Nick Beyers, CEO of Zurich South Africa, is retiring after 40 years in the industry. Tony van Niekerk spoke to him about this journey through the South African short-term insurance industry.
COVER: Can you summarise in one paragraph what the industry was like in 1971?
Nick: When I reflect on my first few months in the industry all those years ago, I distinctly remember being struck by the level of professionalism of all the people with whom I had dealings. In those days, we were a small company called The Royal (later to merge with two other entities to become M&F); we had people who were really steeped in the traditions and the knowledge of insurance. As a tariff company, we used tariffs for rating purposes, that is, fire tariff for fire risks and so on, and I was always impressed by their expertise.
As juniors we were encouraged to write the insurance ACII and FCII exams and many of us did, with success.
So the overall feeling I get in looking back at the industry then, is that it was regarded as a profession and was seen as such by all. Finally, I must add that there seemed to be – to me, at least – many more colourful characters then than we have now; I am thinking of Fred Haslet, Basil Palmer and Dennis Kingsland, to name a few.
COVER: Was competition as fierce as it is now?
Nick: Competition was as fierce as it has always been. However, in those heady days, I seem to recall that the competition was between tariff and non-tariffplayers and even then, I remember that we always regarded SA Eagle as our main competitor. It should also be remembered that there were a lot more players then also.
COVER: What would you say were the three most significant developments in the short-term industry during this period?
Nick: Firstly, I believe the move away from tied agents and the introduction of independent intermediaries was a major change in this time. Brokers, as we know them, introduced independents which ultimately led to a higher level of expertise by the middleman and a better understanding of consumers’ needs and also product development to meet those needs. This move also later resulted in the introduction of commission capping.
Secondly, another transformation was the consolidation of the industry. During my twelve years as CEO of Zurich, I have seen an enormous amount of industry consolidation. We only have to think back a few years and recall some of the famous brands of the past. It’s not so long ago there were brands like Aegis, AA Mutual, Commercial Union, General Accident, IGI – I recall more, but they no longer exist. I, for one, believe that this will continue into the future albeit at a slower pace, but also believe it will affect the brokers as well.
The third thing is the introduction of direct insurers to the market, which has caused the more traditional insurers to relook their models in terms of pricing, risk selection and product. But they certainly have their place in the industry.
COVER: What would you describe as the three most significant events in your career?
Nick: The first was starting with SA Eagle in 1971, which set my path for the future. The second big event in my career was being appointed CEO in 1998. Coinciding with this is the third event, which was the successful transformation of the company from 2000 to 2002. It was more than just centralisation. We changed the way companies operate in South Africa. We created centralised processing units in three places and widened distribution hubs all over the country, which made controlling the business much easier. Development on the technology front was the driver here and made it all possible. This was a totally local initiative, seen by Zurich as ground-breaking.
COVER: If you had a magic wand, what would you change in the industry today?
Nick: I would like to change the perception people have of the industry. So often I hear bad comments about insurance and I feel very sad that we are not doing enough to educate the man-in-the-street as to all the good we do on a day-to-day basis that impacts him and his daily life. Let me give you an example: nothing happens today without insurance cover – no Gautrain, no hospitals, no bridges, and so on. It is an industry with which I have been proud to have been associated all these years.
COVER: You cannot simply hang up your gloves after so many years. Are you going to be involved in some way still?
Nick: I would like still to be involved in some way. I think I can still add a lot of value. There are probably still some opportunities out there and I will evaluate those. However, I have not had much time to plan anything and look forward to having the time to do so.
COVER: Do you have any advice for people wanting to make the insurance industry their career?
Nick: It’s such an interesting and diverse career with lots of variety from assessing risk through to helping people in tough times. You can be involved in finance, risk assessment, engineering, underwriting; the list goes on. But you have to take it seriously, learn on the job and study for yourself and the world is your oyster.
COVER: Personally, what are you looking forward to? What is on the agenda for the next few years?
Nick: I am really looking forward to family time, in particular, with Paige, my granddaughter. I am also going to do quite a bit of travelling, to the bush and internationally, and would like to improve my golf handicap. I also have two sons who live close-bywith whom I will be spending more time. A lot of sacrifices were made while I was in the CEO position, especially by my family. Now it is payback time! However, there will still be a bit of business involvement.
Editor’s note: As Nick said at the start of the interview, “most of the pioneering characters are gone”. Hopefully, Nick will not be lost to us after retirement and will still be providing leadership and guidance to the industry going forward.
Nick Beyers, CEO, Southern Africa
Nick joined Zurich in 1971 as Claims Superintendent in what was then known as SA Eagle Insurance Company, moving onto a number of senior roles in claims, business development and branch management. Since his appointment as CEO in 1998, Nick has been responsible for a number of operational transformation programmes, notably Aquila Rex which led to the introduction of workflow and imaging technology within Southern Africa and the strategic realignment of the Executive Structure. Under Nick’s leadership, Zurich in Southern Africa has achieved an underwriting surplus since 2003.
Before joining Zurich, Nick gained extensive experience in roles at Mutual & Federal and Standard Bank.
Nick holds an Advanced Management Programme qualification from Harvard and is an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute (ACII).
As a recognised leader, Nick sits on the Board of the South African Insurance Association (SAIA).