Life can change forever in a split second. This is a fact Julia Vahry, the founder of Vahry Insurance, knows too well. During her decade in the New Zealand Police, Julia’s experience on the front line gave her witness to the moments that can change families forever. She now helps families to think ahead to create better futures, pass on intergenerational wealth and change family cycles. Julia also founded the Step Up and Save Lives campaigns in partnership with the New Zealand Blood Service to drive Hamilton to be the blood donor capital of New Zealand, for which she received a Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year community hero medal.
Julia shares her journey and her why with us.
What was the catalyst for you to go from the Police to running a life and health insurance advisory?
A friend of mine in the Police was a mortgage broker on the side. He suggested I’d be really good with helping people with life insurance. I was not interested because the perception of life insurance brokers or advisers isn’t great. Slowly but surely he worked on me and I ended up rolling over because I was looking for opportunities outside the Police.
I was approaching the 10-year mark and coming to a point in my career where I thought I wasn’t contributing as much to society as I had hoped for when I first signed up. That’s nothing against the police whatsoever, it was just for me personally, I felt like I could do so much more than what I was doing in my government role.
It was really hard because you’re dealing with so many restrictions, whereas if you’re going into your own private role, then the world is yours. I found that quite appealing. I thought, if I went out and created my own business, then perhaps I can do more for people and create longer-lasting relationships.
I went to an insurance event one day in Hamilton, took one look around the room and thought, ‘wow, I could create a really positive impact in the industry.’ So I went out, went hard, got trained up and qualified. I took leave without pay from the Police for three months to set myself a goal that I was going to make my year’s salary in those three months just by door-knocking and meeting people.
Can you talk about some of the positive impacts you’ve made?
The feedback I’ve had from clients is the positive reaction to being your authentic self when you’re in business. What I’ve learned is that if you try to portray somebody you’re not, that’s unsustainable. You need to keep it real.
I’ve always kept that really open and honest and thought, I’m going to be who I am from the get-go. If I don’t know the answer to something, I’m going to tell you I don’t know, but I will go out and find out.
The main thing is about being authentic, to create an environment of trust. A trusting environment that, maybe, the insurance industry hasn’t had in the past. So I thought, how can we do that? It’s been a really cool learning curve for me as well because it filters out the people who perhaps don’t align with your values, so you’re working with the right people.
Is there good and bad with that as well? It’s a two-way thing, it’s about finding that good fit and it might not be a thing that fits everyone.
It’s about mutual respect. I make it very clear with how I present myself on social media and through my website; the content that is on there is just me having a yarn, how I would describe a product to somebody that was sitting across from me.
It’s really simple, non-insurance jargon terms this is who I am, this is how I talk. The disadvantage is some people might think, ‘I don’t want to work with her’ or ‘she’s unprofessional.’
I like to be able to have fun with my clients, be real and human, and not have to be completely ‘on’, in a professional sense, a hundred percent of the time. Because that’s really difficult to maintain.
When I’m dealing with tragedies, it’s really important for people to see that you’re human as well. My biggest regret was I became hardened towards the end of my career; I was like a robot.
It was a big struggle for me coming out of it, I had quite a lot of guilt. You do that because you’re on the job, like a lot of professionals, like doctors, those working in the fire service and nurses; they start treating people where it’s very robotic. I didn’t want to get like that in this job. I wanted to be human.
How do you go from the level of structure and with all of its systems in place to then going out on your own and running your own business? How was that process?
It was hard because I’m very much a go-getter. So if a task pops up, I like to get it done straight away. When I had all these other things in the way, I’m going, ‘I can’t do that until I’ve sorted this problem yet’. I haven’t completely got my head around it yet, but every day I’m learning new things.
The first thing I did was I booked a day with my accountant to learn Xero because I didn’t know. It was those basic states of understanding, I didn’t know any of that stuff.
The hardest part of actually going out and starting a business was learning all of those things I’ve never had to deal with before. Putting aside money for tax; paying GST, am I going to put myself on a PAYE salary? All of those things I had to figure out.
And then understanding profit and loss or how to read financial statements was quite hard to begin with. Slowly but surely you learn and up-skill, then you can adopt some culture of structure around your business and how to move forward from there. But like with anything, it took time and I’m still learning to this day to get that balance right.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of automating some processes for the efficiency and productivity of your business?
