Wednesday, July 27, 2022

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Experts with Edge | Geoff Stooke Account Director • Modern Risk

At Honan, we’re big believers in growing an exceptional brand, business, and reputation through exceptional people. People with market-leading expertise, proven results, and a fierce commitment to serving their clients, but also people with creative, considered points of view and a willingness to share them. These are our challenger champions - the ones who progress, lead, and succeed by doing things a little differently, delivering on promises, and proving their passion through outstanding performance. In this series, we get to know them a little better, picking their brains for exclusive industry/category insights, future predictions, and the secrets behind their success.

I grew up in Melbourne with some of my primary school years spent in the UK. As the son of a corporate expat, I was gifted with an awareness of the world beyond Australia early in life. I’m married with two children (aged 12 and 10) who keep me very busy and fulfilled outside of work. I’m a lover of sport, geopolitics/foreign affairs, finance, investment, and an avid fan of biographies (which are infinitely better than self-help books in my mind)! *FYI,  a recent fave is Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy by Martin Indyk.

My introduction to the world of insurance came in ~2001 via a close school friend. He was on a graduate program with a  leading broker and suggested I try getting into insurance as it was global in nature, challenging, diverse, and a lot of fun … all completely counter to my ideas about the industry at the time.

 

With initial ambitions to pursue a career in financial services (perhaps stockbroking or funds management), I completed post-graduate study at the Securities Institute of Australia (now FINSIA), but ended up landing myself a financial lines underwriter role at the big American Insurer, ACE Insurance (now CHUBB). As the cliche goes, I’ve never looked back, and after 20 years, can confidently say my friend’s appraisal of the insurance industry was entirely accurate (though he himself has since moved on, now working as an Economist with the United Nations).

In 2009 post-GFC, it was evident to me that society was on the cusp of a major paradigm shift toward a new industrial revolution. ‘Software was eating the world’ as Mark Andreessen famously espoused in 2011, and nearly every industry I looked at was becoming software-driven (often via disruptive change). Airbnb transformed accommodation (owning no physical assets), Uber the same for transportation (owning no cars), Facebook and Twitter reframed media and publishing (producing no content of its own), and Airtasker reimagined the handyman (with no employees).

 

Frustrated at the glacial pace of large corporations to embrace change, I needed to unshackle myself and get closer to the action! Startups were dreaming into existence the world around them; hence my move to take a 100% pay cut and launch Modern Risk Solutions in 2013, together with my co-founder and great friend Mike Cole. Mike similarly left his high-paying corporate role to step into the startup ring and engage innovators at the coal face where all the excitement was happening.

 

In 2013 I was genuinely excited for the City of Melbourne too - our city was shaping up as one of the world’s greats, where innovation could flourish. The liberal arts intersected with STEM, and Melbourne was the only Australian city with two of the world’s top 100 universities at the time (University of Melbourne and Monash University). Much of my thinking at this time was captured in my Marvellous Melbourne blog for Start Up Melbourne.

The personal growth I attained in those early years was better than any MBA or theoretical study I could have undertaken. I really admire anyone who has the courage to pursue life on their own terms by way of starting a business with limited resources.

In 2013, we arranged the first unique Liability Insurance solution for a platform within the sharing economy peer-to-peer space in Asia Pac. Working closely with Lloyds along the way, this solution took many meetings over 6months to achieve. Landing the outcome equipped us with a swag of invaluable IP, not to mention a genuine sense of achievement in securing a placement and policy that met our clients desired intentions.

 

I would also say that building a business (in Modern Risk) that was strong enough for a company of Honan’s calibre to not only notice, but acquire, has been truly humbling. Being part of Honan Insurance Group - a nimble, challenger brand sharing our values and passion for the sector we serve has been a true honour so far!

The anxiety and fear of leaving stable employment to pursue my own business, at a time when I had a young family and a mortgage like most Australians! This was one of the most challenging periods of my life. That panic on day 1 is still palatable - Monday, February 11, 2013 -sitting alone in my empty garage with a laptop, no phone calls, and no clients - just a fierce commitment to disproving a bunch of family and friends who thought I’d gone completely mad.

