Sustainability still a focus for Distinguished Alumnus and CEO-turned tech investor

29 September 2022

Mark Willson headshot
Distinguished Alumnus Mark Wilson is leading the way in insurtech. Photo by Andy Wilson.

Global insurance company CEO-turned-‘techpreneur’ Mark Wilson has some advice for aspiring business students and graduates.

“Success is one-part experience, two parts intelligence, and three parts drive and determination. My advice to anyone considering business is first, think broader than the confines of New Zealand and consider an international job – Kiwis tend to do very well on the world stage – and second, do the hard jobs no one else will do, this proves your quality and resilience.”

Mark is well-placed to provide business tips. In 2017 the Bachelor of Management Studies (BMS) alumnus received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Waikato in recognition of his outstanding and sustained success in international business. That same year he was also named the UK New Zealander of the Year and one of Britain’s most influential people. Both titles recognised Mark’s stellar career in finance, where as a CEO he was credited with leading global insurance company Aviva to billions in profit.

He has great memories of receiving his Distinguished Alumni Award, flying back to Hamilton from the UK with his family to attend the ceremony in person.

“The award ceremony and black-tie dinner was fabulous,” he says. “To be in the company of great New Zealanders and fellow awardees is an honour – and several past awardees are good friends, including Theresa Gattung and Sir Jerry Mateparae.”

Mark’s memories of studying economics and marketing at Waikato are just as fond. Originally from Rotorua, Mark came to Waikato on an economics scholarship in 1985, completing the four-year BMS in 1989.

“One of my standout experiences, academically, was completing the ‘499’, a paper where management students would visit a company, complete an investigation, and write a report. This was unique in New Zealand at the time and it taught me a great deal about business and having an academically robust approach. I was supervised by the late Professor Margaret McLaren, she was a legend.

“And from a social perspective, Student Village was where I learnt the most about life, and the Hillcrest Tavern was where I learnt the most about hangovers!”

After graduating, Mark rose through the ranks at National Mutual in New Zealand. This took him to Asia for 14 years, where he became Chief Executive of AXA South East Asia and earned a reputation as a skilful turn-around specialist, bringing financially struggling companies back into the black.

He later became CEO of Asian insurance giant AIA. When its US parent company AIG collapsed in 2008, Mark navigated AIA through the global financial crisis and is credited with keeping the company afloat.

In 2013 Mark became Group Chief Executive Officer of Aviva in the UK, and in 2015 joined Heads of State speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York, where he called for business and government to work together to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Now a tech entrepreneur and investor focusing on insurtech (technology created to improve the efficiency of the insurance industry), Mark believes sustainability is crucial for aligning economics to public good.

“Sustainability isn’t a matter of choice now, but a business imperative, and I believe the next generation of business unicorns will come out of the sustainability space.

“The transition to a low carbon economy needs to be completed in a thoughtful and just way, and I believe the current energy sector and oil companies will be a crucial part of the solution.”

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