The Basler Insurance Company against Fire Damage (Basler Versicherungs-Gesellschaft gegen Feuerschaden) was founded in 1863. Today it is known as the Baloise Group and operates in four countries under the umbrella of Bâloise Holding AG. At the peak of its geographical expansion in around 1938, the company was active in 51 countries around the world. Clearly Baloise has experienced a lot of change down the years. But in spite of its history and the ever-changing needs of its customers, there is one principle to which Baloise has always remained faithful: the principle of safety and security.
19. Jahrhundert: Gründung und Positionierung
Baloise, or Basler as it was originally known, experienced a great deal of change in its early years after being founded as a result of a local disaster. Driven by the impact of the catastrophe and a favourable economic climate, its business grew strongly. The company opened up new lines of business and succeeded in expanding internationally.
Founding of Basler Feuer
On 2 May 1863 the Basler Insurance Company against Fire Damage was granted a trading licence by the government of the Canton of Basel-Stadt. The company was founded in the wake of the great fire of Glarus in 1861, which at the time was Switzerland's biggest ever fire disaster and heralded the foundation of several Swiss insurance companies. In the night of 10 May 1861 more than 600 buildings burned down in Glarus in just a few hours. A total of 2,257 people – nearly half the population – were made homeless. Total losses amounted to almost ten million francs, which was an astronomical sum for the time. The fear that spread through the whole of Switzerland after this unprecedented disaster painfully highlighted the growing need for insurance. In July 1863, barely a month after it had been founded, the Basler Insurance Company against Fire Damage began to write its first policies. Basler was reaping the benefits of a positive investment environment; at the time that it was founded the economic climate and the political situation were extremely favourable. During this period, Switzerland's postal services and customs and coinage systems were all standardised – an important prerequisite for economic growth. There was also a dramatic increase in mobility as railways were built that improved links between Switzerland and its neighbouring countries.
Expansion of business activities
In 1864 Basler expanded into two further areas of business. By offering transport and life insurance, the original aim of operating the insurance business "in all its branches and directions" was taken a step further. The new companies were given names appropriate to their purpose: Basler Lebens-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft (Basler Life Insurance Company) and Basler Transport-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft (Basler Transport Insurance Company). Basler, which was still a relatively new company, grew its business in Switzerland by acquiring other cantonal portfolios. On 4 August 1864 Basler Feuer received its operating license for the Grand Duchy of Baden; on 29 March 1886, it was granted authorisation to trade in the Kingdom of Saxony, the last license from the former German national states. Other countries followed: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, France, Italy and the Danube principalities as well as what is now Romania. Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, demand was growing at the chemical factories in Basel for fire insurance, transport insurance and, increasingly, life insurance too.
Leap across the pond
1869 saw the foundation of Basler Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft (Basler Reinsurance Company), under the auspices of Basler Transport-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft (Basler Transport Insurance Company). Basler Leben (Basler Life) began offering accident insurance in 1885. As it expanded its international activities, Basler Feuer opened offices in Hamburg, Bremen, Constantinople, Alexandria, Smyrna, Yokohama, Mexico, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. In 1874 Basler established a subsidiary in Austria. In 1891 Basler had palatial offices built in Berlin in order to outwardly signify the company's growing significance. The building is today home to the Hotel Angleterre and still has a basilisk standing watch above its door. In the same year, Basler Feuer began doing direct business with San Francisco; six years later a branch in New York was opened. However, in 1902 Basler withdrew from all activities in the USA – including on the Pacific coast – which would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
20th century: growth and consolidation
The first half of the 20th century was dominated by war and disasters that made any further growth for Basler impossible. The situation improved, however, and thanks to the hard work of its employees Basler saw continued growth right up to the creation of Bâloise Holding.
Technology as the driving force for business
In the United States, Basler Feuer reorganised its portfolio and from 1901 attempted to withdraw from unprofitable parts of its US business. However, the company wanted to hold on to the profitable Pacific coast business. But this had to be sold as well, as the Federal Insurance Office in New York refused to allow withdrawal while Basler Feuer still had a single policy anywhere in the United States. For the company, however, this turned out to be a fortuitous move, as San Francisco was sadly destroyed by a severe earthquake in 1906. By that time, Basler Feuer had already long withdrawn from the United States, saving it from huge claims payments. At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe experienced a welcome economic upswing that benefited Basler's various subsidiaries. At the same time, society was transformed by the phenomenal success of technology, with living conditions improving considerably within a short period of time. Advances in technology, most notably in the form of motorised vehicles, brought with them new dangers that threatened people's material livelihoods. So in 1916 Basler decided to enter the market for motor car insurance. In 1912 the new headquarters of Basler Leben opened at Aeschenplatz. Unfortunately, this year too was not without disaster. On 15 April 1912 the Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank – Basler Transport contributed 4 million francs to the loss, the equivalent of nearly 40 million francs today.
A period of growth is interrupted
The flourishing of the insurance industry came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the First World War. The flu pandemic of 1918, in which the number of deaths rose to double the number in 1917, put additional pressure on the business. Most of the dead were young or middle-aged and had therefore only just taken out insurance policies. Overall the pandemic caused more deaths than the First World War. The post-war period proved difficult, with the subsidiaries primarily fighting the effects of inflation. In addition, large amounts of physical assets were destroyed during the war and therefore no longer required insurance cover. In the 1920s the crisis appears to have bottomed out. Further improvements did not prove sustainable, however. At the beginning of the 1930s, the world economy slipped back into a deep crisis that was marked by high unemployment.
