UAC’s new chief sees underwriting agents growing in numbers and influence as brokers seek new avenues

By Terry McMullan

When its long-serving general manager William Legge announced his intention to retire at the end of last year, the Underwriting Agencies Council set out to find someone who could help guide it into a future that right now is bursting with opportunities.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. While industry groups often seek their peak body chiefs from the ranks of people with communications and/or lobbying skills, UAC wanted someone with a deep understanding of the industry’s complexities and underwriting agencies – and so could hit the ground running.

That understanding would also include knowledge of the inter-relationships between UAC members, insurers, capacity providers, brokers and regulators, and the challenges that also offer opportunity for underwriting agents.

The UAC board found all that and quite a bit more with Jenny Bax, an insurance professional who has worked at senior levels in the industry for 20 years and has experience that clearly matches the brief.

Backed by a progressive board of directors with ambitions to build the underwriting agencies sector’s profile and UAC’s effectiveness for its members, Ms Bax has a big task ahead of her, but it’s a task she’s happy to tackle.

The emerging opportunities for underwriting agencies were amply demonstrated in her second week as chief executive, when the UAC Expo in Sydney saw more than 500 local brokers walk through the door.

“It was amazing,” she tells Insurance News. “The buzz on the floor from the minute I stepped in there at 7.30am when the exhibitors started bumping-in to when we closed down at 3pm was contagious. I’ve been to so many conferences, and you just don’t often see – and feel – that sort of energy in a room.”

Capitalising on that energy will be important in building the underwriting agency sector’s recognition in the industry as a strong and reliable alternative to the mainstream.

As insurers seek fewer surprises in their commercial insurance operations, brokers – and insurers – are turning to the agencies for their specialist knowledge and their ability to tailor cover for more difficult risks. Rather than compete, insurers are increasingly regarding the agencies’ niche abilities as part of the industry’s overall commercial offering.

Ms Bax agrees that relationships and attitudes have changed as the commercial insurance scene has become more complex. “I think that’s why agencies will continue to flourish – because we’ve got the people and the technology.

“Add the ability to innovate quickly and we can grab those niche areas where the mainstream underwriters aren’t able to – or don’t want to – participate. That’s why we’ll always be an important part of the industry.”

That is being demonstrated by the recent arrival – in various forms – of entrepreneurial international groups. Local insurers already underwrite a range of underwriting agencies.

“A lot of the reason such exciting developments are possible is the passion of the people – their expertise in the niche they’re working in,” Ms Bax says.

“They can find an avenue to build a really good brand and business moving forward. And they’ll get the capacity to support them.”

Ms Bax is happy to point out that in Underwriting Agency World it’s the people that make the difference, because developing people’s potential and skills is one of her passions. Comments online from former mentees highlight her enthusiasm for pushing them out of their comfort zones and helping them build their skills.

She wryly agrees that the people side of insurance management is a favourite place to be. “I love leading people and building highly successful teams. And I’m very passionate about mentoring and watching my mentees grow and flourish. When they succeed I feel very proud of their accomplishments.”

Regulations in financial services are tightening, and Ms Bax agrees that knowing how to respond to planned or inevitable regulatory imposts is important. Even as she sees the agencies’ grasp on niche risks becoming more assured, she also sees UAC will need to develop more ways to assist members with regulatory issues.

Changing times: Ms Bax believes the industry will continue to evolve

“There’s been an awful lot of regulatory pressure put on the agencies, the insurers and the broker market. There’s increasing complexity in so many parts of the process.”

She says the industry shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that much of the recent regulatory reform has been based on a policy to protect customer rights.

“There are customer benefits that have flowed through, and that was something we needed. I think we’re more conscious now of putting the customer at the heart of what we do. And let’s be honest, that’s what we should have been doing from the start.

“So while 2021, for example, was a mammoth undertaking for the industry when you think about all the regulatory change that came through, now it’s par for the course – something that we do on a day-to-day basis.

“The end result is a better outcome for the customer, and they make better-informed decisions as a result.”

But the struggle to comply can be incredibly difficult for smaller operations – which includes some of her UAC members, Ms Bax says. “I’ve been speaking to agencies a lot, and they’ve all had to put on new staff and change some processes and procedures.

“That’s part of our role; to support them and help them find the best avenue to get the outcomes that they need. That includes regulation. We constantly engage with the regulators and other national bodies so that we can help our members make informed decisions and have the right processes and people in place.”

Ms Bax sees constantly changing regulation as a result of a constantly changing market, with UAC representing members’ interests. And for underwriting agencies, opportunities abound.

“We’re seeing opportunities for new ventures for example Rhodian Group, a platform to incubate start up underwriting agencies, created by Simon Lightbody and his team.”

While hard markets and low risk appetites have boosted bonds between brokers and agencies, Ms Bax says brokers have also become more adventurous in their quests to place difficult risks.

“It’s probably made their job harder, but brokers are much more creative with their program requests for slips looking for capacity in areas where we might not have had it before. A mainstream insurer can’t do that, and that’s where an agency will come into play.”

“Coverage requests are so much more professional than what we saw years ago,” she tells Insurance News. “They think outside the box now, and I think that’s a really good thing. That also ensures that agencies look to innovate quickly and fill in the voids for them. And [UAC] could be the conduit that joins the parties together to drive the opportunity forward.”

Settling into a role she describes as “my dream job”, UAC’s first chief executive says the breadth of experience gained over 30 years working in insurance means she’s ready to deal with whatever comes UAC’s way.

“As I said before, the industry changes constantly. That’s the one constant – no two days are going to be the same.

“I need to be able to pivot quickly, and move us ahead so that we’re going to keep on a trajectory and stay successful.

“Probably the other thing about managing change is the change for people – taking people on the journey; help them to understand what it means for them.

“Good outcomes are what it’s all about.”

How injury led to a 30-year career

Jenny Bax’s pathway into an insurance career was born of the need for a job she could physically handle. Badly injured in a road accident at the age of 15 (“I should have died the first night”), the Brisbane schoolgirl’s dream of scoring high marks and going on to become a vet was thrown off course when she missed most of Year 10 recuperating.

Faced with repeating Year 10 and being in the same grade as her younger brother, “I looked in the paper and I saw a job with Union Insurance on a six-month contract.

“Because I had a lot of injury-related issues, I thought, ‘surely I can last six months, just to earn some money’. And that’s how I fell into insurance.

“I started looking at domestic policies and asking questions. And from that I started my journey of insurance education, and realised that if I worked hard I could achieve anything.”

With three grown children (one of whom works in insurance), Ms Bax’s recent career has included stints as senior portfolio director and later general manager underwriting agencies at Allianz, and national development manager at Ansvar. Her education achievements include an MBA.

“I’ve done some fantastic things in my career,” she says. “Happily, I don’t regret any of them. But this job [at UAC] just takes the cake. I’m having a ball.”