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Gert De Winter

Gert De Winter - image

Motivated employees and happy customers make for a successful business. That’s the message being heralded by Baloise Group’s global CEO Gert De Winter, who stepped into the role in January this year after running the Belgium operations for the European insurance company since 2009.

“There are two elements which convinced me I had to put myself out there as a candidate for the position,” he shares. “The first thing was Baloise’s history of success under the previous management team with Martin Strobel as CEO. It had been a great ten-to-fifteen years for the company, but the question I had was: ‘Where is Baloise heading now?’ I saw a big opportunity to define a new strategy, together with the team.

“The second opportunity was the enormous potential in the people already working for the company. I believe in a culture of entrepreneurship, taking initiative and responsibility, trying out new things, and being innovative. I thought if we changed the culture and moved it in this direction then it would be of great benefit for Baloise.”

Three core elements to excellence: farm the soil, grow the core, and place the bets

Gert says that upon closer inspection into the internal operations of Baloise, the company was doing well operationally, but from a growth point of view it had some work to do. With this in mind he decided to lead a journey of exploration, looking into what other successful companies were doing to achieve excellence in their bottom and top line. Gert not only analysed businesses in the insurance industry but from a wide variety of sectors. The answer, he found, boiled down to three core elements: farming the soil, growing the core, and placing the bets.

“We found every company that was successful from a growth perspective nurtured these three things,” he reveals. “Farming the soil is the cultural aspect; the innovation, entrepreneurship, trial and error, taking and giving responsibility, and empowerment. Growing the core is the company being aware of what they are good at and trying to copy that intelligently with the different markets, demographics, and products in the business. Finally, placing the bets is all about innovation. It’s about being open to trying new things and coming up with ideas that extend and leverage that core product or service.

“The strategy we are building now is based on these three levers: the soil, core, and bets, and it all sounds quite simple in theory. I will add that the key takeaway from this journey of exploration was: If you have proud employees they will make happy customers, and this means you will have successful growth from both the top and bottom line. That’s the approach we are now fine tuning and we are detailing it in our multi-year plans for each country we operate in.”

“If you have proud employees they will make happy customers, and this means you will have successful growth from both the top and bottom line.” – Gert De Winter

Baloise is headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, and has offices in Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg. It was founded in 1863 as the Basler Insurance Company and has experienced many instances of change since its early days. However, the company has always stayed true to its commitment to safety and security when it comes to delivering insurance solutions to its customers. Today, Baloise has 7,400 staff on its books and they all share this same philosophy on safety and security. Decisions are made quickly and
easily and there is an enormous capacity for disciplined execution. “We all march in the same direction,” Gert says of the four regions. “We are agile and that is an enormous advantage in our industry.”

Cementing cultural values

Baloise disseminates its cultural values to all team members by taking three different approaches.

  1. The first is from the top down, a model via a storytelling approach. “We thus elaborated a ‘Baloise Story’, a technique we use to explain strategy internally,” he says. “Earlier this year we announced the key principles behind it and we are now deploying it across the whole group. To give you an idea, in Switzerland alone we ran approximately 300 workshops for our staff to get them to understand all of the ideas in the story, as well as what it means for them in their individual roles. This allowed our employees to buy into the strategy and make them own it.”
  1. The second approach comes from the leadership team. Gert and his peers have to be positive role models for all staff members by living out the company’s values, strategies, ideas, beliefs, and culture every day.
  1. Finally, Baloise uses an innovative concept to instil a positive workplace culture. “It’s a rather interesting theory,” Gert says. “When you announce a new strategy, the impact it has on people is approximately 10 per cent. The real impact — the remaining 90 per cent — comes from the people who start behaving in ways that reflect the culture that you are creating. In every company you have approximately 5-to-10 per cent of employees who are extremely well networked and trusted by their colleagues. If you identify these people and instil a common mindset and behaviours to follow, you will have authentic role models, or ‘Multipliers’, to spread the new way of behaving using informal peer-to-peer networks. This enables an authentic and real change to happen. We started implementing these three approaches in Belgium a few years ago and it is working. We have seen how powerful it is and we are now starting to make it a whole group initiative.”

