‘I have to be someone my mum would like’

Naomi Ballantyne entered the life insurance industry four decades ago and is now its longest-serving chief executive, even if she doesn’t consider herself a CEO, writes Kevin Norquay.



Stuff NZ Newspapers



How’s this for a complicated start to life? Naomi Ballantyne is the product of an alcoholic Canadian father and a religious German-Samoan mother, who was born and raised in Tonga. It’s an odd-couple combo that helped mould an icon of the life insurance industry, who has always pondered what her late mother would think when making the big decisions. And Ballantyne has made big decisions. She walked away into unemployment when she didn’t like the direction in which a company she had sold was being taken. She silenced the naysayers who told her she did not have the experience, intellect, resilience, emotional control or image to found a new company (Partners Life), all-the-while ensuring it was based on ideals her mother would have admired. Now she’s stepping back again, last August selling Partners Life to global life insurance specialist Dai-ichi Life Holdings in a deal which valued it at $1 billion. So, working class girl from Glenfield makes good – but it hasn’t been all maple syrup and Samoan teuila flowers. ‘‘In the very darkest moments along the way, I have been kind of wishing I didn’t have all the burden, that I just had a job where somebody else had the burden – it lasts approximately 51⁄2 minutes, then you just get on with it,’’ she tells the Sunday Star-Times. ‘‘I don’t think you can go backwards and wish you could change something. You can only go forward based on what you learn and then, if you didn’t like you or what you did or how you behaved at times, just don’t do it again, rather than beating yourself up about having done it or been through it in the first place.’’ And, yes, that tough childhood played a role in shaping her world view. So did an increasing desire to make her own decisions, and not be dictated to by others. ‘‘I have to be true to what I believe. I can’t, and I won’t compromise on kindness and fairness to other people. So that’s a fundamental principle and I describe it as I have to be someone that my mother would like,’’ she says. ‘‘And so where I’ve been difficult – if it’s for competitors or for people I’ve worked for – it’s because I have felt that the decisions being made or the behaviours or the actions being taken are not fair on someone. That’s when I really kick off. ‘‘[For] people who want to be allowed to be kind and fair – which is most people – working for me or with me allows them to be that person without compromising or having to behave in a different way to get ahead. That’s what I think, that’s what I hope.’’ So back to her late parents; the former dedicated to the church, the latter quite fond of a pub. ‘‘Mum raised us as Christians, we went to Sunday school and church. But she had a pretty tragic life. Both my parents did have very tragic upbringings – war, parents dying early, sort of abandonment in my dad’s case – so they brought themselves up. ‘‘Mum was happy and positive and upbeat no matter how hard life got for her. And always, always kind. She wasn’t an angel – gambling issues and various other things – but fundamentally at the core of her was love. ‘‘I don’t think Mum knew what I did for a job or would be able to tell whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing, but she’s on my shoulder still. ‘‘Dad was difficult. He had a drinking problem but [was] very smart. He really had no love in his life when he was young so he tried in his own way … showing off at the pub to his mates about how clever his kids were, having expectations of us that we were never quite good enough. ‘‘All of those things create who I am, so I can’t complain. I’ve had to have had the backbone to be brave enough to say, even if I lose the job or have to walk away from a career and we lose everything – because that’s the financial implications of those things – I’d rather do that than be someone I don’t like, or my mum doesn’t like, or that my son can’t learn from. You need to have learned a degree of resilience and strength, and you get that from a tough childhood, right? And you either do or you become the opposite.’’ If Ballantyne has one message for younger versions of herself, particularly Polynesian, it’s to be brave and to question. It’s a message she has not confined to telling newspaper reporters; she also promotes it to groups at Rotary youth leader camps. Some she makes cry, not because she is mean to them, but because it’s the first time they have been talked to about how to behave, how to change behaviour, and what their possibilities are. ‘‘It’s around behaviours and what drives those behaviours, how people react to those behaviours and if you want a different reaction, how to change the behaviour, and what to change it to,’’ she says. ‘‘I don’t need them to tell me what they find for themselves out of this. It’s not about ‘I can write it down in a textbook now we’re going to do an exercise’, it’s just sharing the learning. It’s a gift, not a lesson, if that makes sense.’’ At the core of her being, is the bravery to be yourself, not who you are told to be by school, church or parents – a trait she has exhibited many times in her business career. ‘‘Now you’re an adult … it is your decision whether you like to think that or not. And if you don’t agree with something, you need to change you, you can’t change those people. Change can bring you into conflict with the church or your parents … particularly for Pacific Island kids. There is so much expectation, incorrect expectation, put on those kids. Being able to give young people that piece of learning ... that’s the thing that I can give them, whether they do something with it or not.’’ Brave Ballantyne the businesswoman knows what it is to be feeling your way through the teens and 20s. She was good at school and sport, but not part of the in-crowd. Even then she did her own thing. When it came to business, there she was again, off on her own. A woman in life insurance when that was rare. A woman who walked away from Sovereign after ASB bought it in 1998 and shifted it from her ideals. ‘‘I became an entrepreneur, not because I set out to be one and I couldn’t work for people. I became one because I couldn’t get a job after I left Sovereign. So the choice was, leave the country, leave my mum and my family or build your own job, right? ‘‘I don’t see myself as a CEO, I see myself as a business founder. They’re different things. So there’s a lot of people who get to CEO who’ve never built anything. ‘‘They’ve taken over something that someone else did and they tweak it around the edges, and often it means they cut costs to look good for a bit before they move on to the next job. That’s not all CEOs but there’s enough of them. ‘‘The challenge for me is, when’s the right time to leave this business? That’s a challenge for founding CEOs: they never let go and get to the point where they start damaging the business that they’ve built. And they can’t see it … it’s theirs, no-one’s going to tell them what to do with their baby. ‘‘When I left Sovereign, I watched what changes were made and it nearly killed me. People would ring me and they’d complain and I’d feel so bad for all the people that I left, then I had to go, ‘stop’. ‘‘You can’t control it. Those people have a choice. The company’s entitled to do what it wants to do. It’s not about you, you’re not important in the scheme of things.’’ So, what next? Ballantyne has concerns about the direction of the country but politics is not for her. ‘‘I know that the best thing that I can do for New Zealanders is create employment; create a product that truly benefits people; and keep my staff and all the people that we have, customers, off government benefits. ‘‘Generally business is good for New Zealand, and we should support businesses and this current government’s noise and the actions they take is burdening businesses to the extent we’ll have less of them. And that’s not good for New Zealand, because then who’s creating the work?’’ Helping via the Rotary youth leader camps is one way she is looking to change New Zealand; battling the financial rorting inflicted on the Pacific Island communities is another. Her message to young people is simple. ‘‘I’m just me. I’m a girl from Glenfield. I don’t have a degree. I’m not born to rich parents. I don’t belong to the in-club. I was never the popular kid at school. I wasn’t ever going to be the head girl. ‘‘There’s lots of people like me and yet I have reached this end of my life well, wealthy in comparison to most people and also content with who I am. ‘‘And so, if that’s inspiring to other kids that don’t see themselves reflected in what they think of as a CEO, then hopefully, that’s the story.’’