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Jacki Johnson was thrown into the deep end from the start of her time at IAG New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell

By Tamsyn Parker

Jacki Johnson never set out to become a boss – let alone an insurance company executive. But the plucky Australian who started her career as an occupational therapist in a Sydney hospital has been head of New Zealand’s largest insurer, IAG, for nearly five years now in one of the industry’s toughest eras.

Johnson remembers when she heard about the first major Christchurch earthquake – she was in bed at home in Sydney when she was woken up at 5am to the news.

That was the September 2010 quake when no one was killed, although plenty of damage was done.

Johnson wasn’t supposed to take over the New Zealand arm of IAG until November but she hopped on a plane early to hit the ground running.

“My poor husband had to pack up the house on his own.”

Then she spent nearly every weekend working in Christchurch for the first year of her New Zealand tenure.

“I know Christchurch better than anywhere [in New Zealand].”

The irony is she was shoulder-tapped for the New Zealand job to test her abilities to improve a business arm in a plain-sailing environment.

Her previous experience with IAG was more about fighting fires and had touched on everything from mergers and acquisitions to setting up a start-up online insurance business to handle disasters across Australia. “It was all about – could I lift the business without a burning platform?”

But the New Zealand job has been anything but plain sailing and she now jokes with IAG chairman Brian Schwartz and director Hugh Fletcher that she could have them up for misleading behaviour.

While Christchurch has been the biggest natural disaster New Zealand has faced during her tenure it hasn’t been the only one.

There have been storms, flooding, cyclones and the Rena disaster which had cargo insured by IAG.

Jacki Johnson.
Jacki Johnson.

Christchurch certainly gave her a fast immersion into New Zealand and a chance to use her disaster experience. But it was also a huge learning curve for the Aussie who hadn’t dealt with earthquakes before.

“I said to one of the ministers, ‘I need to be a humble Aussie. Not one that says, I’ve now arrived – listen to me.'”

As an Aussie working in New Zealand she says she was constantly asked when she would head back across the Ditch.

“Everyone thought we would run away after two years.”

Even after she and her nurse husband bought an apartment they were still asking that.

“When we got a dog the questions stopped,” she says. “We like being adopted Kiwis.”

Despite the challenges, Johnson has never regretted the move to New Zealand, although strong family connections and greater corporate opportunities mean she will eventually go back home.

But she admits it has been a steep cultural learning curve.

She remembers thinking: “Oh thank goodness New Zealand doesn’t have different states.”

Now she has a much deeper understanding about the differences between Invercargill and Whangarei and the deep divide between Auckland and those who live outside the country’s biggest city.

It’s also a very far cry from her early working life.

Johnson, who was born in England to a working class family which emigrated to Australia when she was 6 years old, originally trained to be an occupational therapist.

One of five children, she was the first in her family to go to university.

At 21 she was working in a training hospital helping people with head injuries, burns and amputations get back into the workforce.

She says she was inspired by those she worked with and it helped shape her views on life.

“I learned a lot about the art of possible,” she says. “When people are motivated they can get over the most traumatic things.”

When an insurer rang the training school to ask if there was anyone who would put their hand up to work on a factory shop floor improving safety, Johnson put her hand up even though she knew it could upset her dad.

“My dad, the No1 thing he wanted for us was to go to university.”

I learned a lot about the art of possible. When people are motivated they can get over the most traumatic things.

She says her dad wanted to know his kids would never have to work in a factory like he did, but that was exactly what she was about to do.

“He thought I had a nice career working for a hospital.”

Instead, she moved on to the shop floor of Ford and BHP Billiton, improving their safety practices.

She admits it wasn’t easy being a young female in a car manufacturing plant and says it was “brutal at times”.

She became the deputy managing director of IRS Total Injury Management – an industrial rehabilitation service – and her interest in leadership began.

Johnson was then asked to sit on the WorkCover Authority board by the New South Wales Government in 1994. She was the only female on the board and was also the youngest.

Later she moved into general insurance, working at HIH and Allianz Insurance, before moving to IAG in 2001.

“When did I become an insurance person? “I sort of morphed into it.”

She says she has never targeted being a chief executive.

“I am like a collector of skills,” she says. “When I go for a role I ask, ‘Will I be adding something of value, will I learn something, do I respect the CEO?'”

Personal resilience has stood her in good stead.

“Being able to speak up is really important.”

She says she has also been lucky to be mentored by some great male role models who helped her get to the top.

Within IAG New Zealand she has pushed for greater diversity and while there are no other females in the management team she says there is diversity in their thinking.

For me Christchurch is so important because I believe in recovery and people and community – it was my first love as a therapist.

Outside of the executive team women in direct reports have grown in the last 12 months from 32 per cent to 38 per cent and in middle management from 40 per cent to 45 per cent.

Johnson says in many cases women aren’t in management because of the choices they make. “It is often because women will make choices where they say, ‘I don’t want to put up with that’.”

But she is trying to do her bit to encourage more women up the ranks. “I only run interviews if there is a credible male and a credible female to interview.”

The panel interviewing must also have a woman on it.

But the appointments are merit-based not about reaching a gender quota.

She says adding diversity to the business has also been about fishing outside of the insurance industry pond.

“Some come from the telcos, others from Fonterra,” Johnson says. “It is a journey and we are not there yet.”

Johnson is proud she has managed to stay true to her therapist beginnings.

“For me Christchurch is so important because I believe in recovery and people and community – it was my first love as a therapist.”

She has kept this in mind as she has faced the angry rallies in the garden city.

“I really feel for people. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just an awful situation.”

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