Sharon Fox-Slater: Four lessons from 30 years in business

In business there are ups, downs, twists and turns.

Sometimes, things go well.

Other times, you might be sitting in the corner, pulling your hair out, wondering how you will overcome the mountainous challenge in front of you.

My journey to leadership has certainly been a rollercoaster.

But, the truth is, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It was some of my biggest challenges that have led me to some of my biggest lessons – both in business and personally.

To encourage and educate other budding leaders, this month I reflect on my 30-plus year career in the insurance and real estate industries and the four biggest lessons I have learnt.

I started my career at EBM Insurance in an administration position.

That was more than three decades ago.

Since then, I have worked in every aspect of the EBM RentCover (landlord insurance) division including answering phone calls, processing insurance policies, sending renewals, reception work, managing claims and signing up agents. 

Most proudly, I was involved in the launch of one of Australia’s first landlord insurance policies and growing the EBM RentCover team from basically one person based in Perth, to a truly national business employing more than 100 people across Australia.

It was something I could not have envisaged when I started all those years ago. 

A lot has changed over the years.

When I first started my career, we used manual typewriters to type letters to clients and underwriters.

These were then sent in the post (or via fax if it were urgent) and we received our correspondence in the same way.

All our payments were made by cheque and our accounts and invoices were all manually reconciled, along with every single processing transaction being checked off on a register to ensure that all the client and premium information was correct.

Again, a lot has changed.

And things will continue to change.

Why? Because change is inevitable.

This leads me into the first and following three lessons I have learnt:

Lesson one: Change is inevitable; without it, there is no growth

In nearly all industries, change is an inevitable force driving progress.

This truth is particularly evident in the insurance sector. 

Reflecting on the history of insurance, it becomes clear that without embracing change, the industry wouldn’t have evolved to its current state of resilience and innovation.

The development of defining exactly what constitutes flood in Australia provides a notable example of this evolution.

Prior to the Brisbane floods in 2010, flood cover was not a common inclusion in household insurance policies – and there was no clear or consistent definition of flood.

However, following the Queensland event, the government mandated a universal definition of flood that all insurers had to adopt.

And, after five years of negotiation with our underwriter (at the time), EBM RentCover was able to add flood cover as a feature in its policies. 

Determining the most cost-effective cover for our clients, the EBM RentCover business and our underwriter (at the time) was a long process.

But, we knew it was a strong desire and need – it was a change to our offering that we simply needed to make. 

While the approach to flood cover still varies greatly from provider to provider and geographically from state to state because of the variation in risk profiles, it is now commonly available in landlord insurance policies.  

With this being said, the landscape has once again shifted significantly in recent years.

Flood events are becoming increasingly common.

This trend is expected to persist, with floods likely to become more severe, leading to higher losses.

In light of this, the insurance industry has had to once again re-evaluate the feasibility of offering flood cover – this time, for high-risk properties.

As mentioned, at EBM RentCover, we’ve provided flood cover to all clients at competitive rates since 2015.

However, considering the losses incurred in recent years, as well as projections of future losses and associated costs, we have discontinued offering flood cover for buildings in high-risk flood zones.

The change within the insurance industry, including at EBM RentCover, from introducing flood cover to now limiting coverage in high-risk flood zones, underscores the inevitability of change.

While difficult, it’s essential to ensure long-term growth and sustainability amidst evolving risks and industry dynamics. 

Lesson two: Hard decisions must be made

Reflecting on the past three decades, it’s evident that COVID-19 posed one of the toughest challenges for individuals and businesses alike. 

COVID-19 threw the insurance industry into a spin and hard decisions had to be made about how best to protect existing policyholders. 

The pandemic had financial ramifications for many tenants and the introduction of eviction moratoriums by the government meant that the consensus was the likelihood of a landlord having to claim for loss of rent was almost a certainty.

And insurance isn’t designed to cover certainties, it’s for unforeseen losses.

While it is our desire to protect the properties of landlords, our underwriter (at the time) no longer wanted us to offer cover at the height of the pandemic (for a short while).

This was not a decision we took lightly.

However, we, like a lot of business, learnt that hard decisions had to be made to ensure our long-term viability and it allowed us to continue protecting those who were already insured with us. 

Hard decisions are sometimes a necessity to navigate through uncertain times for future success.

Lesson three: Things will go wrong; it’s how we respond that matters

Although we hope for smooth sailing, things can go wrong.

Over my three decades of experience, I’ve encountered numerous claims resulting in significant damage, some reaching five or even six figures.

However, I’ve also witnessed how the right response and insurance coverage can minimise the impact of these unfortunate events.

By reacting promptly and effectively, we can mitigate damages and ensure a smoother recovery process.

It’s not about avoiding problems altogether, but rather about how we respond to them when they arise.

Take this claim as an example:

A third-party vehicle lost control from an adjacent road which sits at a higher elevation, crashing through a perimeter fence and downwards, impacting with the roof and external wall of the insured’s premises.

The inner leaf brickwork had been pushed in towards the property, causing damage to the plasterboard wall within the wardrobe within one of the rear bedrooms.

Externally, there was damage to several external bricks, fascia board had collapsed, roof sheeting and guttering had been damaged and a temporary make-safe was resurrected thanks to the real estate agent to make the property safe and watertight.

There was also a perimeter timber paling fence, which was also wiped out along with concrete blocks serving the retaining wall.

As you can imagine, this was a significant claim for a significant amount of damage. We haven’t even touched on the loss of rent aspect!

Thankfully, they were an EBM RentCover policyholder and we responded to the claim by paying out $50,088 to fix the damage and cover loss of rent while the property was uninhabitable and being repaired. 

Lesson four: You will have good times and bad times

In one’s career, both highs and lows are inevitable.

While celebrating the good times comes naturally, embracing the bad times is equally important as they offer invaluable lessons.

Reflecting on my own journey, I began my career with little knowledge of the insurance industry.

It was during the most difficult, uncertain, and challenging moments that I learnt resilience, adaptability, and positivity.

These lessons have been the most valuable, shaping my character and guiding my professional growth.

Therefore, the last lesson I’d like to share is to lean into the bad times because they hold the most valuable lessons.

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Sharon Fox-Slater

Sharon Fox-Slater is the Managing Director of EBM RentCover, which protects more than 165,000 rental properties across Australia. For more info, visit