New Aon NZ chief: “I’m ready for the hard work”

Chief executive talks about priorities, biggest challenge, and move from insurer side of the fence

New Aon NZ chief: “I’m ready for the hard work”

Insurance News

By Terry Gangcuangco

To say that Melissa Cantell (pictured) is excited about her new role as chief executive of Aon New Zealand is perhaps putting it mildly. All smiles while speaking with Insurance Business, the new CEO talks about what’s at the top of her to-do list, what she thinks will be her biggest challenge, and what she believes she brings from the insurer side of the fence.

Having joined Aon on July 24, Cantell is currently busy doing the rounds across 75 locations to meet the broking giant’s approximately 1,000 colleagues in New Zealand. She’s somewhere along the halfway mark and aims to have the opportunity to meet everyone by the end of the year. Globally, Aon has a workforce of around 55,000 people.

Top of the agenda

“My immediate number one priority is pretty simple, which is the three C’s in my mind,” Cantell, whose predecessor Geoff Blampied is now NZ executive chairman, told Insurance Business. “So, get to know my colleagues, get to know my clients, and get to know our carriers or the insurers. I know a lot of them from being on the other side.

“I’m spending a huge amount of time at the moment travelling around New Zealand meeting all of our people, and then equally a lot of time meeting clients as I get the opportunity, and plenty of time talking with our insurers. And I’m asking all of those three groups the same questions: ‘What are all the amazing things about Aon that we don’t ever want to change, like the secret sauce of this organisation? And what are the things that we might focus on improving in the future?’”

According to Cantell, the combination of those two things will be what helps her build the strategy for Aon New Zealand – something she looks forward to rolling out soon.

“Once I’ve gathered all those insights and that data from all those stakeholders, [what’s next is] turning it into a strategy for the next three to five years around the vision of what we want to achieve,” she said. “So, that’s keeping me busy.”

Shift from insurer to broker

For Cantell, whose credentials include time spent as CEO of Fidelity Life and as IAG New Zealand chief operating officer, there were two main reasons behind her move from the insurers’ corner to the broking side of the industry.

She told Insurance Business: “You’ve got all of these different players in the industry – insurers, reinsurers, brokers, other intermediaries like banks, and the regulator – and we’re all working together to try to achieve the same great outcome for customers and clients. And I became quite intrigued around how can we actually work better together.

“So, rather than working against each other, what is a way you can get the model working really smoothly so that we can achieve the best client outcomes? I’ve spent about a decade now on the insurer side, and I thought it was time to test out the other side of the fence.

“[The goal is to] get an understanding of the industry from a different angle and think about clients from a different angle and how we can help them, but also see if there’s a way that we can unify as an industry. Often it’s only by working in different parts of an industry that you can start to see the connections as to how we might connect together as all those industry players.”

Cantell brings the underwriter perspective to Aon for a holistic view of insurance in the context of providing solutions to clients.

“I genuinely think that everyone in the insurance model is here trying to help people,” she said. “So, I think I bring a lens of what that means to the underwriter, and I think there’s an ability for me to share that on the broker side and almost bridge the gap between those different sides of the model and explain what goes on, on the insurer side, and what insurers are trying to achieve and how we might line up our strategies so that they work together rather than separately.

“Particularly in my roles in the two insurers I’ve been in, there was a big focus on customer-led change. So, how do we take forward our technology, our digital solutions? How do we use data & analytics to make great decisions and get insights about our customers? How do we help our people develop the future capability that they need to offer support and advice in the future?

“So, I’ve had a go at that on the insurer side, and I bring that experience to Aon as we start to grapple with the same questions around how to become really client-centric in the future.”

Cantell’s other reason, meanwhile, is a little more personal.

“I am very interested in business and how businesses work, particularly small to medium enterprises, which are the lifeblood of New Zealand business and a really important client base for Aon,” the CEO said. “So, you get to work more closely with businesses, especially at a time when I think things are becoming more challenging.

“In the advice model that brokers participate in, I think it’s becoming more and more important as the world gets more challenging for businesses to navigate. So, it’s nice timing to join the advice side of the insurance model when it’s becoming more and more important.”

Toughest challenge

On the flip side of being relevant to clients amid the difficulties they face is the broker’s own challenge of being able to provide the best advice.

Cantell told Insurance Business: “I feel like our clients’ worlds are getting more and more complex and more challenging. The types of risks that they’re considering and facing are bigger than probably ever before, whether that’s sort of the size and scale of the risks we’ve seen emerge in New Zealand around weather events and so on, or whether it’s that sort of new world of complexity that people are trying to navigate around cyber and AI (artificial intelligence)…

“The world is getting more challenging, and so how do we, as a risk expert and an adviser, be ready to meet those challenges with our clients? How can we be the best-informed with the best experience, the best insight so that we’re in a position to give the best advice, when the type of advice that’s needed is rapidly changing at a pace that we’ve probably never seen in the world before?”

For the Aon NZ chief, she finds the challenge a “really exciting” one.

She said: “How do we prepare for that and learn so that we can be there to help regardless of the circumstances? It’s not going to be easy. As humans, we’re learning as we go around things like climate change and so on. [These are] challenging times for our clients, and we need to be ready to rise to that challenge with them… I’m ready for the hard work and buoyed by what we get to do.”

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