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.”