Naomi Ballantyne (ONZM), founder of Partners Life has paved the way for women in the world of insurance. In what was once a male-dominated industry, she has broken through the glass ceiling again and again.

what makes her tick

Ask Naomi what makes her tick and laughter will be a high priority. She knows she’s smart, she knows she’s a high achiever, but make no mistake it hasn’t been an easy journey. In fact, this is a woman whose roots weren’t a bed of roses, but despite the thorns, she’s emerged as a strong, successful woman at the top of her game.

a thorny beginning

“I come from a poor immigrant family,” says Naomi. “My mother was Tongan and my father was Canadian so I’m a first generation New Zealander. I was one of five children in the middle of four brothers, three of whom were adopted, not that that made any difference.

Naomi’s father was an alcoholic with the typical verbal abuse whenever he was drunk. “He had a tough upbringing in Canada and escaped here with the Merchant Navy at 19,” says Naomi. “My mother was one of 15. Her dad was a minister and bakery owner in Tonga as well as being German. One day they took him away to an internment war camp in Wellington, where he died. Mum was just 10. Her family went from being well respected, to losing everything, and because they were half Tongan and half German they were ostracised. As soon as they were old enough they moved to New Zealand - one at a time - to work and send money back to Tonga. Mum and dad were two lost souls who found each other here.”

sport & athleticism

Growing up in Auckland’s Glenfield, Naomi and her brothers excelled in sport. She was fast and a strong hockey player. “Dad achieved his aspirations through his kids so he got us into it early,” says Naomi. “The expectation was to do well, giving him something to brag about at the pub. I hated it. I’d almost throw up every time because I knew if I didn’t come first there’d be trouble.” She went on to become an Auckland Champion sprinter and, at just 14, made the under 21 reps for North Harbour Hockey. “They were all Glamazons and I was a 14-year-old fit, normal sized young girl,” she remembers. “Dad would stand on the sidelines during a game yelling ‘what’s the matter fatty, do you need glasses?’ It was mortifying.”

an outstanding scholar

As soon as she was old enough to make her own decisions, Naomi stopped running. “It was a shame when you think how good I was,” she says. “When you are put in a situation like that you sink or swim. I was lucky enough to know I was bright and good at sports and to realise that that sort of pressure wasn’t right.” Naomi went on to study at Westlake Girls High School finishing with an A Bursary and then, in a family first, went on to study Marine Biology at Auckland University.

marriage and motherhood

“I was eight months in when I realised marine biology was more a calling than a career, and that it took 12 years to get qualified,” says Naomi. She’d met Kerry, they wanted to get married and she wanted to escape her home environment — so they tied the knot when she was 19 and he was 21 and they later had a son, Kris. “I’d always assumed I’d work only until I had a family but my husband wasn’t comfortable with the financial pressure of being the sole income-earner,” she says. “I knew I could be good at anything - that’s not big noting it just was - so I asked Mum if I could pay her to look after Kris while I worked,” says Naomi. “I expected her to be horrified I wasn’t staying home but she said ‘with your education you must, and I am so happy you won’t have to go through what I went through’. She’d been desperately poor bringing up five children - she couldn’t drive, so she walked everywhere she needed to get her and the kids to, she cooked like a dream with nothing, sewed all of our clothes because she had to, and had a husband who was often drunk, hungover or grumpy because he wanted a drink. When things feel bad and tough for me I think of her and get over it.”

finding her calling

When she dropped out of university, Naomi saw an ad for a management trainee in life insurance. She didn’t know what insurance was but she applied and got the job. “The job title stated Grade 1; every year you might go up a grade and if you were lucky you might make it into senior management in your sixties,” says Naomi. “The products weren’t sophisticated and once a year the CEO would step up and say his two-cents worth. It was like young Mr Grace on Are You Being Served?”

