Dianne Phelan, group operations manager at BJS Insurance Group, joins the NIBA Board with nearly four decades of experience as an insurance broker and is still as passionate as ever about the industry. She now speaks to Insurance Adviser about her ‘utopian’ vision for the association, her career and the privilege of being a woman in insurance.

Insurance Adviser: When you were offered the director’s role on the NIBA Board, what was your reaction, and why did you accept?

Di Phelan: I was surprised, honoured and humbled. I’ve worked in insurance for 39 years and to have others think that I’m worthy and have something to contribute at that level is very humbling.

I’m pretty passionate about the industry. I think I still have something to give.

I do think NIBA is at a crossroads and as a huge supporter, I think you have to be part of the solution not part of the problem. I hear many negative comments and uninformed views and I want to encourage people not to just complain. The way I see things: don’t just think of the problem, think about what needs to change to make it better.

IA: What do you mean when you say NIBA is at a crossroads?

DP: I think the role of NIBA is vital and when I say that I think we are really at a crossroads I’m largely referring to the cluster groups and how many cluster group members see them as being the only solution needed so they don’t feel like they need NIBA anymore. What they fail to understand is the crucial role that NIBA plays in lobbying and in making sure that we are not caught in the unnecessary legislation focused on the financial services sector… that is definitely not needed in general insurance.

The way I see things: don’t just think of the problem, think about what needs to change to make it better.

To me, and this could be a utopian view, every broker should have to be a NIBA member and contribute towards the success of their association, because every broker benefits from what the association achieves with its lobbying. If all the cluster groups had a group membership – so that if you’re a member of a cluster, you’re a member of NIBA, that would be a significant step forward. Having Austbrokers and Steadfast representation on the board and getting that message out there is certainly a huge step in the right direction.

This is one of the things I’m particularly passionate about.

IA: What then do you hope to achieve as a director on the NIBA Board?

DP: That’s one thing – I hope to see every broker a member of NIBA.

Another is to see a lot more engagement by brokers in their association; and a lot more support of the association. Many brokers are members but I wouldn’t say that they really support the association.

What we need is increased awareness and engagement. I think there is a fair bit of complacency out there.

We also need to increase engagement, awareness and support from non-members to actually become members. To realise, ‘Hey I really can’t afford not to be a member because I actually need to contribute to the solution. I can’t just sit here and get all the benefits of NIBA and not contribute.’

I would also like to see a lot more awareness about NIBA’s work. Brokers are bombarded with so much information these days it is impossible to read everything you receive. Here, I think the divisional committees have a role to play in getting information out to their state members and the insurance community as a whole because it’s an important message – the value of NIBA and its role in representing brokers to government is vital. We all have a role to play to ensure our association remains strong and viable. The success NIBA has had in this area in the past should not be understated and all brokers need to understand that without NIBA fighting on our behalf, some reforms could just go through. It will be a case of we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s not there.

IA: You’re a career insurance broker – not many can say that. What do you think is so appealing about insurance as a career?

DP: It’s one of the few industries that has so many facets to it – you can specialise in law, IT, marketing, client relationships etc… You can almost have different careers and still stay in the insurance industry, which I think is pretty unique. I think it is one of the huge benefits of working in insurance that is often undervalued.

NIBA is looking at promoting insurance as a career and I believe it’s vital to get that message out there… There is a distinct lack of knowledge in the community about insurance and the importance of insurance in the economy as a whole.

We all have a role to play to ensure our association remains strong and viable.

However, a developing issue I see is, if we are successful at enticing school leavers or graduates into the industry, the jobs aren’t going to be there. With many industry employers, including brokers, choosing to move the traditional ‘entry level’ roles offshore, the challenge will be to get graduates who have some sort of experience in insurance so they can fast-track through to those roles that they are qualified for.

I don’t have the solution to this one but if we can create an internship or work experience program for students during university, then they could gain the necessary experience.

IA: Obviously, NIBA has been a very important part of your professional life. What prompted you to first get involved?

DP: I was one of the founding members of the under 35s committee in SA more than 20 years ago. I was interested in doing that because at the time there was nothing in the industry that provided for the younger generation coming through in terms of education. All the education then was focused on more experienced brokers.

We did a lot of work creating networking opportunities for the younger brokers and training that was more basic for new entrants to the industry.

Then I went on to the divisional committee, where I was until 2001. That’s when my twins were young, and I was like many mothers, struggling with a lack of hours in the day. I decided the time was right to re-join the committee almost five years ago.

My motivation for being on the divisional committee… well, insurance has been very good to me and my family, providing me with a successful career path enabling me to provide for my family. I’m a believer in giving of your time to help promote things that are important.

IA: There have been observations recently that the insurance industry is not as gender diverse at the senior levels as other industries. You’re a woman in a leadership position. How do you think the profession can encourage more women into upper management positions?

DP: First, I think it’s certainly pleasing to see a lot more women coming into insurance; and I think there are a lot more women being given management roles – that’s certainly the case in insurance companies.

From my own perspective, I have never felt gender has been a consideration.

I do think there are still a lot more women who put their careers on hold for their families than men – it’s still largely what a woman does.

Because of this they lose those years of experience and when they come out the other end… they are just behind the eight-ball. I think increased support of fathers having a greater involvement in their children’s development would help that situation. Things are also being made easier with paternity leave and we are certainly making inroads there. The more fathers are able to share childcare, the more it will help women to be at the right time in their life to take those leadership roles and have sufficient experience to take them.

Having said that, I think insurance is the type of career that allows women to go part-time, take a break and still create a successful career. For example, at BJS, there are a number of roles which lend themselves to flexibility.

Recently, we established a Business Support Unit (BSU) which is responsible for completion of the back office work across all branches. The BSU concept allows us to employ new entrants to insurance but we’ve also found those roles can be an attractive alternative for women who don’t want to work full-time after coming back from maternity leave. These people are really valuable because they have the insurance experience… and for them, working part-time means they get to keep their hand in the game.

We are finding the experienced staff can complete the more complex administration tasks that require a certain level of expertise, leaving the simpler tasks for the newer employees.

We have employed four new people into the BSU in the last seven months. Two of the four have already decided they want to make insurance their career so they will be starting their qualifications in the next six to 12 months. That’s the beauty of the BSU: we didn’t set out to look for people who wanted an insurance role; we were looking for people who wanted admin roles. But they’ve now got a taste of insurance and have decided that it is what they want to make their career. It’s great to see that once they gain some knowledge they are making insurance a career choice. We find replacing qualified experienced staff can often be quite difficult so, for us, it is far better to try and employ at the entry level and provide the training and sharing of knowledge so they are ready to take the next step when a position becomes available.