In 1863, Queen Victoria ruled the world’s most powerful empire, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and workers were a few years into constructing the Suez Canal.

That same year, Swiss insurer Baloise Group began operations, initially offering protection from fire to residents of Basel.

While the company’s origins lie in an era that is unrecognisable to us today, Baloise has continued to evolve as an agile, modern provider of insurance products.

In fact, under the guidance of Group CEO Gert De Winter and CFO Carsten Stolz, the company’s trailblazing approach has seen it honoured with the Swiss insurance industry’s innovation award.

Gert explains the accolade was not for a single product or initiative, but in recognition of its ongoing commitment to finding new ways to produce tailored and intuitive insurance products.

“Over the past two years, we have screened more than 1,000 start-ups and we are intensively collaborating or developing proof of concept with dozens of them.”

“If you look at the list of initiatives we have been launching, it is really impressive. We are running at full speed now.”

Carsten says the company has moved from a phase built around operational excellence to its current focus on extending its product range and embracing new modes of interacting with its customers.

Gert De Winter & Carsten Stolz, Group CEO and CFO of Bâloise Group
Gert De Winter & Carsten Stolz, Group CEO and CFO of Bâloise Group

Innovation, growth and change

“Innovation, growth and change in the digital age have become the cornerstones of our strategic development,” he says.

“At the same time, we are retaining the core capabilities Baloise has developed over a long period.”

This raft of initiatives has come out of Simply Safe, the new strategic direction Baloise Group announced in 2016.

Gert describes it as “a radical simplification of our processes, products and customer interaction”.

It also involves broadening Baloise’s insurance offering beyond traditional policies into more holistic assistance services.

“We want to provide customers with solutions that have insurance embedded in them,” he says.

Another groundbreaking offering is a suite of policies that allow customers to insure items of personal value that traditionally haven’t been covered by individual item insurance.

Baloise now offers policies for individual personal belongings including mobile phones, musical instruments and even model ships.

These new policies don’t come with great tracts of fine print; the terms and conditions run to a single A4 page and aim to be intuitive and user-friendly.

Also thanks to partnerships with start-ups like KASKO, Baloise is innovating in terms of digital tools, which make insuring items a quick and easy process.

Customers are now able to photograph their watch, for example, and image-recognition AI will connect the image with a network of timepieces.

With this tool, customers can ensure the details of their watch are recorded and their policy is in place with just a few clicks.

Baloise also acquired Swiss home-moving start-up MOVU, which produced an online platform allowing people to arrange their items to be moved and insured simultaneously.

Yet another update is Baloise’s Quote & Buy option, which permits customers to review a policy and execute the contract in under a minute.

This feature came out of a collaboration with software provider Guidewire Digital.

Baloise was the first insurer in Europe to implement such a straightforward portal, and it continues its approach of moving towards paperless and informal insurance policies.

Alpha and omega of everything

While Simply Safe has a strong focus on such time-saving, user-friendly initiatives, it also has an inward-looking aspect and recognises the value of contented and motivated staff.

As Gert explains, a workforce enjoying what they do will inevitably lead to greater customer satisfaction.

“I think it’s the alpha and omega of everything, to be honest.”

Baloise is close to complete staff satisfaction, with 85% of its employees agreeing they would recommend it as the best employer.

“If you have highly motivated and engaged people, customers simply feel the difference,” says Gert.

“That’s the way it goes. If our people deploy the same energy and enthusiasm that they do with their hobbies, then our company will be a great place to work for.”

“We are not there yet, but we are on our way.”

"If you have highly motivated and engaged people, customers simply feel the difference. That’s the way it goes.” – Gert De Winter

Gert describes this strategy as simple almost to the point of naivete, but it comes with concrete goals. For instance, Baloise wants to be in the top 10% of employers to work for in the financial industry.

It is also aiming to see an additional one million customers by 2021, which would be an increase of 30% on its 2016 figures. The new strategy has also ushered in a greater focus on collaborative projects.

“The days of a company managing the whole value chain on its own are over,” Gert observes.

One such alliance is the recently launched Mobly, a mobility platform that offers a 360-degree service allowing users to buy a car, find suitable insurance for it, organise check-ups and maintenance, and eventually sell it.

