Dream Big, Work Hard, & Change the World

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What does it take to turn a bright idea into a startup that disrupts an industry, and gives people the power to change the way they look at life? Following the announcement of a major shareholding deal between Sanlam and BrightRock, BizNews publisher Alec Hogg sat down with BrightRock co-founder and Executive Director Schalk Malan to get the inside story.

Alec: I’ve been watching the progress of BrightRock over the last five years, and it’s been quite extraordinary to see a company coming from nowhere. More than half-a-million lives that have been covered. The growth rate last year was 72%, and then Sanlam announced that it has bought 53% of the company for just over R700m. You have created nearly R1.5bn worth of value in just five years. Is that beyond your wildest dreams?

Schalk: I’m very excited, but if you look at our product innovation, delivering clients 30% to 40% savings from their premiums, the result was a consequence of innovation on all fronts. We’re obviously, very pleased with this investment from Sanlam and it’s testament to their belief or view of BrightRock and what we have achieved.

We wanted to change the industry and change it for the better. We had a clear understanding of the market and we had a clear belief that through product innovation, driving our clients and assisting clients to buy what they need, through life insurance, and to save them 30% to 40% in the premiums.

That understanding and belief made us excited to come and change an industry and we’re really achieving that.

Alec: Have you aged more than five years in the last five years?

Schalk: When you start a business there’s got to be a little bit of that ambition that defies gravity or belief, and that does take its toll, so yes, we’ve probably aged a few more years.

It’s been an exhilarating period and we’ve learnt so much. If you think about starting off with four people around the dining room table and today, sitting with more than 350 employees.

That is a phenomenal achievement and that makes us proud as well, to have been able to make that type of impact on people’s lives and, also our clients.

Alec: It was you, Sean Hanlon, Suzanne Stevens, and Leopold Malan who started BrightRock. Did you each have a sweet spot? Was it almost as though you looked at each other’s skills and what you were able to bring to the party and said ‘we’re the perfect Four Musketeers?’

Schalk: Our skill-set is absolutely complimentary. We’ve got the various disciplines covered in the market, in the distribution, the product design, and the processing but more so that chemistry that we’ve developed over time – that diverse thinking. I think it’s really been one of the major contributors to this success story.

We debate every single thing, we’ve got a very much a process of reaching consensus and agreements, and that’s really delivered great results. From the consumers to be able to implement workable systems and processes.

Alec: Sanlam is taking 53%, so it will have control of the company in the future. Are you expecting that you might be put together with something else, within Sanlam?

Schalk: No, absolutely not, Alec. I think one of the key things that Sanlam has also stressed with us is this power that sits in BrightRock, this entrepreneurial innovation was very appealing in their space. The business will run separate from the Sanlam business.

We will be moving in a life license inside the BrightRock Holdings Group, being branded BrightRock Life. BrightRock will be running as an independent business.

Obviously, Sanlam will be represented at the board level but they’re very clear in running the business, day-to-day, as an independent business and supporting where they can.

Alec: But you have been a disruptor. Is it likely that there might be some threat to the Sanlam business, given the way that you are disrupting?

Schalk: A lot of discussions were had around that and where I think we’ve reached commonality in our thinking and in our strategy, is that this investment will be aimed to increase market share.

That’s been a key objective of both parties, so we see that this transaction will enable BrightRock to continue on its innovation path, being able to deliver product and continue on its current product development, to be able to grow market share for us, as well as for our shareholders Sanlam.

Alec: Up to this point you’ve only used independent brokers. Are you going to continue along that line or do you now get dragged into the Sanlam distribution network?

Schalk: There has been discussions that the BrightRock product will be available to the Sanlam agency ports. It will be under the BrightRock brand, as we’ve come to know and it will also be administered and serviced through BrightRock. So, in terms of that the whole experience will be exactly the same.

At BrightRock we’re a strong believer in the independence of advice, but if you look at most of the financial services they also have agency distribution.

We believe that’s all exciting, it’s aimed and developed to grow the market share and to take our product message out to a much greater audience. That’s really what we’re excited about because we truly believe that this BrightRock product, in the hands of our customers and consumers, is a very powerful and innovative product to deliver what they actually expect, and that is to take care of their families and loved ones when life changes.

