introduced UnderwriteMe in Australia in July 2017 as part of an initiative to enhance and streamline the underwriting process for customers and advisers.

Since it officially launched two months ago, straight-through acceptance rates - whereby covers are approved automatically without further manual underwriting - have increased 300%. The number of follow-up calls to customers seeking further underwriting information has also reduced 20%.

A lot has changed in Kennedy's 20-year absence from the local life insurance sector. For one, the expectation from consumers and regulators is higher, while the industry is seeking ways to rebuild trust.

"The changes happening in the Australian market are not easy and sometimes uncomfortable. I think there's a resetting happening in the industry," she says.

Compared to the UK, Australia lags behind in technology. Distribution for example can benefit from real advancements, Kennedy adds.

"In the UK, there is more use of aggregated channels where people can buy direct life insurance online. In Australia, because of the fact that most people default into super, this in some ways, has not created a need to search for life insurance," she explains.

It's true that people in the UK don't default to life insurance to the extent Australians do via their superannuation - life insurers have therefore been successfully helping customers buy simple life cover easily and quickly. This is something Kennedy would like to see come to fruition here.

Australians otherwise are defaulting into life insurance policies - which is "almost like inertia", she adds.

Much of the progress in the UK is also around adviser and comparison tools. Portals or platforms are able to compare products and it's not just based on price, Kennedy says, but also on benefits and value proposition.

A challenge for advisers is selecting and recommending products that look similar - which can leave them quite constrained. Platforms have a key role to play in this area, Kennedy says, and she would like to see more innovation from this end.

In turn it will help life insurers create better products for customers and allow advisers to access and compare them without pushing the same products on everyone, she says.

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