“It’s a partnership with a number of telecom operators, media firms, car specialists, and so forth,” he explains. “It’s about going way beyond insurance.”

Modernising company’s processes

Similarly, Baloise has teamed up with professional services firm Deloitte on a project to completely transform its finance processes.

“Deloitte is contributing both technical knowledge and change-management expertise,” Carsten says.

“It will allow our teams to have a set-up where we can achieve the required change. Thanks to this project, a better business-decision support is fostered.”

“Baloise will be faster, agiler and more resource-efficient in all business-relevant aspects.”

Now in execution phase, when complete, the project is anticipated to lead to improvements in business procedures, communication, accuracy in data modelling and consistency of information across the entire company.

Modernising the company’s finance processes will be a major ongoing project, Carsten says.

“We are living in a multi-framework world that is now so complex and diverse, many processes need stronger and more regular support from IT.”

“That’s going to be a challenge with regard to managing stability and transition simultaneously. We have to change these processes to bring them to a new level.”

“At the same time, existing processes have to be stable because they are what we rely on. It’s really a matter of walking between those two poles.”

Technology and digital transformation

Both Gert and Carsten share an enthusiasm for technology and digital transformation, as well as an understanding that they are not an end in themselves.

“Digitalisation is about the culture and social movement,” Gert says.

“That is where I get my energy and passion and, from time to time, also my disappointment – from the combination of technology with people and culture.”

"Digitalisation is ultimately about the culture and social movement. That is where I get my energy and passion.” – Gert de Winter

This intersection has long fascinated Gert; his first role at Baloise was as a chief information officer. Unusually for someone in this position, he also had responsibility for the HR department.

“People find that a strange combination,” he says. “I appear so tech-driven and nerdy on one hand, but then I have a strong interest in people and culture on the other. But those have always been my twin passions.”

Carsten also enjoys the amalgam of soft skills and technical expertise required in the insurance field. “I find the space that we are in absolutely fascinating,” he says.

“I find the space that we are in absolutely fascinating.” – Carsten Stolz

Gert describes himself as a loyal employee, having only ever worked for Accenture and Baloise. Carsten also has a wealth of corporate knowledge at Baloise.

Agility, innovation and entrepreneurship

He joined in 2002, after earning a degree in business management, a PhD in financial management and working as a consultant to banks and insurance companies.

Carsten says one of the main developments while at Baloise is its successful adoption of a system called ‘target customer management’.

This has allowed Baloise to share risk among its client base, while also ensuring consistent profitability.

For Gert, an ongoing challenge has been ensuring Baloise’s 7,500 staff, who are spread across multiple locations, are all pulling in the same direction.

“This requires a new way of thinking and extensive collaboration across countries and silos. It requires agility, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Implementing the cultural transformation is a cornerstone of Gert’s role.

Carsten echoes these thoughts on the ongoing evolution of the company and looks back to when he became CFO in 2017: “I had to really pick up speed and get on the same page as the rest of the team.”

“I say this with a twinkle in my eye because it has been a wonderful experience and I rely on a super team.”

For Carsten, achieving balance is all-important. “The biggest challenge will be how we can provide financial value management while having more than the existing old cornerstones of the core business; converting the bets we are playing in the market and making them value contributors.”

Baloise will continue pursuing the Simply Safe strategy until 2021, when its strategic direction will be reviewed.

It is looking to pour up to CHF2 billion cash in, to continue its attractive shareholder policy, while also investing in growth and innovation.

Curiosity, courage and trust

The company has implemented a range of ideas to keep generating fresh concepts; it holds regular hackathons to brainstorm possible new initiatives.

It has also introduced ‘Baloise story in action’, a bottom-up program where around 300 employees look for ways to implement greater transparency and openness across the company.

Another break from tradition is the company’s move to ditch individual goals in favour of team objectives.

Back in 1863, the year Baloise was established, French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that genius was nothing more than the ability to capture childhood at will.

Today, this idea remains relevant at Baloise, which is aiming to offer radically simple insurance products for an increasingly complex society.

“I look at what kids can do and how creative they can be and how open they are for the future,” Carsten says.

“I take a lot of inspiration from my daughter and the kids around her. I try to transfer this into my own attitude and actions.”

“I look around the firm and I think I see this around me. The curiosity, courage and trust are there and, with that, we can move mountains.”