Featured Profile: Christopher Powell
Leading by example
Integrity Life is reinventing the traditional life insurance model, promising to be different. Its managing director Chris Powell tells Karren Vergara how he's making that possible.

When Chris Powell was younger, being surrounded by a big group of people pushed him out of his comfort zone.

Ironically, the self-described "extroverted thinker" never had trouble expressing himself or speaking in front of an audience. But being amongst a crowd somehow made him feel lost.

If the rest of the financial services industry had acted with integrity, then we wouldn't have had a Royal Commission.
"I found certain situations were more difficult in larger groups," he says, and knew this was an area he needed to improve.

One day, he attended a function where he saw former Prime Minister John Howard enter a room with 200 people.

In half an hour, Howard had gone from the front to the back of the room and acknowledged every single person.

"I thought to myself, 'My goodness, how do I do that?' From there I decided I needed to become far better at meeting and greeting and talking to people."

In November 2001 when he became the chief financial officer of major life insurer Zurich - which employed about a thousand people at the time - he was presented with an opportunity to turn a weakness into a strength.

"It's almost a complete personality change because as I became more senior [in my role], I had to become a big-picture person rather than a person focussed on the numbers. I had to challenge the rules and provide a strategy," he says.

The transition from accountant to chief financial officer, he says, was a "huge change".

His early career in finance and accounting grounded him with the skills to be rules-based, analytical and procedural after gaining a business degree at the University of Technology Sydney. Powell subsequently spent seven years working in state treasury, overseeing departmental and ministerial budgets.

He then scaled the heights of accounting, working in senior roles at NRMA and Commonwealth Financial Services, which later merged with Colonial.

A stint in venture capital saw him become chief financial officer of software developer Bullant before moving to Zurich, where Powell says he learnt the most about leadership and business.

After eight years, Powell turned to helping turn around Centric Wealth with its chief operating officer, Phil Kearns.

"We turned the business around internally and over two and a half years, we quadrupled the share price. We've doubled the enterprise value and paid off the debt and sold it for $130 million," he says.

When Powell joined Integrity Life in 2015, it was still an idea.

"There was no capital, systems, staff or licence as yet. I believe I was employed to bring all those things together."

The startup sought to raise about $2.3 million for ongoing capital and determined the best way to obtain a licence was to buy an existing life insurance company.

"We put an offer for QBE Life. Then we put together a full information memorandum and began a significant capital raise because we realised we needed to aim for roughly $180 million," he says.

Integrity Life launched in early 2018, offering group risk products after raising $165 million and acquiring QBE Life for $21.7 million.

Japanese life insurer Daido Life acquired a 14.9% stake ($13m) a few months later.

At the start, Powell intended to raise capital locally to establish a life insurer owned by Australians. Given the start-up didn't have a licence, system or people as yet - it proved to be difficult.

While a few local sophisticated investors backed the firm, the bulk of the capital was sourced overseas.

London-based Leadenhall Capital Partners, a discretionary funds manager specialising in insurance, took interest and became the first equity investor in Integrity.

Coincidentally, how Integrity formed emanated from two groups wanting to establish different life insurance companies about the same time. One was focused on retail and the other on group insurance.

A headhunter asked Powell if he was interested in leading one business, while the other group asked him to be a director on the board.

"One of the first things I did when I was appointed as managing director was to marry the two businesses together," he says.

"It was an obvious thing to do because they were both trying to raise similar amounts of money for similar businesses, in similar markets with similar business models. It didn't make sense to have them separated."

The sixth employee came on board as head of human resources in July 2017. She now oversees a workforce of 50.

In leading the life insurer, Powell seeks to make the complex simple - and to continuously challenge assumptions.

He doesn't easily accept the status quo and wants to find ways to do something better or faster with more focus on customers.

"If you look at it from a customer point of view that helps restore the trust," he believes.

In its early phase, Integrity aimed to put more emphasis on group insurance, but the reverse unraveled and there is now more focus on retail.

Of the industry's $16 billion annual life insurance premiums, Powell says group represents $6 billion and retail represents $10 billion.

Australia has about 10 life insurers with 96% market share. With OnePath amalgamating with Zurich; CommInsure into AIA Australia; Suncorp into TAL; and AMP exiting life insurance, it is narrowed down to six players.

Powell says Integrity is a breath of fresh air in many aspects.

For one, it's a licensed, regulated life insurer that isn't held back by legacy systems or products. Nor is it facing a culture crisis - unlike some of the incumbent life insurers that faced the Royal Commission.

"If the rest of the financial services industry had acted with integrity, then we wouldn't have had a Royal Commission," he states.

Big life insurers are currently undertaking big projects implementing remedial actions endorsed by the Royal Commission, which can take three to five years to accomplish, Powell says.

This is on top of replacing legacy systems; overhauling cultures; divestitures; and integrating acquisitions means there is less focus on customers, he explains.

What makes Integrity different, he says, is it's new and fresh and completely customer focused.

Integrity is the firm's foremost value, next to respect, teamwork, simplicity and innovation.

"Our brand is integrity. It's a big statement," he says.

It's a tenet Powell drills into his people and operations.

When it's time to re-energise, going to the gym, walking, swimming, water sports and fishing keep him balanced. A knack for cooking, unbeknownst to his colleagues, also helps him unwind.

With more than 25 years of financial services and board experience, continuous improvement as a leader is pivotal for Powell's self-development.

He regularly asks himself: "Am I the same person or leader I was when I started my career?"

"No," he says. "You always need to be open about yourself and learn how to grow and improve". fs

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