Alec: R700m is a lot of money – is that going into the business or are you guys going to be banking a bit?

Schalk: No, we’re very much committed to the business. The funds will be applied into the business and there’s a lot of excitement to see the results of that and to accelerate some of the business plans, and to really take those to see how we can grow market share. So, no – there’s no result of any sell-outs. It’s there to grow the business.

Alec: What would you suggest to younger people, who want to become entrepreneurs? What is it going to take to achieve this level of success that you’ve managed?

Schalk: I believe first and foremost, in terms of your team and the people around you – like I said earlier, diverse thinking, getting a group of people that’s like-minded in philosophies. That for me is critical. Then you’ve got to have a dream.

You’ve got to want to change the world in your thinking. You need to have a specific objective that you want to achieve and that’s very important. The other thing is you’ve got to prepare yourself for hard work and hard work with partners that are willing to go the distance.

Those are some of the key things that really stand out for me, if I reflect on this journey to date.

*This is an edited version of an interview that appeared on BizNews.com.

This article first appeared in The Comet, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.

A Big New Deal for BrightRock

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Only five years after its founding, the company that brought Love Change to life embarks on a bold new era, with the announcement of a major deal with Sanlam

Some companies started in a garage: Apple, Google, Amazon. Some started in a bedroom: Facebook. Some started in a basement: Virgin Records.

But when Sean Hanlon, Suzanne Stevens, Schalk Malan and Leopold Malan got together to start their fledgling life insurance company in 2011, it was around a dining-room table in suburban Johannesburg.

Between hearty snacks and copious cups of coffee, they set out to build a business on the basis of a bright idea: a life insurance product that changes as your life changes, to match your needs as a dynamic, ever-evolving individual.

Today, just over five years later, that idea has grown into BrightRock, an industry disruptor that has created almost R1.5-billion in value, with R148-billion worth of life cover in force.

And now comes a bold new chapter in the story of BrightRock, with the announcement that the listed financial services group, Sanlam, will acquire a 53% stake in the company, subject to regulatory approval.

Under the agreement, Sanlam and BrightRock will continue to function as independent businesses, retaining their own brands, life insurance licences and management teams.

“BrightRock is proud to welcome Sanlam as our new majority shareholder,” says BrightRock CEO Schalk Malan. “In Sanlam, we have found a true growth partner with exceptional credentials that is supportive of our aspirations to create a highly differentiated and autonomous financial services business of scale. We’re also pleased that the Lombard Insurance Group, our founding investors that backed BrightRock from inception, will remain shareholders in our business going forward.”

Sanlam Personal Finance (SPF) Deputy CEO Hennie de Villiers, says the acquisition of BrightRock is in line with Sanlam’s strategy to seek profitable and sustainable growth opportunities, and is testimony to Sanlam’s commitment to invest in South Africa.

“We believe BrightRock has established a strong and credible presence in the South African market and presents a valuable proposition to people’s insurance needs”, says De Villiers.

“In particular, the company’s innovative needs-matched life insurance offering supports Sanlam’s client-focused philosophy and our strong belief in the value of financial advice by qualified and accredited intermediaries. We believe that the BrightRock offering, together with our Matrix offering to which we introduced significant innovations early in 2016, puts us in an excellent position to meet client needs and further grow our market share.”

While BrightRock products are currently sold solely through independent brokers, the product range will in future also be available through Sanlam Financial Advisers. Sanlam Broker Distribution will also take the product to market alongside its Matrix offering.

Sanlam and BrightRock will inform the market and interested parties of progress regarding the transaction. For now, please read Alec Hogg’s interview with Schalk Malan in this edition of The Comet, for more on what this landmark deal means for BrightRock and you.

This article first appeared in The Comet, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.

