Andrew Barnes: Technology is an innovator

By Andrew Barnes

Perpetual Guardian founder reflects on his career and innovation in New Zealand.
Andrew Barnes, EY Entrepreneur Finalist.
Andrew Barnes, EY Entrepreneur Finalist.

Since making New Zealand your home in 2013, you have spent your time moving a traditional trust company into the information age, online wills and all. Is there anything technology can't improve?

Technology does so much to improve people's lives and make essential products and services accessible and affordable, no matter where you live.

What we have done with Perpetual Guardian, in running an online business alongside the traditional branch model, is the same as banking, just in estate planning. It shows you can take a tech hub and supporting infrastructure and apply it to anything.

The focus has to be on moving people forward in this new age by creating an agile and flexible economy, maximizing employment and supporting new business.

Full credit to all parties involved in establishing the strong broadband infrastructure we now have in most parts of the country. We should not forget that the customer wants to engage digitally, so as a modern company we must strive to provide our clients with a safe environment for this.

The firms that originated your company have been around for 130 years. The services are there, yet around 50 per cent of adult New Zealanders don't have a will. Why are take-up rates so poor?

Our research tells us that people think writing a will is expensive and complicated, that they need to see a lawyer to do it. This is why we have developed our business model in the way we have.

However, there is one change that could be made that would achieve almost overnight results. Tie wills to KiwiSaver. If every person in New Zealand aged 18 or over with a KiwiSaver account was required to have a will, the landscape would change completely.

What most people don't know is that if you have an investment asset - and KiwiSaver is an investment - worth more than $15,000, you need a will. The first KiwiSaver provider to offer this as a service will be showing they truly care about the financial future of their customers and their families.

People would make their first will as a rite of passage, just like getting their driver's licence. When young, it will likely be uncomplicated and should be inexpensive, and in most cases could be done online without needing to consult a lawyer.

In more complex cases, such as blended families, our online services are designed to trigger legal support when it is required. This is extremely important, because it is not enough just to have a will - it must be able to withstand a challenge.

Their will could then be stored online and its location recorded in the NZ Will Registry; this will help families find the will when needed. They would update the will as they go through life, like updating an insurance policy. It has to be as easy and affordable as accessing an online bank account or people will never do it.

There is a lack of political will to move the estate planning sector forward, and this failure of leadership leaves hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders vulnerable.

I believe that every adult New Zealander should have a will, and every child deserves the protection of one. Without a will, where is the guardianship order for your child? People dying intestate adds enormous financial and emotional stress at what is the worst time for their loved ones, and creates more work for the court system, which is overburdened as it is.

I find it surprising the problem is this severe when we have had a state-run trust company since the 19th century. But given that Public Trust has just announced the roll-out of its estimated $23.75 million IT system has been further delayed, perhaps I am wrong to be surprised.

You graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in archaeology. How did that lead to a career in business?

I quickly recognised that an archaeological dig had the highest-qualified, worst-paid manual work force of any profession, and was a very precarious career option.

Having grown up in north-west England with both of my parents experiencing hardship as children due to familial unemployment and premature death, they counselled me to focus on job security and avoidance of risk. Of course I threw that out the window by becoming an entrepreneur and business leader. I realized early on there was nothing else I would be, so I could not go back and work for someone else.

What I love about business is how much success relies on using your instincts and building great teams. I have witnessed some highly competitive, very damaging and counterproductive company cultures, and I am proud of the collaborative team we have amassed in our company.

What will you tell your own children about pursuing a career?

I have fabulous young children and I encourage them to work hard at the things they enjoy. I support them in anything they struggle with and enable them to have the space to find their own dreams. Building my business to make a difference, not just a profit, will, I hope, be my legacy and example to them. Parenting is as big a challenge as any other I have faced, but gives me something outside of myself to be working for.

You have a hand in a plethora of businesses. How do you relax?

My first role during and after university was in the Royal Navy, and I still love the sea. I have participated in competitive yacht racing in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and it is remarkably freeing. There is no mental space to worry about business when I am trying to get the optimal position on the start line or thinking about our position in relation to the rest of the fleet, and it is great being part of a team.

I find getting out for a walk does a great deal to restore me and stimulate creative thinking. On Waiheke, I will wander through the grapes at my vineyard, Postage Stamp, or along the beach. I tend to internalize questions or problems, to rely on my gut, so very often I find an answer will come to me while I am pondering a grape.

You always have something new on the go. What is the long-term strategy for Perpetual Guardian?

Put simply, to keep our existing customers very happy while opening up estate planning to a whole new market. We do this by maintaining our national branch network, which is run by people I regard as the best and most experienced in the country, and by adding digital services for those who want them.

Kowhiri is our digital legal services provider that serves Perpetual Guardian and operates globally. We have purchased several entities and developed others to provide innovative, affordable estate planning services, and with the acquisition of the will-writing and document creation software company DPL Professional, our systems will have written over 3.5 million wills in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the UK by the end of 2017. We also work with New Zealand law firms, which write the vast majority of wills, to provide support services for their clients.

New Zealand is unusual; our estate planning sector is dominated by lawyers. In the UK the industry is led by will-writing firms and in South Africa by trust companies.

This means we need to be collegial, collaborative, imaginative and willing to experiment in order to bring about the great leap forward the industry needs. It is very easy to be complacent, but that does not help anybody. Digitization will be the true making of this industry, and we are already seeing the benefits. We just need central government to catch up.

You are now a proud Aucklander. What is the single biggest 'fix' that would improve Auckland's economy?

When you talk about economic growth, you are talking about productivity. Auckland faces many challenges, and probably the most immediate is adequate housing for all the city's inhabitants - but equally, you are not going to have a productive work force if people are spending too much of their day travelling between home and work.

Efficient, accessible and affordable public transport has to be a top priority for the city's leaders. I am concerned we are going in the wrong direction on this. I live on Waiheke Island and my office is on Queen Street, so I am on and off the ferry. The Explore Group has just cancelled its Waiheke ferry service after only a year, which reduces competition and is bad for tourists and commuters. This is a symptom of a larger problem, which is a lack of leadership, and real financial nous, among the people making long-term decisions about Auckland.

Who are you favouring in this year's Auckland mayoral contest?

Auckland is my chosen city, and every day I see things that could and should be done better, so I am watching this election with a keen eye. It is very easy to make promises. I only care about delivery. I expect the next mayor to stand as the person accountable for the very real problems Auckland is facing - housing, infrastructure, poverty, tourism. There is a lack of accountability and business acumen in the current leadership that troubles me, and is clearly troubling our two major political parties.

When the long-term plan for Auckland was announced in 2012, Auckland Council forecasted that its debt level would increase from $4.8 billion to $12.5 billion over the 10-year course of implementation. It promised the value of assets would rise accordingly, but right now we have a city that is the most expensive in the world - in the world! - for house prices relative to income. It is a crisis situation, and the mayor and councillors should not rest while so many of our citizens are homeless or living in appalling, overcrowded conditions, or unable to secure affordable (owning or renting) accommodation close to their place of work.

- NZ Herald

Andrew Barnes is founder of Perpetual Guardian, business leader, innovator and philanthropist.

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