[Obituary] Insurance industry trailblazer Chris Coon dies

Chris Coon, the actuary credited with changing the landscape of the insurance industry in New Zealand, has died after a long illness.

Former colleagues are today paying tribute to the man they describe as a “great disrupter” with the ability to see opportunities before anyone else.

“He was always ahead of the market,” says Simon Fisher, who worked alongside Coon for much of his career.

“He made his mark, second to none and he was a good guy with it. It’s a very sad day for the industry as a man of his calibre doesn’t come by every day.”

Coon is best known as the co-founder, with Ian Hendry, of Sovereign in 1987 and later, with Naomi Ballantyne, as co-founder of Partners Life in 2011. Along the way, Coon also founded home equity release company, Sentinel and, most recently, set up Cove – a digital-first insurance business – with his sons Rob and Andy in 2018.

Ballantyne says Coon “forever changed the New Zealand life market, but without any fanfare or fame”.

He modernised the industry, she says, particularly in the areas of new products and pricing.

“He created a market where IFAs were able to become increasingly important and appreciated, leading to the success of this channel as we know it today.”

Ballantyne was Coon’s first employee at Sovereign. “He gave me, as a very young girl, the opportunity of a lifetime to create a brand-new company – something that has set me up for the career I have now.”

He taught Ballantyne almost everything she knows about insurance, she says, and he will be remembered as intelligent, kind and funny.

Fisher, who is now managing director at MPIP (Mortgage People and Insurance People) Group, says Coon created major disruption in the market when he founded Sovereign.

“Chris turned the industry on its head.” Effectively, Sovereign was New Zealand’s first real independent financial adviser company, he says, in an industry heavily dominated by contractual ties between agents and the big insurers like AMP and National Mutual.

Similarly, Partners Life was founded after Coon and Ballantyne perceived an opportunity for a new player in the post-GFC insurance industry where competition had shrunk the market because of a raft of mergers and acquisitions.

Fisher says Coon will not be easily replaced. Not only was he a smart actuary but he also had personality and was good at relationships.

“That’s why Sovereign was so successful because he would actually interact with the advisers,” Fisher says.

“He wouldn’t just hide away in his office. He’d always talk to you. In my Sovereign days, he would come down and walk the floor now and then and he’d always know your name.

"Even though he was the chief actuary and, with Ian Hendry, number one in the business, he still knew who you were.”

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