Rocking Change

In a mere five years, BrightRock has managed to carve out a strong position for itself in the fiercely competitive insurance industry. How has the company so successfully taken on powerful and entrenched competitors? By GG van Rooyen 


  • COMPANY: BrightRock
  • PLAYERS: Leopold Malan, Suzanne Stevens, Schalk Malan and Sean Hanlon
  • VISIT: www.brightrock.co.za

The South African insurance sector didn’t perform particularly well during the 2015/2016 financial year. In fact, the industry posted below-inflation growth of around 4.5%. Compare this to the year-on-year growth that BrightRock enjoyed over the same period – a staggering 72% – and you realise that the founders of the company have accomplished something very impressive. BrightRock has established itself in an industry that is capital intensive and dominated by entrenched players. How have the four company founders managed this?

Changing the game

Sectors such as financial services and insurance can seem impossible to upend, expecially when you take a moment to consider the obstacles. There are powerful players who have been playing the game for a long time, and you are dealing with potential clients who often don’t even really understand what they’re buying into. Products can be complex, so educating people on how your offering is different isn’t always easy.

“It’s often said that the insurance industry is quite innovative, but when you really look at it, you realise that policies have been looking pretty much the same for a long time now,” says BrightRock co-founder  and executive director of distribution Sean Hanlon. “All four of us had been in the industry for a long time, and we realised that things could be done very differently. There was a market for a different kind of policy.”

Leopold Malan, executive director of processing adds: “When we started BrightRock, we wanted to bring about change in the industry by providing cover that is both relevant and appropriate to each and every individual client, and continues to match the needs of clients as their lives change. Four years after our market entry, we are pleased to see the subtantial take-up of our need-matched product offering. The flexible design in our cover also allows for us to provide up to 48% more cover for the same premium, allowing greater affordability initially and over the long term.

“In our first year, 47% to 53% of our policyholders wanted traditional, lump-sum cover. However, an overwhelming 71% of our policyholders now opt for needs-matched insurance through product options that allow them to shift their cover as their needs change.”

BrightRock entered into a saturated market, but it approached the industry in a unique way. In a sense, it created its own playing field.

This is a good example of how a traditional industry can be disrupted. Moreover, it shows that disruption need not necessarily be driven by technology. Disruption can be created just by tweaking exisitng offerings. A new company like BrightRock doesn’t have a massive legacy and loads of exisiting clients that so often lock a large business into its existing model. The important thing, though, is to take advantage of this freedom – to not simply fall into existing patterns of doing business. Starting a new company offers a unique opportunity to reassess the way in which things are done, and to change it.

Educating the client

Whenever you offer a completely new way of doing things, prospective clients need to be educated and shown why “new” is in fact also “better”.

As mentioned, it took a while for BrightRock clients to adjust to the company’s new offering. So how did BrightRock manage to change clients’ minds?

Well, the company was savvy in the way in which it marketed itself. Right from the start, it realised the need to create clever marketing content that explained its offering.

“Bringing a new brand with a new way of doing things to the market isn’t easy,” says Suzanne Stevens, executive director of marketing. “Educating the consumer is a tough task, and we knew that we couldn’t outspend our competition. To address the issue, we designed a marketing model that started with a content-based approach on platforms we could own. For example, we built a green-screen studio in-house and partnered with journalist Ruda Landman to create videos that explored the change moments in people’s lives. This was a good way to look at insurance in a personal way – to make the implications of insurance real, and to show how life changes dictated insurance needs.”

The campaign  was so successful, that BrightRock eventually sold the idea to kykNET as a show called VeranderDinge.

BrightRock also made the decision to try to do away with much of the jargon and complexity often associated with insurance policies.

“We made sure that all materials were simple and easy to understand,” says Stevens. “We also endeavoured to make the claims process as hassle-free as possible and to allow a client to speak to a human being whenever they wanted. In the end, it all came down to empowering the client to have a meaningful conversation – to understand our offering and ask pertinent questions.”

When it came to selling its policies, BrightRock decided to go with independent brokers who sold various policies.

“We wanted our offering to prove itself,” says Schalk Malan, actuarial executive director. “We wanted experts in the industry to be able to compare our offering with those of others, and let it speak for itself. We were confident that we had a product that could stand on its own and benefit from comparison.”

Growing successfully

Key to the success of BrightRock has been its ability to scale successfully. It is something many companies struggle with, since quick growth leads to increased complexity. Managing this complexity is key.

