Liberty introduces new tools to an elderly trade

26 May 2019 - 00:06 By TJ STRYDOM


Financial planning for the middle class used to be about getting old and retiring comfortably or dying youngish and leaving your dependants well looked after.
But longer life expectancies have made planning more difficult and more important. "The whole pattern of life is shifting," David Munro, Liberty Life CEO, told Business Times this week.
Life insurers have had to adapt.
Clients who are relatively well off - a segment Liberty calls "retail affluent" and which forms the heart of its business - have to plan for more than one career now, he says. So saving for education is no longer simply stashing cash to get junior through university; it might be providing for your own mid-career reskilling.
"It's more of an educational life journey," Munro adds. And a second or third stint in school could mean you opt for education overseas, which for most people does not mean a simple swipe of the credit card.
That is why Munro hits the chords of a tune that has become very fashionable in financial planning circles - lifestyle financial planning.
SA has about 8,000 independent financial advisers, who sell financial products from a variety of service providers.
Liberty also has 2,500 financial advisers who sell only its products.
"They are the core heartbeat of the Liberty culture," says Munro. And that culture is not only about selling financial products, but also about building long-term relationships.
Another buzzword is robo-advice - automated responses to clients' questions online.
"You can't replace advisers. When it comes to these intensely personal engagements, people want to speak to other people," he says.
But make no mistake, technology and big data are critical. Without the right platforms, advisers are stuck in a world of paper and admin - a struggle that clients become aware of very soon. So Munro wants to leverage the new tools provided by technology to make advisers more nimble and give them more time to focus on the real needs of the client. He calls this "augmented human engagement".
"Advice is critical to us and we have to make it relevant," he says.
And the life insurer has another lever - the distribution channel of its parent company, Standard Bank. By either selling simple life cover for debt such as home loans and credit cards, or more complex risk products, Liberty gets plenty of additional business.
It had been an underperforming horse in the Standard Bank stable for several years when Munro took the reins in 2017.
The life insurer was founded by Donald Gordon in 1956 as a privately owned answer to the mutual behemoths Sanlam and Old Mutual. Over the next few decades the insurer made Gordon one of the nation's wealthiest men.
But the new normal of low economic growth over the past decade or so hurt the insurer and some of the new foreign markets it had explored were not as lucrative as initially thought. Sanlam and Old Mutual were clocking up much higher profit margins than Liberty.
"It was like a tyre with a puncture; the air was coming out slowly," says Munro.
His background is in investment banking. And when he took over at Liberty, life insurance credentials were not his strongest selling point.
"We wanted some time to let the numbers do the talking. And we wanted to be sure that the turnaround is a team effort," he says.
Liberty has been clawing its way back. Though still a way off from the margins enjoyed by Sanlam and Old Mutual, it is on the right track, says Munro. "It's like any business, you have to be tough on your cost base and you need to get the sales right."
StrydomT@sundaytimes.co.za

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