More action on mitigation and increasing digital services uptake offer positives for the future, Suncorp’s Lisa Harrison says

By Wendy Pugh

isa Harrison has a lot on her plate. Rising natural catastrophe impacts and accelerating technological change are at the heart of issues testing insurers and both fall within her mandate at Suncorp.

In a wide-ranging role, the company’s Insurance Product and Portfolio Chief Executive has responsibility for distribution, brand and marketing, strategic partnerships and product and pricing.

And she sits on the new Hazards Insurance Partnership between government and industry, and also chairs the Insurance Council of Australia’s (ICA) Strategy Committee.

Ms Harrison tells Insurance News the Hazards Insurance Partnership “has the potential to have an enduring legacy”. She points to the Federal Government’s increased focus on mitigation, including annual federal budget spending of $200 million, as a welcome change for the industry.

“It’s early days but it feels very positive,” she says. “I think there is very strong alignment across all stakeholders to make Australia more resilient to disasters.

“We’ve seen in the past couple of years many disasters have had significant social and economic implications, and obviously the East Coast floods last year were the costliest insured event in Australia’s history.”

The industry challenges are especially daunting. They include tougher reinsurance markets and the longer-term climate change impacts, with ICA last year releasing a roadmap guiding insurers on meeting goals.

“There’s tremendous opportunity for us as organisations in phasing to net zero,” Ms Harrison says. “How we help businesses that are transitioning with products and services and how we transition ourselves as insurers – that’s something that is absolutely critical.”

Catastrophes and industry risk-based pricing has also upped the ante on affordability and availability, encouraging governments to work with insurers on mitigation, while policyholders need to know what they can do to boost resilience and reduce insurance costs.

Insurers are playing a greater role in providing information about risks and how consumers can take action on prevention, Ms Harrison says, while the links between mitigation activities and pricing recognition is an evolving space.

Suncorp has partnered with CSIRO, James Cook University and architects on a “One House” prototype [see Insurance News magazine, June/July 2021] that can better withstand cyclones, floods and bushfires, and the insurer has helped introduce some of the features into homes in a Resilience Road project in Rockhampton.

“We have certainly done a lot more research in terms of what are the practical steps that homeowners can take,” Ms Harrison says. “And we’ve very much started the journey in terms of communicating to customers what they can do, and we keep thinking about product innovation that can happen off the back of that to further help in that regard.”

Ms Harrison told an investor update last year that expertise and technology investments are increasing the sophistication of risk pricing. For homeowners, eight potential risks are categorised as arising from nature: hail, storm, bushfire, riverine flood, cyclone, earthquake, flash flood/rainwater and storm surge.

A granular address-level view is backed by modelling that gives an understanding of how the perils interact and will behave in a changing climate.

“Insurers have always been very good in terms of understanding risk and classing a risk, and over decades insurers keep trying to improve that sophistication,” she says. “That’s important in terms of making sure that insurers continue to operate sustainably, but also because price tells customers about their risk, and it’s important customers are aware.”

Suncorp will join the Federal Government’s northern Australia cyclone reinsurance pool by the end of this year, in line with the schedule for large insurers. Ms Harrison says it’s too soon to say what the impact on premiums will be, with the company working through the implementation.

The pool concept was considered by several reviews before the Morrison Government committed to a scheme backed by a $10 billion guarantee.

Ensuring consumers clearly understand what their policies cover and exclude is another long-running issue where calls for action continue.

Consumer groups have pushed for more standardisation of policies and terms, and the Albanese Government has flagged interest in the subject.

“That’s definitely a topic that is part of conversations at the moment,” Ms Harrison says. “One of the challenges is making sure that you have sources of competition, and customers have different needs.

“What we know as insurers is that some customers have higher protection needs than others. How do you strike that balance if everything is standardised?”