“There are great advantages to being a new-start-up,” says Hanlon. “When you’re small, you can react quickly. As you grow, though, this becomes harder. With this in mind, we made the decision to put systems in place early on. And having spent time on it from the beginning, we were able to grow quickly.”

“We focused on creating a simple platform that was accessible enough to be used both internally and externally. It was all about stripping out unnecessary complexity, since this would slow down the on-boarding process, both in terms of new clients and new employees,” says Stevens.

Leopold Malan is quick to add, however, that systems and processes can only take a start-up so far. “It takes a good five to ten years to thoroughly implement the systems and processes needed. It is not a simple task. This means that, during the first few years of doing business, your systems will let you down. And when this happens, you need good people in place who can take up the slack.”

BrightRock’s founders have been careful to place the A-players and experienced managers needed to manage growth.

“When it comes to scaling, you’ll often find that it’s the human capital element that limits growth. You can grow your client base quickly, but you need good people who can actually manage the workload. Getting new clients is great, but you need to be able to retain them,” says Hanlon.


  • Don’t be drawn into doing things the way the industry has always done them. A new company has the power to do things differently.
  • Educating consumers in a clever way is crucial when bringing a unique offering to market.
  • Systems and processes are important, but try to stay as agile as possible. Don’t let red tape throttle growth.
  • Have the right people in place who can help you keep growing, even when your processes let you down.

This article was originally published in the November 2016 edition of Entrepreneur magazine.

BrightRock hits R100-billion!

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As BrightRock reaches a major milestone of cover in force, just three years after launch, here’s what we’re doing to change the rules of the game and help meet your needs for life

Just over three years ago, a bright new star blazed a trail across the landscape of South African insurance. BrightRock, built on the unique premise of insurance that matches your individual needs, in line with the changes at various key stages of your life.

“Love Change!” said BrightRock, inviting the industry and the public to take a bold new look at the way insurance works, and how it can work better for you.

Proof that the message hit home, is the major milestone of more than R100-billion in cover in force achieved by BrightRock this year, confirming its status as an emerging leader in the South African individual risk market.

For Schalk Malan, Executive Director at BrightRock, the driving force behind this exponential growth has been the company’s “needs-matched, client-centric approach” to insurance cover.

“While the South African insurance industry as a whole has remained stagnant over the past year,” says Schalk, “our positive growth trajectory has seen an 89 per cent increase in year-on-year gross premiums billed.”

Transparency & Certainty in Claims

BrightRock has also paid out more than R125-million in claims since launching in March 2012, reflecting a philosophy of comprehensive and certain cover. Claims certainty is a central principle of BrightRock’s needs-matched approach, says Schalk.

“We are paying claims that traditionally would not have been paid, or been paid at a lower level. We’ve found that our transparency, objectivity and clearly stated criteria have gone a long way to giving clients assurance around exactly how their claim will be assessed and paid.”

The BrightRock philosophy has proved so successful, that other insurers are slowly integrating a client-centric approach into their product offerings.

But as a company built on a love of change, BrightRock keeps on changing, and the blazing of new trails continues with the launch of  key product enhancements to the market.

New Temporary Expenses Cover

The first of these is the temporary expenses cover, giving policyholders guaranteed pay-outs for 37 conditions. In addition, there is an extensive list of more serious conditions with a much longer specified payment period.

“Clients who do not have permanent expenses cover can now claim one to three months’ cover if they meet our definition, regardless of whether they are booked off work,” explains Schalk.

Making Sure You’re Fit for the Job

Next up from BrightRock is the Job Fitness Test, which aims to give clients transparency upfront, and even more certainty at claim stage. When it comes to permanent expenses cover, BrightRock provides cover for more than 100 conditions, regardless of the impact of a client’s injury or illness on their occupation.

The  Personal Job Fitness Test enriches this cover by offering an “own specific occupational underpin”, over and above these conditions.

As Schalk explains, occupational underpins have traditionally been subjective, leading to considerable uncertainty for clients. The new Job Fitness Test uses a points-based system to evaluate a client’s ability to do the work that someone in their stated occupation would typically do.

