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A business changing lives: Philip Tomlinson

Philip Tomlinson admits his business is a little unusual. While the name itself, Different Life, immediately suggests a fresh approach to life insurance, it’s the CEO’s revelation that he wants other businesses to copy him that comes as a real surprise. In fact, he urged them to do so at his company’s launch in Johannesburg three years ago.

“Yes, it was something I made a big deal about at the launch, and I still say it. We would love to be copied.”

Philip Tomlinson, CEO of Different Life
Philip Tomlinson, CEO of Different Life

The digital pioneers

Different Life is full of surprises. Apart from offering a blend of business and philanthropy, it has introduced technology to an industry largely debilitated by a legacy of outdated systems. The company’s distribution model is entirely digital, leveraging technology to simplify and streamline the process of buying life insurance. There is no paperwork, and customers can get a quote within minutes through an online application, or via a call centre.

Philip celebrates two decades working in the industry next year, his dedication to the product surpassed only by his love for South Africa and improving lives. It’s why he has taken the power of business and embedded it in the heart of philanthropy, by annually donating the first premium of every policy purchased to one of 17 projects via online crowdfunding platform, So far, more than R10 million (€650,000) has been raised for causes varying from empowering the homeless to relocating lions and providing mobile toy libraries to schools.

It is that philosophy – maximising impact, rather than profit – that Philip wants copied. He copied it himself.

“Toms Shoes pioneered the one-for-one model, where for every pair of shoes sold another is given to a child in need. What we saw there was not just something that had a successful social impact, but was also good for business.

“We live in a world with significant social issues and, in particular, we live in a country with significant social issues. The solution is not to offer some kind of a socialist alternative to capitalism; it lies in individual businesses using their power to impact these social issues. Once the customer gets that message, they’ll support the business.”

“The solution is not to offer some kind of a socialist alternative to capitalism; it lies in individual businesses using their power to impact these social issues.”

Different Life

Filling the blank page

Meanwhile, Different Life, founded by Philip and his brother Atholl, offers a business model based more on a technology start-up than on a more traditional bricks-and-mortar company. “Since I started in the industry, the world of technology has been completely and utterly transformed, and it’s surprising how slowly the insurance industry is changing in response to that,” Philip says.

“We started with a blank page. We read very extensively and explored blueprints for internet start-ups to reduce costs and increase agility. That enabled us to offer the technology that customers expect these days, but which traditional insurers are not providing because of entrenched operations and thinking.

“We are basically a technology company selling life insurance,” Philip explains. “We are extremely well received by millennials, essentially our target market. They are our sweet-spot customers, just beginning to think about life insurance and with a preference for transacting digitally.

We want to offer everything, whether it’s a live chat online, a Skype or telephone call, or meeting someone face-to-face; in other words, a seamless product via any medium which takes the customer’s fancy.

“We are basically a technology company selling life insurance.”

“For as long as I’ve been in the industry there’s been talk of a consumer-centric model and I know most insurance CEOs and executives are genuinely passionate about getting there,” Philip adds. “I just don’t know if they’ve got the tools.

“I don’t envy insurance CEOs in traditional companies because, while they know the market is moving towards a more customer-centric model, the existing infrastructure is so established that making the changes is very difficult.”

To help implement the changes Philip knew were needed, partnerships were formed with reinsurance company Hannover Re and cell captive insurer Old Mutual Alternative Risk Transfer.

“We need their expertise to deal with the technical and regulatory insurance issues and get us into the market faster. We know we’re in good hands and that allows us to focus on the core aspect of the business.”

Onsite visits are arranged so that Different Life employees can see for themselves the impact the company makes on the causes it supports. One time we packed care packs for new mothers in hospitals and meal packs for young children. That makes it very tangible,” says Philip.

“People are motivated by a purpose and the responsibility of the leader is to define their purpose, to define the vision to make sure that everyone’s very clear on where the business is going, what the end goal is and what their role is in moving towards that. If you can set the appropriate vision in front of the right team, then most of the hard work is done.”

Different Life

Projects aided by

  • Mobile Toy Libraries for the Eastern Cape, Cotlands
  • Lion Relocation Project, Wildlands Conservation Trust
  • Empowering the Homeless, MES
  • Blood Lions, Wildlands Conservation Trust
  • Helping Children to Read Better, Ripple Reading
  • Restoring Dignity to girls at school, Afrika Leadership Development Institute
  • Real Men Don’t Abuse Women, Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development
  • Captain Courage, Reach for a Dream
  • Making Matric a reality, Refilwe
  • Conservation through Community, Wildlife Act
  • Improving school attendance, Hamilton Saba Foundation
  • Saving animals and creating employment, Society for Animals in Distress
  • Mentoring Students – Changing Lives, Impact Africa
  • Bursaries for the underprivileged, St David’s Foundation
  • Essential ECD Centre Improvements, Save the Children South Africa
  • Training Baristas, Changing Futures, The Woza Coffee School
  • Empowering responsible pet ownership, SAVA Community Veterinary Clinics

Vision, opportunities and future plans

Philip’s vision for the next 18 months is to launch Different Life International, with his sights set on the UK and Australian markets, regions he believes would welcome philanthropic ventures.

“They are very similar life insurance markets with similar regulatory environments where we can leverage technology and the brand-based cost structure we have,” he explains.

“We also believe that there are opportunities for philanthropic positioning where we would be well received.”

Meanwhile, Philip is hoping that South African businesses will step up and lead the way, using their vast resources to help fix the country’s problems.

“It is extremely challenging to run a successful business in a very competitive, dynamic environment, but a social impact can be at the core of the business; integrated into the business model, into the culture, into the brand positioning, into the objectives that you pursue.

“Mine is a natural focus. It became clear to me there was a way to build a life insurance business and change the country at the same time,” he adds.

“I’m a great believer in the power, scale and sustainability of business, and in the heart and purpose of philanthropy – together you have the key components to change the world.”

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