Streamlining processes in any business is key, the less time you have to spend on something the better. In financial services there is a lot of paperwork and administrative tasks, having a good CRM system or support in place to ensure these tasks are done as efficiently as possible means you have more time to be active where you perform best in the business.
Freeing up time means the ability to see more people, lead generate and have more free time in general for your life, it also means you don’t drop the ball getting overwhelmed with little tasks or queries which pop up.
I know my weaknesses in my business are everything tech related, so if I can palm those then to others, or have them managed with a great CRM system, then my business is significantly more productive.
As well as the details we are talking about do you also sometimes stand back and think about why you got into this? Do you have this vision or the statement that reminds you of why you’re doing this?
Absolutely. My slogan for Vahry Insurance is shaping better futures. Whether it’s business-related or for me personally; for myself, for what I can achieve in business for my children. Being flexible and being available to them, creating opportunities by having a sustainable business. I can see how insurance does that; it’s an instantaneous solution by creating prosperity from adversity, from a financial point of view.
Last week we had a really big one; one of my biggest claims paid out for a client of mine that lost her sight in one eye. It has been a long journey to prove disablement, but reaching that and finally getting the claim paid out has changed her life. She’s never going to get her sight back, but from a financial point of view, it’s made a massive difference in her life. That’s why I do what I do.
Then, there are also the outcomes for the community of what I can achieve in a private sense. Shaping better futures comes into play in so many different aspects of my life, depending on how you describe success or what success means to you.
When you’re taking out life insurance, you really are thinking about how things are going to be down the track. Is there something powerful about being able to have this long-term thinking, that helps you get through the short term ups and downs of business or other aspects of reaching a goal?
Absolutely. COVID is really throwing a spanner in the works because at the moment we’re living our life in two or five week blocks. So seeing our future and where we could be is difficult for people.
I like to challenge the way people think of what legacy they would like to leave behind in their life. It might be a bit airy-fairy for people, but I like people to think holistically about what they can achieve.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of having a really clear ‘why’?
If you don’t have a clear ‘why’, you don’t have a purpose, which really means you have no direction as to where you are going or why you are doing it.
Subsequently, that impacts every aspect of your business and personal life. When times are low you have to be able to reflect on your why to encourage you to keep going. It holds you accountable to your values – who you want to work with, how you want to interact within the community.
There have been multiple occasions where I have walked away from rather profitable opportunities because they didn’t feel right or they didn’t align with my values or my purpose. When you stick to those, you do end up finding your ‘tribe’ and partnering with other people and businesses that think similarly. From my experience, if you are misaligned it makes the job so much harder, more stressful and the passion just isn’t there.
My why is to encourage and help people reach their full potential. I love seeing people succeed, feel great and be their best selves.
I believe humans have 3 brains, our head, our heart and our stomach. Particularly in the western world, we rely on our head to make all the decisions, but we should be actively tuning in to our heart and stomach too when making decisions.
Do you get the sense that the metrics for business success is starting to shift beyond the bottom line to also include other things?
Definitely. It comes through with my values. I put it out there as, ‘this is my value set and this is what’s important’. I probably see more of that than super down–to–the wire CEOs who are all about profit or that kind of mindset.
I have met with quite a number of those business owners or chief executives in the last couple of years when we’re having discussions about whether or not they might provide health insurance as a work benefit for employees because attracting and retaining staff is the hardest it’s ever been.
It’s their perspective on how to create a positive work environment. Is that by developing the culture and providing this benefit to staff, or is it about how we can make it as basic as possible so it doesn’t affect my bottom line?
It is quite intriguing seeing the different mentality across business leaders as to how they want to position themselves and what kind of work culture they’re creating.
Xero commissioned The Next Chapter for Small Business study by Forrester Consulting to uncover the true impact of the pandemic on small businesses which found 93% of consumers are more likely to buy from or recommend products and services from companies and businesses that are really engaged with and show empathy for the community. That’s starting to impact the bottom line as well.
From all of my time in the Police, as well as with tragedies, the reality of how quickly somebody can disappear from our lives. Having those dark discussions, it’s almost like I’m like the angel of death when I’m talking to people.
It’s an awkward conversation to have with people who hate talking about it, but it’s just the reality and you have to accept it. This will happen, it’s just when, and we don’t know when. We’ve got to make sure, to the very best of our ability, that we can make something that’s fit for purpose and that’s going to work within your budget. We need to manage it every year and make sure it’s still working towards our needs because we just don’t know when it’s going to happen.
