September 12, 2019 - By Stephen Callahan
Peter Harris, the former CEO of the Auckland-based insurance company CBL, is a passion-driven, dedicated individual who continues to work to improve the world around him. He is an active entrepreneur and thought leader in his field.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Brought up on a dairy farm in Waikato, a farming district in Rangiriri, Peter Harris learned early on that good relationships mattered. Deals were made with a handshake, and hard work was expected and enjoyable. It was, in fact, a part of daily life.
The area lacked a quality education, leading Harris’s family to send him to a boarding school for his education. He attended Southwell School in Hamilton, where he earned the rank of Head Boy. He became the loyal defender of the little people who needed a hand-up or some type of support from time to time to overcome disadvantages or unfairness for various reasons. His helping hand wasn’t without recognition. A prize named in his honor is still awarded at Southwell School’s annual prize-giving for the person most displaying these qualities.
He was a strong farm boy, and that brought him years of participating in rugby and rowing, which came easily to him. Later, he was the founding member of the Spirit of Adventure Foundation, a tall ship youth sailing adventure foundation. It’s not boosted by the addition of the ship, “Spirit of New Zealand” This allowed Harris to continue his passion for the water, his youth endeavor, and aspiration. It taught him a good deal, including how to overcome adversity. This was also an important skill as he worked as a “Project K” youth mentor. He went on to sponsor the New Zealand “Young Enterprise Trust” and the New Zealand Men’s and Women’s Rowing programs.
After spending several years at St. Paul’s Collegiate and completing accounting exams at Waikato Institute of Technology, he began his business career.
Harris’s early business experience came in working at Fletcher Steel as an accountant. He later moved to Fletcher Industries itself in Auckland. He thrived in his dedication to hard work. In 1984, he was awarded an Air New Zealand Young Businessman Award.
Over the following years, Harris worked for several insurance entities and boutique investment banks, proving his skills and building his experience. After leaving the financial accounting world, he went into marketing in the finance and insurance broking sector for property and the heavy commercial equipment sector. He released that while the banks supplied most of the funds at low secure interest rates, there was more money to be made in taking a higher layer of risk, which could often be mitigated in many ways through the innovative use of credit enhancements, surety solutions, and guarantees. With the result being lower volumes, lower risks, but higher rates and profits.
Seeking a new avenue, he looked towards CBL and participated with Alistair Hutchinson in the buyout of CBL in 1996.
At the time of the buyout, CBL was a small insurance company, with a very specific niche in credit and financial risk insurance. The company was destined to remain very small if it was confined to its operation in just New Zealand. In those days, the population of the entire country was no more than four million, which is now the equivalent of a medium-sized city in many countries. Thus, a decision was made to find other avenues to scale up the busing overseas where numerous potential opportunities existed.
The company sought to see revenue opportunities overseas. In 2000, the adventure of email and the internet helped to foster this opportunity for the organization. At that time, Harris was tasked with leading CBL’s international expansion efforts.
He worked hard to achieve this goal, with the help of the entrepreneurial spirit of fellow major shareholder Alistair Hutchison, the wise visionary governance of the Board, and the support of a loving wife and family. The effort, no small one at that, allowed Harris’ to oversee the team himself. In 2000, CBL’s revenue amounted to $2 million written from one small office that had no more than three employees. Harris’ leadership in the international expansion allowed the company to expand to over $450 million, with 540 employees across eight offices spanning four continents and with over 98 percent of that annual revenue coming from overseas efforts.
The sheer growth and success of the company allowed Harris and the CBL Board to take CBL public in 2015. The company was listed on the New Zealand (NZX) and Australian (ASX) stock exchanges at that time. By 2017, the value of shares for CBL had more than doubled in value. The company entered the NZX 50 that same year, reaching a value of NZ $780 million.
The success of the efforts, in Harris’s words, was due to the “enduring, long-term relationships with a number of very similar organizations that value and appreciate (and share) the commitment CBL has to its principles, fair play, and hard work and a focus on its clients and professional “CBL team supporters.”
