José Manuel Dias da Fonseca isn’t one to hold back his feelings – at least not when it comes to his profession. Having been in the insurance industry for around three decades, he readily admits to having developed quite an attachment to it.
“I love insurance. It’s not really a sector that anyone ever thinks about making a career in, but once you join it, it’s hard to leave,” he declares.
“Unlike other sectors of the financial industry, insurance is very close to people, to society, to nature and, I would even say, God; if something unpredictable happens, we call it an act of God. We deal with rapid changes and we are constantly adapting. It’s always different and new and exciting. It’s a great profession.”
For the past 20 years, José has shared this enthusiasm and people-centric attitude with the workforce of around 800 employees that he leads as CEO at insurance brokerage firm MDS Group. He points out that as a brokerage, MDS is the one in direct contact with the clients, presenting them with the myriad of options available in the market for their insurance needs.
“Our main job is to build solutions, provide alternatives and help customers make decisions,” he shares. In order to do so successfully, knowledge is key. “No-one succeeds all by themselves,” José says.
“We need to share knowledge, form partnerships and collaborate with our clients. Clearly, proximity to our clients is of value. My vision is to be a long-term partner to our clients – to be ready, around the clock, for them. We learn a lot from them too. They are a great source of knowledge for us.”
According to José, the best types of business relationships for building understanding are always long-term ones. “The world we live in tends to favour a short time model and it’s something I struggle with because when you try to do things quickly, it’s difficult to do it well,” he says.
“Pressure from the market and social media is to accelerate everything. But we’re trying to do things differently.
“Long-term partnerships mean that one party may lose or win in the short-term, but in the long-term, we all win. With a consultancy model, like ours, it’s all the more important. We need to understand our client’s business, its history, the industry it is in, its objectives and strategies, as well as problems and challenges. Then, we need to be able to explain the insurance market and its challenges to them as well. It is a long process to build full understanding and a trusting relationship.”
José reveals that the same goes for building relationships with suppliers, especially the insurers that own the products MDS sells. After all, without these products, MDS will not be able to support its customers effectively.
The company has a policy of working with professionalism and honesty, keeping communications open with all its suppliers and integrating them as if they were a part of the organisation. When supplier relationships, especially those with insurers, are managed successfully, the ultimate beneficiaries are the end customers.
José acknowledges that his vision for long-term collaborations could not come true if not for a stellar team behind the scenes. “Employees are important in an organisation like ours. We are a consulting company, so what we sell is knowledge, solutions and ideas. It cannot be done by machines,” José says.
“Insurance is a very specific industry. It’s complex because society, risks and nature are complex. So are our clients. In this environment, it is the people with the will to share and to innovate that will make a difference and we need to create the necessary conditions for them to flourish.”
Again, as with his suppliers and customers, José values long-term relationships with his employees. He likens the process of them gaining experience to that of a doctor getting valuable real-world experience through practising. There’s a lot of knowledge that cannot be gained through textbooks.
“Understanding the company, the clients and the industry is a learning process. Time is important because, every year, we know and can share more.”
Among all the chaos that COVID-19 has introduced to our world, I think clients and companies need, more than ever, advice and people to help them navigate the challenges.
Communicating with clients and understanding their needs is an important way for MDS to keep up with trends and changes in society in order to offer up-to-date products. One example is an innovative insurance for drones that the firm launched recently.
The first product of its kind in Europe, it can be purchased through a specially designed mobile app called FlySafeGo. It covers the drone user for damage to property and third-party bodily injury caused by the unmanned aircraft and includes options for civil liability coverage of €100,000, €250,000 or €500,000.
A unique feature of the product is its flexibility – it’s a pay-per-use solution, which means customers may purchase coverage for only the flight time. FlySafeGo makes the process fuss-free and quick; each transaction takes only 35 seconds. But it’s more than just an app for purchasing the insurance.
It also provides weather and flight conditions and identifies restricted areas and permits that may be required. Currently, the insurance is only available in Portugal, which is where MDS originated, but the firm has plans to make it available in other parts of Europe. Much less novel, but no less relevant are the company’s insurance products for cyber risks.
“I read an interesting statement recently that cyber insurance is the life insurance of the CEO,” José quips. “Cyber risks are one of the biggest challenges facing companies and governments today.”
Yet not many people are well-versed in cyber insurance and according to José, it’s still not a big industry because it is quite new. “I think this will change.”
Indeed, solutions addressing cyber risks is a segment on which MDS is planning to focus more, especially in the post-pandemic era. José points to the phenomenon of accelerated digital transformation during the pandemic, when many people were abruptly forced to work from home.
“Those who are already prepared for this change are in a good position to grab the opportunities that have risen,” he says. With technology and innovation having always been at the forefront of the firm’s growth, he believes this describes MDS to a tee.
“Among all the chaos that COVID-19 has introduced to our world, I think clients and companies need, more than ever, advice and people to help them navigate the challenges. It’s no longer about intermediations or transactions. It’s increasingly about having partners that are trusted advisers with whom they can discuss risks.”
Under José’s 20-year leadership, MDS has grown into a multinational brand present in six countries – Spain, Switzerland, Malta, Brazil, Angola and Mozambique – besides its native Portugal.
“We have a unique geographical coverage,” he says. In the next two or three years, the company intends to expand its operations in Brazil and Africa. “Brazil is a huge market. We have a lot to do there,” José says.
“The same goes for Africa, particularly Angola and Mozambique. We want to consolidate our unique position through mergers and acquisitions.” Further propelling its global expansion is its stake in Brokerslink, a global brokerage company it established in 2004. José takes pride in the firm’s Portuguese origin, saying that it has opened many doors.
“Portuguese is the most spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere,” he says. “By offering insurance, risk consulting and retail broking, we’re a complete operation. We may be big in Portugal, Africa and Brazil but, as a group, we are not among the largest in our sector. I love to say that MDS is a company with the resources of a huge organisation but the attitude of a small one. We are very close to our clients and we have the resources to support them in any situation.”