It’s so cheesy, but life does change within seconds. I’ve seen that time and time again. Kiwis just aren’t prepared for that. You are the most important asset in the world and without you functioning properly, none of that stuff matters. You need to protect your ability to earn an income or increase your chances of surviving something. And unfortunately, you need money to do that.
In that respect, are there things you do for yourself to maintain your wellness and your health?
I have a routine every morning. My partner wakes up at 5:35am and when he hears me get up, he puts the jug on and brings up a coffee. We’ll have our coffee together in bed, have a chat and a cuddle with the dogs and the kids.
Then, I sit and meditate for as long as I see fit. Meditation can be anything, I use the word meditate because that’s probably the most appropriate. But I usually just sit on the floor at the end of our bed, put some music on and just sit; I either think or just let my brain take me to where it needs to take me. If you can tune into yourself a lot more and be way more self-aware of what you need because we’re all running on empty at the moment.
We’re at a really interesting time in society where there is heaps of fear, uncertainty and mistrust, those are all really sh**ty feelings to have. Don’t ignore them, but manage them in a way that doesn’t make you feel off all the time or like you are in a really bad state.
You’re trying to balance your kid cup, your relationship cup, running the household cup, running a business cup, looking after clients, and all of the other stuff you’re wanting to achieve at the same time. If I’m in balance, those other things are far easier to negotiate and manage.
I’m very pro-mindfulness and I know those are words that we always use, but it is very important. We’re so go, go, go and rush, rush, rush, and stress, stress, stress and angry, angry, angry. Having time with ourselves and some self-reflection of where we’ve come from or who we are on our life journey is important to reflect on.
Xero and NZIER have released independent research showing investing in organisational wellbeing initiatives can have up to a 12:1 return on investment. What would you say to business owners who are busy and think they don’t have time to prioritise their wellbeing?
I would say look at how much time you spend aimlessly scrolling through social media. Meditating or taking a couple of minutes out for yourself isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. It can be two minutes.
You could meditate on the toilet for all I care. Have time to just be chill. I find showering is very therapeutic to a degree. You don’t have to rush in and out of the shower, you can just stand there and go, ‘okay, what needs to get done today?’
Quite often I can’t even escape from the kids being on the toilet, they just barge in. I’m a mum, I get it. I’m very realistic about things. I lose my s**t as well. I’m no superstar. That’s just how it is. Especially when the kids were younger, I remember many times I would go out into the car and just lock myself in there while they would run wild like feral cats and animals inside, because I couldn’t cope anymore. I just needed a break.
But if you don’t have your s**t together, everything else is going to be really hard. It’s not going to be hard just for you, it’s going to be hard for everybody else. I often use the analogy with the kids. I’m quite honest with them to keep everything in balance and it’s not going to always be perfect.
Don’t feel super pressured to be a high performing superstar. Just get through it day-by-day. If you need to binge watch Love Island, then do it.
But at the same time, we need to be held accountable for our own actions and decisions. If you decide to sit and watch Love Island or scroll through Instagram Reels of puppies for hours on end, then other things will fall over. So put your time into things that are really important.
And in terms of that support there is more and out there like the Xero Assistance Programme for instance. Could you elaborate on the need for SME owners to have this kind of access to these free, confidential counselling services?
Every single business is struggling with resilience, in general, and that’s getting harder with the impact of Covid-19. Being a business owner isn’t easy – take advantage of all the support you can get.
The Xero Assistance Programme is such a valuable service and Xero should be proud of it.
I practice a number of wellbeing techniques myself and leverage external support as needed. As part of my insurance service offering, I encourage my clients to take a holistic view of reliance and mindset.
I am currently working with a number of businesses to introduce employee medical and life insurance products. If provided by an employer as a “group” package for all employees, and minimum numbers are hit, then pre-existing conditions are covered. This is a proven value add to the business and drives greater engagement, productivity and all round morale of staff. Win-win.
If you could go back to the moment you decided to make the leap from the Police and have a word to yourself, is there any advice you would give?
I’ve always had great self-belief, right from the get-go, that I would be successful. Probably just reminding myself every single day that things will continue to get better and the opportunities that you’re supposed to get you’ll get, the ones that you’re not supposed to get you won’t. I’ve had a couple of big deals that I’ve missed out on, which I’ve been quite destroyed by, which has shaken my confidence in terms of what I can do. But in hindsight, if that hadn’t happened, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now.