Portrait Gert De Winter und Andrea Burckhardt

Interview

We have to create a customer experience.

Gert De Winter, Group CEO

The Baloise Group has had a new Group CEO, Gert De Winter, since 1 January 2016. De Winter (49), who is Belgian, has been with Baloise for eleven years. In his previous post, he was CEO of Baloise Insurance Belgium. During this interview, he and the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Andreas Burckhardt, explain what this new era means for the future and how Baloise is facing up to the challenges in the insurance industry.

By appointing Gert De Winter, isn’t the Board of Directors sticking to the tried-and-tested rather than bringing in a new broom for Baloise?

Andreas Burckhardt: Not at all. That is certainly not how the Board of Directors and I see this appointment. Gert De Winter is obviously very familiar with the Baloise Group, having been here for eleven years. He knows how we operate and embodies our values. But that is not why he was appointed as the new CEO. Gert De Winter beat the external candidates in a lengthy and thorough selection process in which he convinced the Board of Directors that he was the best one for the job. His time as CEO in Belgium, his background and his experience of management in both IT and human resources means he will indeed bring new ideas with him that will enable us to begin a new chapter in Baloise’s success. In any case, it’s not as if we were looking for, or needed, someone to usher in change. Baloise is doing well. Gert De Winter should and will build on our tried-and-tested approach, but will also bring the skills and ideas needed to prepare the business for future challenges.

What are the challenges that you and the industry face?

Portrait Andreas Burckhardt

Andreas Burckhardt: Everyone is currently talking about digitisation. It will undoubtedly have a long-term impact on the industry, but even the most qualified experts are unable to tell us when or how. The fact is that the core competence of insurance companies, namely analysing data and using it for their core business of bearing/taking on risk in return for premiums, will no longer be the preserve of insurers. Companies in other industries now collect far more data than the insurance sector and, at some point, they will want to capitalise on this. That is why we as an insurance company need to lay the foundations today so that we can retain our lead when it comes to using data for our customers. This raises the question of whether in future we want to be an insurer that only bears risk or whether we want to broaden our business model. Baloise, with its safety positioning, has built up its expertise in the area of prevention over many years. We are thus facing up to these future challenges from a position of strength. Moreover, we still have to cope with the difficult interest rate situation and the strength of the Swiss franc, despite the signals sent by the US Federal Reserve at the end of last year. We’ve also been concerned about the huge increase in the time and expense required to deal with regulation and the ever more restrictive nature of regulation. Although we cannot influence the environment in which we operate, it is possible for politicians – and therefore for us as citizens – to attempt to fight back against this regulation. Particularly in Switzerland, I would like there to be a better understanding and relationship between business and politicians so that we as a company can continue to compete against our rivals in other countries.

What is the new CEO doing differently to his predecessor?

Gert De Winter: It’s not my place to make comparisons. Everyone has their own personality, which in itself means that we all approach things differently. Baloise has worked very well over the past few years, as evidenced by the success and the results it has achieved. So it’s not a matter of doing things fundamentally differently. On the other hand, the industry is facing huge challenges. My task will be to prepare Baloise for these challenges and, at the same time, to explore new opportunities. I will give my all every day to demonstrate these opportunities to employees, customers, partners and shareholders. I’ll champion these opportunities and make our stakeholders enthusiastic about them too.

How do you plan to tackle the challenges mentioned?

Portrait Gert De Winter

Gert De Winter: As Andreas Burckhardt said, we find ourselves in a climate shaped by the pressures of interest rates at unprecedented low levels, fierce competition and increasing regulation. We pay CHF  5.7 million just for supervisory fees, internal expenses not included. But the market itself is shifting, too. The digital revolution has changed consumer behaviour and will continue to do so. This has an impact on our business as well. Customers are looking for simplicity, flexibility and transparency but still want maximum safety, and this means our services have to deliver a lot. Baloise’s safety positioning is a first step, but we can’t simply rely on it and rest on our laurels. The things that have worked in the past aren’t necessarily a guarantee of success in the future. Going forward, we want to remain more than simply an insurance company. Our emotional connection as a partner to our customers is crucial in this regard. We have to create a customer experience. Customers should sense every day that we can perform our services easily, quickly and correctly and that, at the end of the day, we are making them safer. This won’t work if we are only a bearer of risk. That’s why I see my role as motivating employees and convincing them that each and every one of them can create these customer experiences, even in the supposedly emotionless world of insurance.

How are you going to achieve this?

Gert De Winter: Firstly, we must not neglect the core aspect of our business, i.e. the things that we do best and where our expertise lies. We therefore will not budge from our strategy of target customer management: focusing on profitable target customers who want to feel safe and appreciate it when we help them to ensure that losses do not occur in the first place. Of course we also step up if a loss event arises. In the interests of everyone who is insured with us, however, we seek out customers who want to actively contribute to minimising risk themselves and who don’t just want to insure against a risk. This benefits everyone – the customer and us as a company – in the long run. So offering insurance policies alone isn’t enough. We don’t want to wait until a loss occurs but rather provide services that go beyond the policy itself and help customers to feel safe. These range from safety services to active assistance and prevention. New lines of business besides classic insurance could therefore emerge for Baloise in future.

Nonetheless, the core insurance business is under pressure and the German market remains an issue. How are you going to tackle this?

Andreas Burckhardt: The life insurance business is not easy as a result of the interest rate situation. It’s now almost impossible to give guarantees, or they are not appealing enough for customers. New business from traditional life insurance can’t help but suffer in these circumstances. But customers’ need for security remains the same. For a while now, we have therefore been offering innovative insurance solutions with lower or even no guarantees but which offer a basic level of security and enable us to respond better and more quickly to market conditions and to invest accordingly. This can result in very attractive surpluses for policyholders, especially in the group life business. Small and medium-sized enterprises particularly appreciate this. As far as Germany is concerned, we firmly believe in its opportunities and possibilities. Progress is slow – slower than we thought it would be – but we can do well in this market. This can be seen from the successes that we have notched up so far. Baloise is well positioned with its core markets of Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, and this shouldn’t change.

Gert De Winter: My experience in Belgium has taught me that you can’t hurry success. I can sometimes be impatient. But if a company – and, specifically, its employees – believes in its business model, then success will come. Baloise has a track record of operational excellence. We have to play to this strength and pair it with tenacity. When we launched our target customer management some 15 years ago, we were often asked what we were doing differently. All companies claim to focus on the customer. What makes Baloise any different? The answer is simple: the difference is that we are resolutely pursuing one objective, an objective to which every single employee is fully committed. Ultimately, this is what has made us one of the most profitable insurers in Europe.

Are you now promising the shareholders a strategy of growth?

Andreas Burckhardt: Growth for growth’s sake is not the direction that Baloise is taking. We have been fostering profitable organic growth for some time, supported by our target customer management. If opportunities arise, we will continue to grow through acquisitions, as has been the case in Belgium and Luxembourg in the last few years. We examine acquisition opportunities on the basis of strict criteria. They have to create added value. Our success shows that we and our shareholders have been right in recent years. A case in point is our attractive and sustainable dividend policy. This shouldn’t change going forward, regardless of any challenges that we may encounter.

The interviewer was Dominik Marbet, Head of Group External Communications.