It is made up of a series of physical and cognitive assessments done by independent medical specialists. The assessment criteria are disclosed upfront to ensure transparency, so clients know exactly how their claim will be assessed, explains Malan.

A First for Trauma Cover

Trauma cover also comes under the spotlight of change, with the development of a groundbreaking product enhancement called the  Trauma Impact Quotient, or Trauma IQ assessment. This is a market-first for the insurance industry, with a patent for the product currently pending.

Where clients suffer a trauma or accident that would traditionally be overlooked, BrightRock’s unique Trauma IQ assessment will factor in how severe the impact of the injury is on the client. The assessment examines nine factors that contribute to the financial impact of a traumatic injury. These include the length of time of surgery and the degree of rehabilitation undergone.

“This therefore significantly expands a client’s assessment spectrum and likelihood of payout,” says Schalk.

As these enhancements prove, BrightRock is putting down strong foundations for growth, in an industry where change is vital to life. As Schalk puts it, BrightRock is changing the rules of the game, and the winner, for life, is you!

This article first appeared in The Comet, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.



If You Can’t Be an “A”, Be the Best “B” You Can Be

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Not everyone can be a Jobs in their job. The world needs Wozniaks too. And sometimes, those B achievers at school turn out to be the best, most reliable people to work with. By Stacey Vee

I’m that kid whose school marks would blip into A student territory just often enough that my parents would be gutted when my name wasn’t called for academic half-colours at prizegiving.

When my marks saw me dip my toes into the pool of C students, my teachers would scrawl “Needs more focus!” and “Try harder!” on my report cards.

Either way, when you’re a B student, you’re disappointing somebody.

Which is nonsense, of course, because getting a B is a rock-solid result. You should be proud  —  your performance is in the top percentile —  but you’re usually left with a gnawing sense that you’re not living up to your potential.

That’s okay, because with the exception of a sprinkling of professions like architects and pilots, and people who need to know how to draw parallelograms, your future employer doesn’t care what you scored in Life Sciences.

Still, this B student mentality follows you like a shadow into your career. Haunting you. No matter how you end up making a living, in your mind you’re still on the B list, the B team, the reserve squad.

Not *quite* good enough.

You find you are a smidge smarter/faster/more accurate than your co-workers at some tasks  —  just enough to put you on the radar of the powers that be (but not the powers who “B”, hah)  —  but you’re no Steve Jobs, and you know it.

But sometimes, just sometimes, you’re Wozniak.

That’s because Bs are capable of coming up with inspired ideas. They’re just not always on the same grand scale as the A’s. We’re what you call ‘reliable’ and hard-working. We usually end up in middle management.

Bs neither move nor shake, we just vibrate with the ferocity of our perceived inertia.

We’re basically corner-office-wannabes.

Wanna-Bs, geddit? We’re the middle child, being tugged in all directions while simultaneously being ignored.

We want to make mom and pops proud, we just wish the other kids would stop bog-washing us and taking our lunch money. You’ve got the wrong nerds!

So how do you get the most out of your Bs?

Scroll up for a clue. It’s in paragraph four. Where I wrote about rock-solid results.

Once you have identified the Bs on your team (and it’s harder than you think, because a CV isn’t a great indicator of these silent heroes), you plug them into the part of your business where you need consistent, quality performance.

In our agency, my “A team” is made entirely of Bs, and I consider us lucky to have them. An entire team of Wozniaks!

I set the stage so that everyone on the team gets a chance to shine: a tripwire for excellence. Whether it’s a tricky project that I know will get a lot of positive airtime once it goes live, or a chance to see their byline in a publication I know they’ll make photocopies of to send to mom.

I make sure my Bs have opportunities to #humblebrag. The knock-on effect is that at any given moment, I have at least one A on the team, sometimes two. This is the real-life equivalent of catching the star in Super Mario Bros.

In fact, you might say my entire agency is the B squad. We are the small agency that other agencies call when they need consistent, quality performance while they’re brainstorming how to win Cannes Lions for their clients. I’m okay with that.

Shout out to my fellow B students. Stop trying to be the start-up founder that sells out for a trillion bucks, or the keynote speaker at the next creative/digital/social media/tech conference. There are way too many of these anyway.

