Pauline Blight-Johnston came to a realization many years ago – that the world of business is all about people first and foremost. It’s a light bulb moment that has influenced the way she has worked ever since, not least in her current role as CEO and Managing Director of Helia.
We know that the home-buying journey is challenging, complex and frustrating. It's harder today than it’s ever been.
"I worked out a long time ago that the numbers weren’t just numbers but people – real human beings," she tells The CEO Magazine. "As CEO of Australia’s first lenders mortgage provider, the numbers represent people who are, at that point in time, trying to get into the housing market."
Lenders mortgage insurance (LMI), which Helia specializes in, acts as a "stepping stone" to help people get into their first home, thereby creating financial wellbeing for themselves and their families. But that first step on the housing ladder is notoriously difficult to take, something that Blight-Johnston is deeply aware of.
"Like many Australians, I’ve experienced how challenging and frustrating the home-buying experience can be and am driven to help first home buyers to be empowered by education to make informed decisions that will impact the rest of their lives," she reveals. "That includes providing home buyers with information about how lenders mortgage insurance can help them get into their home sooner and for them to feel supported through the homeownership journey."
It’s been an unprecedented few years, punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, political upheaval and financial uncertainty, and the toll of this turmoil is being seen on first-time home buyers. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Lending Indicators, in 2022 the number of first home buyers fell 3.2 percent to 8,576 – nearly half of 2021 peak levels. All major states saw weaker buyer demand.
Although property prices have dipped since the frenzied highs seen during the pandemic, first home buyer activity has dropped to its lowest level in years. The cause? Rising interest rates, borrowing capacity and a reluctance to overpay, with prices still exceeding recent years.
Our commitment to being a forward-thinking market leader that creates value for our customers, people, communities – everyone across our industry – remains unwavering.
"My advice to first home buyers is to not give up," Blight-Johnston says. "We know that the home-buying journey is challenging, complex and frustrating. It’s harder today than it has ever been, so it is important to understand all the costs involved, understand your spending habits and to know that there are different pathways available to help you reach your dreams."
Seeking expert advice is also strongly advisable, as is continually asking questions around the subject matter. "Too often people are swayed and make suboptimal decisions based on advice or opinions they have heard from friends or family who aren’t best placed to provide that advice," she warns.
"While it can seem daunting at first, a good adviser or mortgage broker will help you understand the process and your options, and help you to make the best decisions for your long-term financial and emotional wellbeing."
When Blight-Johnston joined Helia in 2020, it was still known as Genworth Mortgage Insurance Australia, sitting under Genworth Financial. But the latter’s decision to sell its controlling stake in the company meant it was time for a rebrand. And so Helia was born.
"The name ‘Helia’ is inspired by the sun," she explains. "It reflects who we are and how we use our expertise, experience and understanding to show people possibilities, shine a light on solutions and create brighter outcomes through home ownership."
However, she is quick to stress that although the company’s name may be new and aspirational, its core strengths and ambitions haven’t changed. "Our commitment to being a forward-thinking market leader that creates value for our customers, people, communities – everyone across our industry – remains unwavering," she adds.
"We take our role and responsibility within our industry very seriously and remain committed to developing new solutions and enhancing pathways to home ownership for Australians, now and for the future."
We take our role and responsibility within our industry very seriously and remain committed to developing new solutions and enhancing pathways to home ownership for Australians, now and for the future.
Indeed, the company is highly focused on making things easier for Australian home buyers – an emphasis that works well for both the end customer and the lenders/brokers, especially given the current climate. "With lenders and brokers, we position ourselves as their expert partner, co-creating products and solutions that are integral to their business," Blight-Johnston points out.
These include two newly launched solutions: Monthly Premium LMI and Family Assistance, innovations which won Helia Australian Broker magazine 5-star Mortgage Innovators Awards for 2022.
"More broadly, we are looking at our strategic investments as we look to expand our business to offer a range of home ownership solutions for the future," she says. "We will continue to explore opportunities for Helia to play a role in unlocking value for home owners and our business, along every point of the home ownership journey."
Achieving this mission depends heavily on Helia’s ability to maintain and strengthen its position as "Australia’s leading LMI provider", according to Blight-Johnston, with customer experience playing a substantial role.
"We do this in several ways: cultivating an innovation culture that supports both disruptive and incremental innovation, breaking silos to share best practices and optimize processes, engaging our lender and broker partners, and continuously gathering and managing data required to create new products and insights that will deliver innovation," she explains.
"This cannot be done without exceptional people, technology, risk management and sustainable business practices. But underpinning all of this is something much more simple – getting out there and listening."
"The best ideas come from solving customer and home buyer pain points, so the more time we spend immersing ourselves in our customers’ world and the journey of an Australian home buyer, the more innovative we are," Blight-Johnston reflects.
It’s human nature to collaborate better with people you know, so we must find ways to get to know each other despite the challenges.
Helia benefits from being a relatively small team with a flat management structure and a "collegiate culture", she explains. These characteristics enable it to act on new ideas with agility and move forward with a constant energy. "Of course, it hasn’t been without its challenges maintaining this way of working, with increased working from home," she admits.
To get around these unprecedented difficulties, Helia invested in a range of new collaboration technologies. "We’ve also focused on ensuring we encourage as much social and face-to-face interaction as possible while we are in the office – to get to know each other as individuals," Blight-Johnston insists. "It’s human nature to collaborate better with people you know, so we must find ways to get to know each other that inspires creativity and solutions."
Leading with purpose
Ultimately, it’s the chance to make a real difference in people’s lives that keeps Blight-Johnston enthused about showing up to work every single day.
"I love knowing I’ve made someone’s life just that little bit easier, happier or more satisfying," she confirms. "I’m so fortunate that I get to feel this every day by helping people into homes and by working with the Helia team to help them grow and realize their career aspirations."
It’s little surprise then that the best piece of professional advice she ever received was to do what you love. "You will gain satisfaction and energy from it, and you will be motivated to go the extra mile and therefore do a better job," she says.