“We want to anticipate the needs of our clients more than ever before and that’s why we are pulling together all the people who are willing to think outside the box.” – Gert De Winter

‘Safety World’: a unique selling proposition

Baloise prides itself on being highly innovative in its field, with a focus on regularly evolving its product offering to remain competitive. The insurance industry is typically quite stagnant and not a lot has changed over the past two decades, but this has made Baloise even more determined to shake things up. One such product innovation was ‘Safety World’, a unique selling proposition it introduced to the market several years ago to focus on additional features and services that really protect its clients. “We have tried to build different safety components into our portfolio over the past five years and that is what ‘Safety World’ is all about. An example is psychological assistance which we offer to our consumers after they experience a difficult circumstance, like a robbery or a death. We help them with all of the administration that comes with that.”

Looking to the future, there are two insurance trends that Gert says are becoming all the more important to consider for a company like Baloise.

Demand for customisation and mobility

One is the demand for customisation and mobility. “The customers of tomorrow will take out insurance coverage when they need it, for the length of time they need it, and for the specific risks they want covered,” he explains. “They don’t want a one-fits-all type of solution. I always use this example: If I, during my midlife crisis, want to go for a month riding a Vespa through Italy, then I only need the insurance coverage for that period of time and I only need to be covered for the things I need, such as driving liability and travel insurance. I also need to be able to switch that on and off as I please. That’s what’s happening today, people are demanding much more mobility when it comes to timing and coverage. Some markets are already adopting this approach but Continental Europe is still very much focused on the one- to three-year contracts where everything is covered, even the things you don’t need. Customers are not going to accept that in the future.

Being a more proactive service provider

“The second trend is a move away from being in a reactive space after a claim has been made, towards being a much more proactive service provider. When you are buying a home or a car, thinking about your pension, or having health problems, that is when we should position ourselves together with the right partners so that we can be there for our clients at the right moment with the right solution. We want to be able to deliver the tailored protection and coverage that they require for different life events.”

Connecting with like-minded partners is crucial, Gert continues. Baloise has teamed up with a company that is screening all of the new Europe-based start-ups to see which ones might fit in with the Baloise strategy. Every month it produces a list of interesting start-ups for Baloise to look into and potentially invest in, a beneficial tool considering it has limited capacity to do its own R&D internally. The business has also been working with a spin-off of the University of Luxembourg to develop an app called Game of Roads. The collaboration works by monitoring the driving behaviours of people to build and improve their awareness of how a ‘pay as you drive’ insurance system might work. Then in Belgium, as well as in Luxembourg, Baloise is also exploring the idea of connected homes together with a mobile operator and assistance provider.

“Sales-wise, in Switzerland Baloise is establishing an omni-channel approach to optimise our activities,” Gert says. “Instead of competition, we will see cooperation between our different sales channels — tied agents, brokers, online, telephone, and car dealers. This will enable us to increase the contact frequency with our existing clients and to reach out to significantly more new customers.”

“We have been trying to form ecosystems of partnerships where we go beyond the traditional insurance models,” Gert says. “We want to anticipate the needs of our clients more than ever before and that’s why we are pulling together all the people who are willing to think outside the box. We currently have about thirty partner initiatives in the works.”

Getting to growth

Now that Gert has settled comfortably into the CEO role and is successfully rolling out his strategy for growth, he says his focus for the next twelve-to-eighteen months will be four-fold. Firstly, he will continue to nurture the reputation and legacy Baloise has in the insurance marketplace. “I don’t want to forget about the core strengths that we have developed over the past ten years. Just because I’m the new guy on the block doesn’t mean we need to throw away everything that has been good in the past. We want to become even better when it comes to the core competencies that have made us successful; one of the most profitable insurance companies in Europe.”

Secondly, he wants to radically make Baloise’s processes, products, and communication easier. “The insurance business is traditionally difficult. We want to change that by simplifying as much as we can. In Belgium we have been working for nine months on releasing a new car insurance policy. With the help of 14-year-old students, we have completely rewritten the general conditions to make the wording much easier to understand. In the past, only 15 per cent of our customers understood
the general conditions of our car policy. Now that we have rewritten them, the rate of understanding has jumped to 80 per cent.”

Thirdly, Gert will prioritise safety and security to deliver more insurance products and services that actually enhance the lives of clients. Then finally, the fourth area of focus will be on continuing to develop the entrepreneurial culture of the workplace. “With those four elements of the new strategy in play I have no doubt we will achieve both top line and bottom line success for many years to come.”

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