Rock solid performance  —  that is your superpower. Just B yourself.


This article first appeared in The Comet, an online newsletter by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.



The Power of Positively Thinking

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Edition_11_846 X 300_HEADINGS4_2

In our fast-paced, hurry-up-the-ladder, get-out-of-my-way world, we rarely take the time to stop and think about where we’re going and how we ought to get there. A little reflection can be your secret weapon in business and in life, says Alec Hogg.

Life is like an onion. A progression of layers peeling away to reveal something new, usually to our embarrassment. Dicoveries often turn beliefs on their head.

One of my thickest layers was shed during a workshop on the French Riviera. It was 2006, a day before the annual gathering of Hedge Fund managers. The sponsors felt I’d benefit by rubbing shoulders with these Masters of the Universe before the conference proper began. They were right.

The workshop was run by a short-sighted, Levi’s-and-loafer-wearing New Yorker of Lebanese extraction. He called himself Nassim. Full name Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

A self-described financial activist, he already enjoyed cult-like following among “hedgies” because of his best-selling book, Fooled by Randomness. Taleb was later to acquire mainstram fame after The Black Swan predicted the Financial Meltdown few others expected. But even in 2006, he didn’t lack confidence in his convictions.

Looking back at my notes is instructive. They include “feeling like an ancient Briton being exposed by a Cicero speech on philosophy”.

Overawed. Out of my depth. Confused by a genius who sprouted about fractals and a Gaussian world. It was the steepest of learning curves. But as the message sunk in, it produced an appreciation that working hard just gets you into the game.

Success, Taleb teaches, is often a function of good fortune rather than brilliance. Lady Luck randomly allocates her favours. Holding onto the consequences of her largesse is where the true skill lies.

A few weeks ago, I had breakfast with the boss of one of SA’s top companies. As one does, we got talking about business and his view of the world. And the competitors – the ones on top and those who just cannot get out of their way.

Taleb’s writing helps us appreciate the role of randomness in climbing the ladder. My breakfast partner provided a reminder that staying there requires another under-appreciated quality: Reflection. The importance of being able to stop and think. Because without doing so, it’s easy to forget how you got there in the first place.

Our speeded-up world is full of those who act at lightning speed. People who believe opportunity only knocks once. And when it does, the door needs to be smashed open.

Some describe them as entrepreneurs, but in reality they are opportunists. They grab any golden monkey that passes. Without considering the consequences.

The head of a media company once told me how her sales team were encouraged to embark on what she described as drive-by muggings. New potential customers were quoted outrageous rates. In their ignorance, some signed. Innocent lambs being fleeced. The profit margins were handsome. And although such customers never returned, she wasn’t overtly concerned, because there were plenty more where they came from.

There is a similar approach by many in the hospitality sector. Call a hotel reservations service and you’ll hear the “rack rate”. A price is often double that charged to corporate customers. Is it any wonder Air BnB is gaining momentum? As are its equivalents for other off-line industries where a similar attitude prevails.

The biggest problem with the high-speed, opportunistic approach is the way it fools the beneficiary. Human beings are given to self-absoption. And self-justification. Only through honest reflection do the vagarities of Lady Luck become exposed.

A man gifted millions simply because he was in the right place at the right time (with the right tone of skin) can hardly be blamed for losing perspective. If money can be transferred so easily by fearful executives and ignorant shareholders, why not grab more of it?

Reflection produced the humility required to understand reality. Providing a reminder that for 99.9% of mankind, wealth creation is slow and difficult. A process of sacrifice. Of thinking rather than doing. Appreciating life is more like a five-day test than a T20 slog slog fest.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffet, who built his company from a near-bankrupt textiles business into the fifth most valuable corporation in the US, puts it best:

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.”

At 83, the ever-reflective Buffett says he tap dances to work every day, doing what he likes because he tends to be better at those things. And he studiously avoids working with anyone who churns his stomach. I wonder how many of those married to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’m approach are able to say the same?

* Alec Hogg is the founder and publisher of Biznews.com. He presents Power Lunch daily at noon on CNBC Africa.

This article first appeared in The Comet, an online newsletter by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.