ANZIIF’s Prue Willsford has set the industry on a path to professionalism, but admits insurance’s image remains a problem

By John Deex

Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance (ANZIIF) Chief Executive Prue Willsford will step down in December, having spent 10 years building the reach and influence of the industry’s membership organisation.

She tells Insurance News she’ll look back on her time at ANZIIF with pride, having made an early decision to focus on professionalising the industry and bringing in key initiatives to make it happen.

But she accepts insurance is “still not a career of choice”, and that there’s work to do to change broader community perceptions.

In 2013 Ms Willsford was General Manager Corporate Operations at Victoria’s State Trustee, and Deputy Chancellor at Victoria University, and had plenty of financial services experience through previous roles at Macquarie Bank, Colonial Mutual and NAB.

She was ready for a new role, and the retirement of former ANZIIF chief executive Joan Fitzpatrick in that year presented the ideal opportunity.

The top job at ANZIIF – a membership association known for delivering industry education and setting professional standards – ticked all the boxes for someone driven by “a sense of purpose”.

“I was delighted to be offered the role; it just felt like a good fit for me,” Ms Willsford tells Insurance News. “Finding something that really built on the experience that I had was a joy.”

Her first six months were spent meeting with members and stakeholders, from CEOs to frontline staff, to find out what ANZIIF meant to them, and what directions it should be heading in. She emerged from that listening exercise with a clear plan – to focus on professionalism.

“Those discussions were incredibly helpful for me in terms of understanding who ANZIIF was, why it’s valued, and how it could continue to change to be relevant,” she says.

“Professionalism is the core element. If you focus on the professionalism part, all of the things that you need to do to make that come alive are just the delivery of that broader, inspirational element that I think ANZIIF does particularly well.”

By highlighting the need to focus on professionalism, Ms Willsford does not imply insurance staff are unprofessional in their daily work. She’s referring to a more formal industry definition.

“It’s pretty simple. What is a professional? Three things: certification to a body of knowledge, commitment to ethics, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

“And it needs to be mandatory. For a lawyer or accountant or actuary it’s mandatory that you have a number of those elements in place.

“So in terms of insurance…that’s the answer, that you voluntarily commit to that broader construct of education, ethics and lifelong learning.”

Asked to pick out key achievements from her tenure, Ms Willsford highlights the general insurance claims handling framework, launched in August, and the life insurance professional standards set out in 2021.

The life standards, backed by seven companies, established a framework mandating that claims and underwriting staff complete formal studies as part of professionalising that sector.

With claims licensing requirements coming in for general insurance at the start of last year, Ms Willsford identified a “real opportunity” to show leadership and establish another framework that “shows what good looks like” for claims professionals.

“Getting that up is a real legacy piece for me, I’m very proud of it.”

Ms Willsford says other potential frameworks could focus on general insurance underwriting, or brokers – but that will be for her successor to consider.

“The National Insurance Brokers Association has long, long called for a full standard of everyone doing the diploma of insurance broking,” she says.

“There is a requirement at law for the principals to be qualified at that level. But it’s not deep enough in the industry.

“So the reality is, there kind of is a framework, but it probably doesn’t have the depth of traction that it ought to across that sector.”

ANZIIF’s membership has grown significantly during Ms Willsford’s tenure – from 12,500 to almost 16,000 – and the annual industry awards scheme has also expanded in scope and popularity.

When Ms Willsford started, then ANZIIF president Jonathon Fox said Asia was “ripe for the picking” and the region would be a key priority. An office in China had already been opened in 2012.

Ms Willsford tells Insurance News significant progress has been made. ANZIIF now has members in 50 countries. She is adamant that the efforts to expand operations into Asia have not distracted ANZIIF from its role in Australia or New Zealand, which have been the core focus “on every measure”.

She also believes consistency of standards across the wider region has great value.

“There’s a number of loss adjusters who want all their people trained by ANZIIF right around the region, because when they have a catastrophe they know what they know.”

In recent years industry recruitment issues have worsened, as covid border closures trimmed an already slim pool of talent, and ANZIIF continues to engage younger generations through its Careers in Insurance scheme, developed and funded by its corporate supporters program.

The industry talent drought is not a new problem, but nobody has yet been able to solve it, partly because the industry’s image remains a significant stumbling block.

“For lots of reasons I think there is a historic and current narrow view of what insurance actually does,” Ms Willsford says. “For a lot of the community, home, motor, travel, call centres – that’s their perception of insurance.

“That’s very hard to change. But I think it’s important that we continue that conversation with the community.”

Despite some negative perceptions, Ms Willsford says industry professionals should “absolutely feel proud of what they do”.

“I talk to people doing really interesting, challenging work, and wanting to do it well. And they should be proud of that. It’ll be a good day when it’s a better shared understanding across the community.”

While not completely ruling out a future insurance industry role, Ms Willsford’s initial focus after stepping back will be her farm in the Macedon Ranges near Melbourne.

But while she’s tending to her cows, chickens and truffles, she’ll keep an eye on an industry in which she’s invested so much time and energy. She continues to believe in the essential role of insurance in society, hoping that key initiatives such as the general insurance framework have set it on the right path.

Ms Willsford says such frameworks give potential employees a much better idea of what their career pathway looks like, and greater certainty that if they join a company it will invest in their development.

“And if we can drive that improved consistency in claims and improve the overall community understanding of the value of insurance, then I think a lot of those recruitment challenges will fall away,” Ms Willsford says.

“Insurance currently remains not a career destination of choice. It would be fantastic if, through a range of initiatives, the industry was able to continue to articulate its purpose and value better, in a way that that made us a career destination of choice.

“It would be fantastic.”