However, a seed was sewn and when Naomi figured out that insurance (at the time) gave money to people when they die and she realised that she had found her calling. “I didn’t love taking lessons from old fuddy-duddies but I loved the purpose,” says Naomi.

“The thing I most remember about my mother was that she was always laughing and happy. She took what happiness she could find in life and I think that’s why I tend to laugh a lot, too. It’s hard for someone to be angry at or offensive to you if you’re smiling. It’s a choice you make.”

learning her craft

From there she bounced around working at both NZI and Fidelity Life. “While I was at Fidelity Life I worked as a new business clerk until one day one of the ladies got upset and left so they looked at me and said ‘you can be an underwriter’,” remembers Naomi.

“They told me to read a book on underwriting to learn how,” she says. “I was 20 and doing all the calculations of the premiums with no one checking them even though I was dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars of cover. I got no help, no training, and I had to learn fast. Then I realised that a whole lot of the people in the business, even the bosses, didn’t know as much as I did.” She did the role for four years before looking to change.

building sovereign

“Sovereign was just starting and they were advertising for an Operations Manager,” says Naomi. “I had no belief I would get the job, but nobody else applied so I got it. I figured what I didn’t know I could learn.” good we’ll copy and build on it. I think that’s an effective way of using other people’s smarts.”

the pressure of leading

There are moments when it all gets too much. Working 60-80 hours a week, frequent travel and early morning or late night international calls take their toll. “You know everything rests on you; it’s you that’s got to make the final call, but I’ve learned it’s OK to get it wrong,” says Naomi. “If you don’t take any risks you don’t grow.”

She says we need to talk to ourselves. “I’ve had so many crises of confidence,” says Naomi. “There might be a meeting where I don’t know what to say and all of these people are depending on me. I’ll take myself in hand by saying to myself ‘for god’s sake, woman, look at what you’ve already done. If others with two legs and a brain can do it, so can you’.”

it's not that bad

When she gets really down and the depression starts to roll in (yes, she’s human!), she’ll talk to herself again. “I ask myself, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ ‘You have to sell your house? You live in New Zealand for goodness sake. Stop it. It’s just not that bad’,” says Naomi. “I believe you’re the only person who can change how you’re feeling. Remind yourself that other people aren’t better than you. You’ve got to put it in perspective. And do you know what? The more you talk yourself through a tough situation, the more confident you are the next time that you can do it,” she says.

"It’s you that’s got to make the final call, but I’ve learned it’s OK to get it wrong."

the future

“I know I’ll make more mistakes. My biggest fear is I won’t know when to move aside. You get those founders who stay far past their use by date,” she says. “But I want an entire other life. I want to be a grandmother (though that’s up to them). My son loves his mum — we’re best mates and he is a magnificent human being. All of the people who said my working would be bad for him? Sorry, but you were wrong. There’s no right or wrong answer to parenting – it’s the outcome that counts, not the way you go about it.”

She would also love to be a character coach. “A lot of people get to this age and they’re frustrated. Too many men my age kill themselves,” she says. “I’ve seen the behaviours that have driven their outcomes and have learned that if you want a different reaction, then you need to change what you do and say. I actually created a course three years ago. It was sitting there in my head and I had to get it out. I now facilitate it annually for the Rotary Youth Leaders Programme. Wherever I’ve delivered the programme it’s had a phenomenal reaction.”

With such a full future wishlist it doesn’t sound like Naomi will be one of those founders who stay – to use her words – past their use by date.

feeding the leader

Naomi finds her happy place by going back to her sporting roots, putting on her running shoes and racking up some miles. It began when Partners Life sponsored the Dual Challenge on Rangitoto. “I signed up for the 21km half marathon - at the start line I felt like throwing up exactly like I did as a kid,” she says. “But no one looked at me. No one cared about whether I was any good or not. From there, I started running in the bush with my dogs. It stops my racing mind. I’m focused on keeping upright on lumps and trunks; that the dogs are OK and on my breathing –all of that stuff wipes everything else out of my head.”