Facing the misery of war
At the beginning of the Second World War, the international business of the Basler subsidiaries was brought to a temporary halt. The focus shifted to the business in Switzerland, which benefited from the largest injection of capital since the company's foundation. Meanwhile, fearing that its headquarters in Basel could be destroyed, Basler built a chalet complex in the redoubt in Saanen near Gstaad, which was guarded by the Swiss army. The chalet had an underground vault system with metre-thick walls of reinforced concrete. Fifty employees, and in some cases their relatives too, were deployed here until 1945 to look after more than 115 tonnes' worth of materials, including securities and 700,000 life policies. Shortly before the fall of France, the headquarters in Basel were evacuated and closed down. At the end of the Second World War, Europe lay in ruins and the equivalent of 1 billion francs in today's money had been wiped off Basler's balance sheet.
Bâloise Holding founded
In the post-war period Basler had no money with which to make acquisitions or investments abroad. It was therefore all the more important to have successful agents in the field, who were marshalled by long-standing employees. Thanks to its dedicated workforce and the rapid economic recovery in western Europe after the Second World War, Basler was able to successfully reposition itself as an insurance company across Europe. Advances in technology and increasing national wealth meant that there were more and more valuables that needed protection against risk. In 1958 Basler Unfall (Basler Accident) was founded to cater to this demand. But Basler was not only active in Europe at this time. It also opened branches in Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador. Baloise Holding was established in 1962 to provide a better balance of risk between the various Basler companies. Headquartered in Basel it was to serve as an umbrella organisation for all the national companies. Its logo depicted a basilisk. In 1968 the German subsidiaries moved their headquarters to Bad Homburg. In 1971 the Basler companies Feuer (Fire), Transport and Unfall (Accident) merged to form Basler Versicherungs-Gesellschaft (Basler Insurance Company). In Austria, however, where Basler had been operating since 1874, the industrial business was sold.
Expansion of Baloise
In the 1980s Baloise expanded into other European countries, including Austria in 1983 with the foundation of Basler Versicherungs-Aktiengesellschaft (Basler Insurance Ltd). In 1985 Deutscher Ring Leben / Sach was acquired, and in the same year the Baloise Insurance Company of America was founded. In 1986 Baloise became the majority shareholder of the Belgian insurance company Mercator in Flanders. Two years later Baloise acquired the Providence Washington Insurance Company. This period of expansion was followed in the 1990s by turbulent years of restructuring for Baloise. The company withdrew from business in Italy, France and the USA, and Rhein Rück, which had been acquired in 1991, was sold again in 1997. This was followed by the sale of the Spanish subsidiary in 2001. The restructuring was completed with the sale of Mercator Bank in 2004. During this period Basler also succeeded in thwarting a takeover attempt. As of 1991, two major shareholders independently held more than 40 per cent of shares. However, due to voting restrictions, they were entered in the share register with just 2 per cent of votes each. In 2003 the takeover attempt was finally thwarted, and since this time the largest shareholder has held only 3.8 per cent of Baloise stock.
21st century: excellence and focus
By increasingly focusing on its core markets, Baloise was able to substantially increase its profitability and become one of the most successful insurers in Europe.
First steps in the new millennium
At the beginning of the new millennium, Baloise acquired Bank SoBa from Solothurn, formerly known as Solothurner Kantonalbank and now operating under the name Baloise Bank SoBa. This represented the first step on its journey towards implementing the business model of a specialised financial services provider. At the same time, a subsidiary was set up in Zagreb. The new millennium also presented huge challenges: after the collapse of the financial markets following the terrorist attacks in the USA on September 11, Baloise reported its only loss-making year in 2002. By the following year, however, the company was back on track, strengthening the business in its core markets. Baloise took over the German insurance company Securitas, merging it with its own German subsidiary to form Basler Securitas.
Operational excellence and repositioning
By pursuing its strategy of operational excellence, Baloise was able to make long-term improvements to its business. In 2006 Baloise Luxembourg acquired Winterthur Europe Vie. With a market share of 9 per cent, it now ranks among the top five insurers. In the following year, Baloise acquired Osiguranje Zagreb in Croatia and launched operations in Serbia. Baloise Life (Liechtenstein) was founded in Balzers. In 2008 the business in Germany was restructured. All German subsidiaries of Baloise as well as Deutscher Ring Leben / Sach were brought under one management structure with headquarters in Bad Homburg. They now operate under the name Basler Group Germany. The group, under the umbrella of Bâloise Holding AG, began to present itself to the market as Baloise Group. In 2009 Baloise launched its repositioning strategy centred on the company motto 'Making you safer'.
Focus on success
In 2013 Baloise announced the Baloise Park project, which will see three new buildings constructed in Basel by 2020: a hotel tower and two office complexes containing the new group headquarters. Baloise sold its businesses in Serbia and Croatia in 2013. The business in Austria was sold in 2014. Its activities in Belgium and Luxembourg, however, were expanded. Market share in Belgium was increased through the acquisitions of Avéro and Nateus. Baloise Insurance is now among the top five in Belgium for non-life cover. In 2015 Baloise strengthened its position in the Luxembourg market by purchasing the non-life insurer HDI-Gerling Assurances SA Luxembourg. By increasingly focusing on its core markets, Baloise is substantially increasing its profitability and is now one of the most successful insurers in Europe.