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Nine leadership questions for Schalk Malan, CEO, BrightRock

Nine leadership questions for Schalk Malan, CEO, BrightRock
17-04-24 / Kwanele Sibanda

Nine leadership questions for Schalk Malan, CEO, BrightRock

I started my career in product development at Discovery Life in 2003, after completing my BSc Hons in Actuarial Science. Over my seven years there, I gained invaluable insight into what it takes to develop life insurance products and the significant shortcomings of traditional life product structures ­– in particular, their inefficiency and the unsustainability of aggressive premium escalations. There had to be a better way!

From there, I moved to Alexander Forbes to develop an annuity product before partnering with my co-founders to start BrightRock in 2010. BrightRock launched its needs-matched offering in the IFA market in 2012 with the purpose of helping people navigate change in their lives and has had a significant impact in the industry.

1. For how long have you been with BrightRock as its Chief Executive Officer?

I’ve been with BrightRock since its inception but was formally appointed to the role of CEO in 2017.

2. How have your previous roles within BrightRock and prior to joining BrightRock prepared you for this current role .... Any challenges, highlights, or learnings?

As a product developer since the start of my career, something I am still intimately involved in at BrightRock, I’ve been able to gain a deep understanding of clients’ needs in relation to financial services offerings. Products must live up to what they promise and offer clients certainty, without any unwelcome surprises.

This can only be achieved through products that are designed with clients’ needs in mind, with clear wording and explanations in plain language, and – perhaps most importantly – that are priced to be sustainable in the long-term.

Too often, life cover becomes unaffordable due to large premium increases or surprise changes to premiums. These insights all informed the thinking behind BrightRock’s needs-matched offering and being able to help conceptualise and deliver on this vision from idea stage to a fully- fledged, major life insurance business today has been the highlight of my career to date.

It has also been challenging – the SA life industry is a well-established, competitive industry and it has, at times, been a difficult journey, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic and amid the tough economic conditions facing our industry. But it has also been exciting and rewarding and I am very proud that in just 12 years, BrightRock has already paid out R5.8bn to our policyholders.

3. What would you say are the top qualities of an effective leader?

A mindset of collaboration and a respect for diverse thinking are such important qualities. In our industry in particular, one often gets a “series circuit” approach to problem solving as opposed to a collaborative way of solving problems.

For example, the people in our business who work directly with our clients – so our sales teams and client service teams – can provide by far the best insight into our client experience and how we can improve on it. Thus, it’s critical to start with them when developing solutions for clients; yet, in many organisations, product design teams will work in a silo, removed from these client-facing roles.

As a leader, it is critical to play the role of connecting the dots and ensuring that collaborative thinking permeates throughout the business. From early on, BrightRock’s leadership team has nurtured a co-creative, multi-disciplinary approach. The other critical element for leaders is to ensure that the organisation’s people understand the company’s vision but also the vision and objective within each specific team and how that fits into the bigger purpose and picture.

Thus, being able to communicate, form connections, and to take your people with you on your journey are absolutely imperative to being an effective leader.

4. What would you say are BrightRock’s top priority areas for the next year?

 Our main focus within BrightRock is on building on the strong foundations we’ve established within both the individual life and funeral business spaces where we operate. We see tremendous scope for growth, particularly in the current environment, where affordability and sustainability of cover is so critical.

Our needs-matched offering is designed to remove waste, to offer certainty of cover, and to provide clients long-term flexibility and sustainability, ensuring their cover stays the course throughout their changing lives. We believe this positions us strongly to keep growing in the large independent IFA market where we operate. Our other key focus area is on service delivery to our clients and their financial advisers.

5. As one of the leading life insurance companies in SA, how do you attract and retain talent? And how can the insurance industry better retain talent and skills?

The life industry in South Africa is highly competitive and employs highly-skilled, sought-after professionals in the actuarial, ICT, financial, clinical and underwriting spaces. So, it is a challenge to attract and retain talented individuals, especially given that BrightRock is, relatively speaking, a younger player in the space that has not yet achieved the scale of some of our competitors.

However, BrightRock offers talented individuals the chance to work within a uniquely innovative, collaborative and entrepreneurial space and the opportunity to make a real difference in clients’ lives. Our people are deeply committed and passionate, and we work hard to support their growth and development, and to recognise their contribution through competitive salary packages, company-wide recognition programmes, and investment in their training and development.

I think our collaborative, entrepreneurial mindset, our people-centric culture and our clear purpose of helping people navigate change in their lives are all major assets in terms of our ability to attract talented employees who are looking for an alternative to a more mainstream corporate environment.

6. How do you see technology playing a much more significant role in the insurance space, as well as in product development and distribution in the next few years?

In today’s digital age, clients expect companies to harness technology to make it easier to sign-up for and access cover, to make changes to their cover, and to claim. In BrightRock’s case, we’re continually working to use technology as enabler to improve our service offering, to remove hassle, and improve accessibility for our clients and their advisers.

The vast amount of complex data that we’re able to process through technology has been a major enabler for the product innovation that BrightRock has already brought to market – we expect to see this trend to continue. We also believe that clients, now more than ever, need the guidance of a trusted adviser.

Our approach is therefore to focus on partnering with advisers to enable and facilitate their trusted advice. In other words, technology is not a replacement for face-to-face advice delivered by an adviser but is rather an enabler that can facilitate the advice process.

Examples include our online dynamic underwriting and claims forms, which make it easy for clients to apply for life insurance or to lodge a claim on their tablet or smartphone, or any other electronic device.

Our tele-underwriting service enables clients to confidentially answer health and financial questions telephonically in a voice-recorded call, which is convenient, hassle-free and ultimately reduces the advice risk for the financial adviser. We’re so excited about the possibilities that exist for advisers and product providers to leverage technology to better meet clients’ needs.

7. What would you point out as key areas of concern for the insurance intermediary for the next three to five years?

I would say that advisers do need to be aware of the impact of technology and to ensure they stay abreast of how they can harness technology in their advice practice to support and facilitate advice. Then, the current economic environment is a key concern – as affordability is under pressure, clients tend to be more reticent to purchase cover or to retain the cover they have purchased.

Yet, this environment provides huge opportunities for advisers to add value and deliver trusted advice, especially in terms of ensuring they recommend sustainable, affordable cover that delivers long-term efficiency and certainty for clients. In this regard, it’s important not just to look at the initial starting premium, but to look at how premiums will grow over time, and what guarantees are in place to protect clients against unsustainable, unpredictable premium increases.

Lastly, I think advisers need to be aware of the impact that the challenges of the past few years have had on clients’ lives. International surveys show that clients are placing the highest priority on the humanity, empathy, conduct and performance of the businesses they deal with. Consumers, more than ever, want trusted advice. That’s why it’s vital that the life industry focuses on delivering trusted, quality products that and services that support an adviser’s best advice.

8. If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Make sure you can add value in any space you find yourself in and do the best possible job you can in that moment! At the same time, you need to be aware that you have blind spots and therefore, you need to partner and collaborate with like-minded people in order to truly achieve something great. Throughout my journey with BrightRock, I’ve always been inspired by this famous quote by Margaret Mead, American scientist and social anthropologist, and it’s definitely something I would wish to share with my 18-year-old self: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

9. What is the one book you would recommend to your audience, and why?

A recent book that I read and that has kept me thinking is Centuries of change by Ian Mortimer. It’s definitely worth a read for anyone who, like me, enjoys learning from history. It provides a fascinating insight into how human civilisation and thinking has evolved over centuries. I always think the value in history is that it helps us understand how we got to where we are and can help us throw forward to what the future may hold.

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