CityPress - - Business -

San­tam is as much a part of South Africa’s lex­i­con as blue skies and braaivleis. The com­pany has been around for nearly a cen­tury – it was founded in May 1918 – and now, for the first time, a woman heads this multi­bil­lion-rand gi­ant. Its CEO, Lizé Lam­brechts, has worked at the San­lam Group for more than 30 years.

Al­though San­tam is part of the San­lam Group, it is a sep­a­rate listed com­pany.

Her ten­ure, in an age where peo­ple job-hop ev­ery three to five years, points to re­mark­able sta­bil­ity. She points out, how­ever, that she has had 12 ca­reers in the one group. That is no sur­prise, given its size and reach: the San­lam Group em­ploys about 17 000 peo­ple.

We meet in the com­pany’s Sand­ton of­fice – its head­quar­ters are in Bel­lville, Cape Town – on the eve of her fly­ing to Morocco. It is one of an in­creas­ing num­ber of coun­tries that this hard-work­ing CEO vis­its as San­tam ex­pands its foot­print across Africa and Asia. Lam­brechts gives lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of the pres­sures on her, for she is af­fa­ble, re­laxed and happy to ex­plain the va­garies of in­sur­ance. Life as­sur­ance, once ru­moured to be near death, “be­cause in­vest­ments were be­ing moved off bal­ance sheets to unit trusts and linked prod­uct providers”, is again pop­u­lar.

Lam­brechts ran San­lam Per­sonal Fi­nance, the core life as­sur­ance busi­ness, for 12 years, tak­ing over at a dif­fi­cult time – when San­lam was mak­ing the tran­si­tion from a mu­tual com­pany to a com­mer­cially driven listed com­pany. Fur­ther chal­lenges came as the in­sur­ance in­dus­try mor­phed. Agents, who had only sold life poli­cies, had to learn about link­ing them to in­vest­ments. She and her care­fully cho­sen, di­verse teams built up a com­pet­i­tive busi­ness, Glacier Fi­nan­cial Solutions. It in­vited clients to grow their sav­ings through a wide range of in­vest­ments cater­ing for dif­fer­ent needs. “To­day, Glacier is a leader in the South African in­sur­ance in­dus­try, and my teams man­aged the change well,” she says.

On the sub­ject of help­ing farm­ers hit by drought, floods and hail­storms, she says: “We have 60% of the mar­ket share of crop in­sur­ance in South Africa, and it is clear to me that cli­mate change is not a myth,” she says.

“We in­sure against hail and drought, af­ter con­duct­ing sci­en­tific stud­ies of an area – but we can­not take on the whole risk, which is why we rein­sure on an in­ter­na­tional ba­sis.”

In the past year the com­pany has paid out “quite a lot of drought claims. We stand by our clients be­cause there is loy­alty in­volved here.”

Last year was not too bad when it came to hail­storms, and it is in­ter­est­ing to learn that the high­est risk for short-term in­sur­ance against this does not lie on farm­lands but on the streets of plush Sand­ton.

“There is luck in­volved when it comes to weather,” she says. “But we have 98 years of data at our fingertips, so we know what the trends are in in­sur­ance. Data anal­y­sis is the big buzz phrase right now.”

Lam­brechts says some peo­ple find con­nect­ing with a call cen­tre to or­gan­ise their car in­sur­ance a more con­ve­nient way than deal­ing with an in­sur­ance bro­ker. “But the fu­ture is good for bro­kers. Be it big busi­ness, the af­flu­ent or small, medium and mi­cro-sized en­ter­prises, they find that bro­kers add value due to the ad­vice and ser­vice they pro­vide.”

Lam­brechts grew up on a grape farm near the small West­ern Cape town of Raw­sonville. She grad­u­ated from Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity with a BSc in math­e­mat­ics and did her hon­ours in ap­plied math­e­mat­ics be­fore mov­ing on to ac­tu­ar­ial science.

“I was an ac­ci­den­tal ac­tu­ary be­cause, when I joined San­lam all those years ago, I moved into man­age­ment. I love deal­ing with peo­ple, but both de­grees have proved in­valu­able dur­ing my ca­reer.”

When­ever Lam­brechts an­tic­i­pated that she might be­come bored, she was moved to another area, at one stage run­ning IT for the whole of San­lam and head­ing a depart­ment with about 200 peo­ple. Lam­brechts be­lieves the av­er­age in­sur­ance client “is gen­er­ally hon­est about their claims”.

“We tend to help peo­ple in­volved in trauma, such as bur­glar­ies or car ac­ci­dents, which are neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences. We aim to make them as pain­less as pos­si­ble.”

This chief ex­ec­u­tive works long hours, but her pri­vate time is fo­cused on her fam­ily. She re­laxes by go­ing to gym and do­ing “re­tail ther­apy with my 19-year-old daugh­ter. She helps me un­der­stand young peo­ple and where they are go­ing. That is im­por­tant in most in­dus­tries – and cer­tainly in ours.”

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