Travelling to the top > Cover-More Group CFO & interim CEO Justin Sebire

In early 2024, life got even busier for Justin Sebire as he expanded his role as Group CFO at global travel insurance provider Cover-More to become interim Group CEO – and the father of seven couldn’t be happier.

Justin Sebire has never been shy of stepping outside his comfort zone to level-up his career, but he didn’t imagine the chance would come so quickly after joining global insurance travel provider Cover-More as Group CFO in early 2023.  

Less than a year later, in February 2024 he was appointed interim Group CEO, filling the shoes of previous boss Cara Morton who stepped up to lead Zurich Global Ventures, the parent entity of Cover-More. 

“I’m really loving it,” says Sebire, who has worked in finance leadership roles over more than 25 years with the likes of Bupa, Suncorp Group, Aviva and AXA.

“Cover-More is right at the intersection of insurance – which has been my background; travel – which I love; and technology – which is at a fascinating point,” he says. “We’re also in a good place – while the travel industry has broadly recovered to where it was pre-COVID, Cover-More’s recovery has outpaced the industry, and that shows we’re gaining market share.”  

As the largest business within the Zurich Global Ventures portfolio since being acquired by Swiss-based multi-line insurer Zurich Group in 2017, Cover-More protects more than 17 million travellers each year through a global suite of brands. Headquartered in Sydney, where it was founded in 1986, its operations span 15 countries across North America, Latin America, UK/Europe and Asia Pacific. Around 80 percent of its global book is sold through affiliates such as travel agencies, airlines and banks, and the rest direct to consumers.

Leaning in

Sebire’s promotion came after a year spent refocusing Cover-More’s global finance team to better support the business, a task he says is on track, but there’s more to do.

“As a team, we’d identified that we spent far too much time looking backwards and doing month end closes, and not enough time looking forwards, partnering with the business to help drive better outcomes. So, we restructured and began really focusing on operational excellence,” he says.

“A good flag on the hill is that we’ve brought forward our annual statutory accounts by six weeks compared to last year. That’s now freed up time to focus on other improvements; it also means our people are becoming more engaged as they’re spending more time doing the things they want to do, being advisors and doing the analysis to improve business performance.”

While he concedes adding Group CEO responsibilities to his role has not been without challenges, the move has confirmed his ambitions to shift from his traditional CFO career into CEO territory.

“At first, I was probably looking at it with an ‘interim’ lens – just making sure things stay on track. But to be successful, I knew I really needed to lean into the role,” he says.

“Having that broader view beyond finance, with many more stakeholders, is fascinating to me. I like to be able to connect things – from strategy, operations, people, and how they all link through to the financial outcomes. It’s now definitely on my career path.”

Finetuning flexibility with family

While his work schedule has revved up, Sebire also juggles a busy home life. He and his wife have seven children, each of them (including a set of twins) roughly two years apart, the eldest now 17 and in her first year of university, the youngest in year one, aged six.

“It was never a life ambition to have seven kids, but here we are, and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says with a chuckle.

“They’re all really good kids, all look after each other and each one teaches me something different. My 13-year-old in particular has taught me a lot about patience. She has a mild intellectual disability, and the trial and error of trying to find out what helps her and what doesn’t requires a lot of patience, something I didn’t really have a lot of before she came along.”   

Sebire says he’s in the privileged position where his wife, an investment banker, decided to step away from the workforce to run their bustling household, enabling him to pursue his career. Yet, he’s as hands on as he can be in juggling the kids’ frenetic school, sports and social schedule.

The key – particularly given that holding a global executive role entails many late night and early morning meetings, and frequent travel – is to maintain a highly flexible work structure.

“A lot of our kids are swimmers, so that works from my perspective, because I can drop them at early morning training, and I keep going into the office; and same on the way home for afternoon sessions.”  

He’s also turning more to swimming to keep himself fit. “If you try to get a meeting with me, say between 5 and 7pm, I’ll typically do those meetings at the pool by video. Before or after the meeting, I’ll jump in, swim a few laps, then come home with my son, and I’ll log in again from home if I need to.”  

Pumping up productivity

To maximise productivity during the working day, Sebire ensures his diary is proactively managed to build in preparation and thinking time, and he’s worked hard to refine his delegation skills. 

“I normally block two hours in the middle of the day to ensure I have that break from meetings to refocus my brain on what’s next,” he says.

“Delegation was a skill I’ve had to really work on, particularly when I first became a leader. I was probably more of the controlling-type person wanting to do things myself, but I could see that was blowing me up. I’ve had to learn how to get out of the way – to be clear on the expectations and the deliverables, but to step away, trust others and empower them to do their jobs. That’s been a key success factor for me over the last 10 or 15 years.” 

When the busy-ness of family and work ever threatens to overflow, he says he and his wife “pause, take a deep breath, and plan it out”.

“Sometimes it means some of the kids make sacrifices, like missing out on something because we can’t get them there, but they understand,” he says. “We also try this concept of ‘Super Saturday’, where once a month the whole family gets together to do some kind of activity, to share that family time. You’ve got to be mindful and dedicate time to it, rather than just letting it pass you by.”

Smart growth ahead

Like other players in the travel industry, Sebire says the COVID pandemic was tough for Cover-More, but some unexpected silver linings have set the business up for continued sustainable growth.

“What a lot of customers realised through that period is that when you’re in a different country and something goes wrong, you really want someone there who’s got your back, and so customers are finding genuine value in travel insurance,” he says. 

“We’ve also had the backing of the Zurich Group, which allowed us to invest in our digital channels throughout that period which is massively improving the way we service our customers, ensuring we’re more relevant at every step of their journey.

“It’s all part of the plans to keep growing back smartly, efficiently and profitably,” he says.

Sebire’s top tips for CFOs with CEO aspirations

Build a strong finance foundation: When you get solid finance foundations in place, it allows you to start focusing more on the above-the-line areas of the business, rather than simply keeping things running. Having good people around you is very important.   

Think like a CEO, act like an outstanding CFO: I was once given this advice from a mentor when I was going for a CFO role. As a CFO, the more you consider what the CEO is thinking about, the more you can play the role of trusted advisor – and that means you’re better prepared if you ever need or want to step into those shoes. 

Be able to win hearts, not just minds: At one point I got some feedback that I could be very logical and win minds, but not necessarily hearts. As a leader, being able to change the way someone thinks and acts needs more than analytics and logic. 

Put yourself into the shoes of your stakeholders: As a CFO, to become a trusted advisor, you need to help generate conversations with other leaders in the business that are insightful and, to do that, you need to think about how different stakeholders want to receive their information. Learn to read your stakeholders and package the information how it best makes sense for them.    

Three-year role horizon: Think about roles on a three-year time horizon. The first year, get your feet under the desk; the second year, deliver exceptionally; and the third year, start to think about what’s next. That doesn’t mean you leave the job after three years, but you’re working out how to add to your role or identifying and gaining the skills you need to go to that next level.