by Emily Frasier


Driven to succeed


South Africa’s financial sector is one of the most advanced systems in the world and has churned out some of our finest achievers, both locally and abroad, with women playing a central part as we slowly draw closer to proper equality in the boardroom.

One such example of a proudly South African woman doing it for herself is Chief Executive Officer at African Unity Life, Sonja Visser, one of SA’s top finance pioneers who has been serving the financial services industry in South Africa for the past 24 years—the last nine years at an executive level, having served on five boards. She thrives on the challenges presented by start-up businesses and turnaround strategies.

African Unity Life Limited operates within the long-term insurance industry in South Africa and has a select group of asset managers, administrators and specialised brokers, and is a predominantly wholesaler of risk products.

Is there greater equality in the boardrooms of South Africa? What more can be done?

Equality within the boardroom environment in South Africa is definitely growing. Women are increasingly being recognised for the different dynamic, strong leadership they bring to the table.

While some research has shown that gender equality in the boardroom remains a challenge in South Africa, I think we are making good progress. And it is also clear that the gender equity policies in our constitution lay a firm foundation.

However, equality in the boardroom should be the result of a business culture in South Africa where the role of women in executive and at board levels is widely accepted and fostered. At African Unity Life, I have an EXCO of seven permanent members, of which four roles (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Head of Human Relations) are performed by women. And it’s worked incredibly well for our company culture and business results.

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in finance?

My advice is not just limited to the financial industry but to all industries. You have to work harder than the rest. You have to put in the hours, build good relationships and constantly refresh your knowledge by reading—make it part of your daily routine to stay on top of what is happening in the world.

What are the keys to a sustainable insurance sector in uncertain times?

Good governance and a firm handle on risk management.

What is key to balancing family (e.g. pregnancy) in a fast-paced work environment?

It can be done. The point is to be present in the moment. When you spend time with your family be there fully. Get rid of any distractions—keep your mobile on silent. Try and dedicate quality time to them—it doesn’t have to be big things—small gestures like surprise visits or leaving work a bit earlier goes a long way. The same applies to your work. Be fully present. Furthermore, ensure you have a good support structure and that your children are well looked after.

In which areas do women outperform men in your experience at work?

Women have a tendency to focus on detail—far more than men. I believe women are better in operational roles where a great deal of attention to detail is required.

What have been some of the success stories in the insurance industry in recent years?

The first success story that comes to mind is Discovery’s journey that started back in the 1990s with medical aid.

They expanded their offering to include short-term and life insurance as well as other financial products. Thereafter, a further ground-breaking offering—its brand’s Vitality programme offering. But for me, the beauty of the Discovery brand is the way they reward their policyholders for healthy living while, at the same time, mitigating their risks.

Who is your role model?

I have a few role models. In my personal life, it is my father who taught me the importance of hard work and what can be accomplished through having good business ethics. Early on in my career, I was privileged to have a fantastic mentor—Southern Life’s CEO, Eddie Engelage. He taught me the core principles of organisational management, to ensure you constantly refresh your knowledge and to be people-focused.

What has been your most important lesson learned?

It’s something that comes instinctively for me but business is about people, not just money. As a leader, I focus on people—whether it be clients or staff. It’s vital to ensure that you apply each person’s greatest strength within your organisation. More importantly, to stay in touch with each individual and communicate thoroughly to each one to ensure their goals and expectations are being met. A second learning is not to burden your resources with non-performing businesses. In these cases, to be decisive and act quickly to correct it is crucial.

What have the effects of rand devaluation and political uncertainty been on the finance sector/insurance?

Rand devaluation and political uncertainty have impacted negatively on investors and consumer confidence. These have also affected employment levels, resulting in lower new business growth and retention levels.

What is your outlook for the industry for the rest of the year?

The rest of the year will see industry players aligning themselves to the wave of new legislation. The FSR Bill was passed through the parliamentary process and has been sent to President Zuma for signature. This will put in motion the so-called Twin Peaks regulatory regime that will be the first step in the introduction of market conduct legislative changes like the implementation of RDR, TCF (more focused), CoFI and of course, the Insurance Bill.

There is uncertainty about many of the legislative changes and the impact it will have on insurers and their relationships with their intermediaries (especially in the group insurance space), binder holders and even individual clients, especially in the low-income market where micro-insurance will feature as the future of the industry.

The legislation is geared towards creating a safe and financially sound environment within which institutions will operate, ultimately protecting the individual policyholders (consumers). Fair treatment of customers is non-negotiable going forward with systems and procedures having to be aligned in the remaining months. Although implementation sounds easy, it’s not always the case, it’s actually also a change in culture that’s required by institutions.

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