 

The personal growth I attained in those early years was better than any MBA or theoretical study I could have undertaken. I really admire anyone who has the courage to pursue life on their own terms by way of starting a business with limited resources. Pleasingly, many such people have been my clients - the fact we have experienced what they have has been an extremely powerful validator for our business. We share the same founder DNA as those we serve and support - very few providers can say the same. This makes for a great bond beyond the client<> adviser relationship.

World-leading management theorist Jim Collins has long espoused that those who are more disciplined in risk management early on, can pull ahead of their competitors quickly when the going gets tough. This is so true. Once a startup has assets, IP, or even finds that promised land of ‘product-market-fit’, we want to be right there protecting their downside risks. Only then will they have the confidence to pursue that repeatable, scalable model and focus on their most pressing business priority – user and customer acquisition.

 

If you’re doing anything disruptive to a  market, challenges may come along like litigation, or incumbents aggressively trying to squeeze you out. It’s our job to prepare and protect our clients against these scenarios, and put a deep pocket behind the balance sheet of the startup as their moat and line of defence.

The universe has moved closer towards technology and software-driven businesses, and I would say Covid19 has sped up the transition to new ways of working; amplified by the efficient use of emerging and new technologies.

We help a lot of software-based companies, as well as life science and biotechnology firms. More recently, we’ve been supporting the renewable energy sector and some key players in Australia’s military and defence sectors including in cyber security too.

 

Cyber insurance remains a challenge due to capacity limitations, pricing, and risks more broadly.

While the challenges are varied, many, and unique to each company, one cannot discount the current turbulence coming from geopolitical threats and the bifurcation of world trade and the financial system between democracy and anti-democracy powers. This is all leading to conflict, increased threats, and barriers to our clients that we need to prepare for and think about.

Use insurance as a springboard to sure-up balance sheet risks from unforeseen threats and use that confidence to pour all your waking energy into user and customer acquisition ASAP.

 

With this ‘risk infrastructure’ in place, businesses are equipped to achieve their dreams at the pace and scale they’re hoping for. Nothing is more important to a business than a user or a customer - a philosophy we deeply respect and apply to all our client engagements.

Frictionless. Local/Personal. Innovative.

We put the client at the heart of everything we do - they pay our salaries, and afford us the privilege of working hard to address the risks in their businesses. Supporting and protecting our clients with the advice and insurance they need to be successful is something we never take for granted - we love seeing their people and businesses thrive.

Complex. Diverse. Global.

This aligns with Modern Risk’s philosophies and DNA as a business, and is precisely why Honan has been such a  great cultural fit for our team. We put the client at the heart of everything we do - they pay our salaries, and afford us the privilege of working hard to address the risks in their businesses. Supporting and protecting our clients with the advice and insurance they need to be successful is something we never take for granted - we love seeing their people and businesses thrive.

I’ve recently invested in a lot of seed rounds for early stage B2B SaaS companies, including one fund that has B2B  SaaS as its target and mandate. In terms of what I look for, I really like the formula of great founders + boring software that meets a business's needs in unique and interesting ways. The threshold for success and revenue in B2C  can be much harder to achieve, but more rewarding when it pays off. I guess  I’m high up the risk curve to a point, but very happy to leave the big time  ‘moon shots’ to the superstar, rockstar angel investors (not me, yet)!

I try to lead by example. I’m not the type to tell anyone what to do or micro-manage.

We’re all professionals. I trust my team, and try to get them as excited and interested in our clients and sector as I am. When people enjoy what they do and who they do it with, the potential for success is limitless - the effort and outcomes far exceed all expectations.

I have found a new thirst for knowledge and love of business study again. I keep going back to online courses from one of the world’s greatest business schools - Wharton (University of Pennsylvania). I love their course material, and the Socratic teaching methods of Wharton Professors which allows their students to land their own conclusions and solutions. The current course I’m undertaking investigates a deep study into the companies that scale to achieve“Unicorn” status (a Company with a USD$1bn valuation). We’re examining how they got there from inception, and the challenges they overcame along the way. This will be the second Wharton course I’ve completed after an initial one focusing on all things FinTech.

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