Later in 2017, after winning two awards for his successes, Harris faced a new challenge. That year, CBL was faced with a challenge resulting from the French insurance establishment, which hoped to get rid of all non-French insurers doing French construction insurance business. Supported by the French regulator (ACPR), the French insurers were losing business to the half-dozen smaller, more nimble, and more customer-focused insurers from abroad. CBL’s local regulator RBNZ who had little knowledge of the business and bought into the argument from the ACPR, that CBL was not reserved as high as it should be for the future losses that would come in over the next 10 – 12 years on this business. Despite the RBNZ being unable to prove it was right, and despite CBL’s independent actuaries PwC confirming the adequacy of CBL’s reserves, the RBNZ put CBL Insurance into liquidation in 2018, considering it to be insolvent due to inadequate reserving. The inexperienced liquidator lost all of CBL’s business, selling or saving none of it, and in 18 months has not paid one single claim.
By 2018, Harris and his fellow shareholder director, Alistair Hutchison, opposed liquidation for several months and put up a plan that would have ensured the solvency of CBL Insurance, and ensure all policyholders and creditors were paid in full.
By this time, the reserve liabilities for the French construction business had been proven to be adequate when a large experienced reinsurer of this business tabled an offer to acquire and take on all the French Construction policies – for the value in CBL’s balance sheet, – assigned by PwC. The stark implication of the reserves being crystallized at the CBL figure and not the RBNZ figure, and the company is proven to be financially solvent was not lost on the RBNZ and the proposed liquidator, and after some controversial steps were taken by RBNZ which are still the subject of legal review, Peter and Alistair realized they were beaten and were pressured to withdraw their opposition. The company went into liquidation in November 2018.
Harris did what he could to mitigate the international challenges of CBL’s collapse. He ensured that New Zealand employees had ongoing employment for minimum terms. He, along with Alistair, has now funded the costs of a small team to start a new surety and guarantee business using Harris’ contacts and market knowledge in Europe, India, Asia, and Mexico.
Harris has numerous accomplishments to his name, including helping a struggling company to become profitable with two years, in part through its international expansion. In 2017, he achieved “Entrepreneur of the Year” in the EY Awards and “Leader of the Year” at the Australia New Zealand Insurance Awards.
He has confidence, stamina, and patients, and he realizes that success is not always a great teacher. He does not give up easily, he can see and make opportunities happen, and he is quick to overcome any hurdle faced, as evidence proves in his never-ending battle to protect CBL as long as was possible from the unfairness it faced. Harris’s word is his bond, and he is prepared to stand up and fight for a principle or do the right thing in every situation.
He is also known for being passionate about supporting his team and the “little people” that he’s encountered, from his early days in school to the people who have helped him to build success time and time again.
Peter Harris answered some of the key questions about entrepreneurship:
How did you get started in the insurance field? What inspired you to start this
“After leaving the financial accounting world, I went into marketing in the finance and insurance broking sector for property and the heavy commercial equipment sector.
I realized that whilst the banks supplied most of the funds at low secure interest rates; there was more money to be made in taking a higher layer of risk that could often be mitigated in many ways. Ways such as the innovative use of credit enhancements, surety solutions, and guarantees. With the result being lower volumes, lower risks but higher rates and higher profits.”
What do you think it is that makes you successful in your field?
“I have a strong work ethic and a passion for putting the time and effort into making change happen. I believe in hard work, never giving up, and having a confident attitude. I realized the ‘normal’ way is not always the best way. I value that I never look back and dwell on it. I’m also passionate about innovating to find new solutions.”
How did you get your first customer?
“I got my first international account in Malaysia for account protection of all the major airlines flying into Malaysia from loss from the insolvency of ticketing agents. Up against a major international insurer in the USA, I stayed in Malaysia seeing the client every day and advising his home office that “he was not coming home until he had the account”. The major New York-based insurers did everything by fax because, in 2000, they did not think it was safe to fly to Asia.”
What is one thing you think every entrepreneur should do?
“Ask questions and stay close to your clients. Spend as much time in the market as you can. Not in the office. And don’t do your market research in the office – do it in the market.”
What book has inspired you?
“Lee Iacocca’s biography. Tsun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
“I value spending a lot of time in the market asking questions and listening, – and in particular asking, “how can we help you build your business?”
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
“I would say a ThinkPad laptop, it’s almost indestructible. And some Digi-sign technology.