Ian Kirk. Picture: SUPPLIED
Ian Kirk. Picture: SUPPLIED

Africa’s largest insurer is getting breathing room to build on its biggest-ever acquisition and expand existing operations as rivals scale back on the continent and its main competitor squabbles with its fired CEO.

Sanlam in 2018 spent about $1.1bn to buy all of Casablanca-based Saham Finances and gain a footprint in more African countries than any other financial-services company outside of banking.

This as South African peers including Liberty Holdings and Momentum Metropolitan Holdings focus on their home market and Old Mutual fights with ex-CEO Peter Moyo, while contending with hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.

“We might just have a little bit longer to execute on the strategy,” Sanlam CEO Ian Kirk said by phone. “But of course that doesn’t take the pressure off us to deliver.”

Founded in Cape Town in 1918 and now spanning 33 African countries and 12 others from the US and India to Saudi Arabia and the UK, Sanlam is growing its health, life, property and casualty insurance businesses to entrench its position on the continent.

We need to be strongest in the big, important countries and obviously have the unique footprint that we have to make sure that we insure the corporates no matter where they operate.
Ian Kirk, Sanlam CEO 

The insurer is targeting consumers and multinational companies and extending its operations in Morocco, West and East Africa as well as Namibia and Botswana, the CEO said. It is also seeking a foothold in Egypt.

“We need to be strongest in the big, important countries and obviously have the unique footprint that we have to make sure that we insure the corporates no matter where they operate,” Kirk said.

“At the moment in the insurance industry we are the only one really doing it but that will change no doubt.” Sanlam is also looking at ways to bolster its reinsurance capacity with its general insurance unit Santam and expand offerings to become a top choice for multinational companies and their staff, Kirk said.

“That means building relationships with the brokers, and making sure that we are the network partner for international insurers that don’t have an African footprint.”

The insurer is seeking to benefit from a continent-wide push to improve access to financial services.

“It’s changing as economies become more developed and more diversified,” he said.

“If you take Ivory Coast for example, today it’s continuing to grow at double digits and has done for the last few years and insurance penetration is moving up as the country develops. We need more of that positive development in all these countries.”

Chasing deals

Sanlam will look into “bolt-on acquisitions” in one or two countries, Kirk said during the company’s first-half results presentation. The firm has a partnership in Ethiopia and will invest in the country when it opens up, he said in the phone interview.

At home, Sanlam will be looking to buy money managers to bulk up assets as the rise of index-tracking funds squeezes margins in the industry, Kirk said. A wave of mergers and acquisitions could hit the asset-management industry as soon as six months from now, the CEO said.

Sanlam wants to build scale through deals and close the gap between mid-tier firms and market leaders, such as Allan Gray and Coronation Fund Managers.

It will also use its relationship with African Rainbow Capital as a black economic empowerment partner to support SA’s push to give the black majority a bigger role in the economy. SA has about 50 black-owned asset managers, of which 68% are profitable, according to a survey by BEE.conomics, as well as a significant number of medium-sized firms.

Changes to the market, such as the rise of passive investments, have made it more difficult for all these companies to earn fees, Kirk said.

“We have re-positioned the business around black empowerment and we will play around the inevitable industry consolidation that will take place,” he said. “The pressure is really on to deliver in asset management.”

With assistance from Jeremy Diamond

Bloomberg