The Quality of Advice review conducted by Michelle Levy also focused on helping consumers to buy best-suited products. Ms Levy’s recommended personal and general advice shake-up aims to facilitate more helpful conversations for simple cover purchases, while cutting paperwork and costs when intermediaries advise on more complex requirements.

Ms Harrison says Suncorp is looking at the implications. It has welcomed the review’s recognition of the role intermediaries such as brokers play in advising on financial services.

Some customers prefer minimal interaction while others want assistance and advice, whether by phone, online or through brokers, and the company has invested to meet the variety of needs.

“For us it’s been really important to excel across all those channels,” she says. “We’ve been very focused in terms of helping our brokers deliver great service for our shared customers. We’ve been investing in technology and digital platforms over the last couple of years to help in that regard.”

Industry advocate: Ms Harrison plays a key role liaising with government

She says digital technologies can help make insurance complexities and processes simpler, and it’s a channel increasingly preferred by many consumers.

“We saw that trend pre-covid, but then globally across all industries, including insurance, during covid,” Ms Harrison says. “We saw customers’ adoption of digital services increase exponentially, so we’ve had to work faster to deliver for our customers to meet their expectations.

“But that’s also really exciting because I think digital helps us simplify what we do.”

Ms Harrison started in insurance with Royal & SunAlliance as a commerce degree graduate. One of her job rotations was in the commercial area, giving an early appreciation for the role of brokers in assisting clients and providing risk management advice.

Wider experience was gained at Commonwealth Bank before Ms Harrison joined Suncorp in 2004 and subsequently moved into senior positions including Executive General Manager, Customer Product and Pricing and Chief Customer and Digital Officer.

In 2020 Suncorp reorganised its operations and business structure, with Ms Harrison moving into her current position. Paul Smeaton was appointed Chief Operating Officer – Insurance, with responsibility for claims management and some group functions.

Ms Harrison says the value of insurance in assisting people, whether after disasters in everyday life or following large-scale natural catastrophes, has been a strong part of the industry’s appeal since her early experiences.

“I think that is something fundamental in insurance – a deep sense of care – and we see that in our people when disasters strike.”

The focus on improving community resilience will remain a priority as weather patterns and risks change. Forecasters are currently seeing a switch to hot, dry conditions after three-years of La Nina and record-breaking floods.

Ms Harrison says there’s still a lot to do to make Australia more resilient to natural disasters.

“We can’t stand still. We may have seen La Nina go, but El Nino and the bushfire risk is around the corner. We need to make sure that we’re well prepared. Having that conversation to be well prepared is vitally important.”                                          


Championing inclusion

Ms Harrison is a member of the Champions of Change Insurance Group and an advocate for diversity and the promotion of inclusion widely in workplaces and society.

“One of the great things about my role, and as the largest personal injury insurer, is some of the great work we get to do in the disability sector,” she says.

“Partnerships with NSW wheelchair sports, as well as organisations like What Ability really spread the message around inclusivity and community access.”

What Ability makes available a variety of recreational activities for children and adults, often with the support of professional and semi-professional athletes. Wheelchair Sports NSW/ACT is the governing body for nine sports from grassroots to the elite level.

Ms Harrison says there has been a greater focus on gender diversity within insurance since she joined the sector in the 1990s, including in terms of senior leadership across the value chain.

“Certainly, it’s changed,” she says. “There’s still more to do, but I think there’s some great progress across the insurance industry,”

Her interests outside the workplace centre on family, with two daughters aged 11 and 14, and she’s a keen follower of a number of sports.

Early playing aspirations centred on tennis, although her serve has now “certainly come off the pace”, she says. She’s an avid Sydney Swans supporter in the AFL, a “long-suffering” Wests Tigers supporter in the NRL and loves netball. Suncorp is a major sponsor of the sport from junior levels through to the national Suncorp Super Netball League.

“I am very passionate about sport in general, and women’s sport in particular. It’s been great to see over probably the past five years the increased profile of our incredible female athletes.”