Contact Andrew Bibby
Profile of a chief executive:
Jens Henriksson (Folksam, Sweden)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2014
As Jens Henriksson knows, taking over the top management job at a company like Folksam brings with it quite an inheritance. Folksam, originally set up in 1908 and always a strongly socially-orientated business, has in recent years consolidated its position. It has moved up from being the second life insurer in the country to the largest, while at the same time it has grown to become the third largest general insurer. Put these together, Jens says, and that makes Folksam the largest insurance firm in the Swedish market. The company claims to insure one in two of every family home in Sweden and to protect every second person.
But with the benefits of taking over an established business come also a set of significant burdens and responsibilities. Ask Jens how he can ensure that Folksam can remain successful in the time ahead and he replies simply: “By not relaxing”. The risk, he goes on, is to become complacent that everything is going along fine. Folksam may be good at the moment but the task now is to turn ‘good' into ‘better'. Change and improvement have to be part of Folksam's corporate DNA, he maintains.
Introducing last year's Annual Report, the first where he was in charge, Jens talked about the prerequisite now for Folksam to enter a new phase in its development, one focused on modernization, efficiency enhancement and consolidation. “We have to focus more on existing customers, and increase the number of full-service customers who take all their insurance policies with us. We will invest to update or replace old IT systems, which will improve conditions for both employees and customers, while providing Folksam with a competitive edge. At the same time cost controls are important,” he explains. He goes on to amplify this point. “Mutual companies offer many advantages, but there are also risks. One such risk is excessive overhead costs,” he says.
Jens Henriksson is 47, and originally comes from the south of Sweden , from the city of Lund . He took over as Folksam's CEO last year from Anders Sundström, who has now been appointed as the Chairman of Folksam Life (as well as becoming ICMIF's current Chair). Like Anders, Jens has a career which spans senior appointments in both business and political life, with connections to Sweden's Social Democratic party.
While still only in his mid-twenties and active as a columnist, he was picked out by the then Swedish Finance Minister Göran Persson as a potential high-flyer and appointed as one of Persson's political advisers at the country's Ministry of Finance. As Persson went on to become Sweden's Prime Minister, Jens Henriksson rapidly rose through the ranks at the Ministry of Finance, becoming Head of Planning in 1998 and then, in 2002, State Secretary for Economic Policy and International Affairs. This meant among other things that he was actively engaged at a senior level in the European Union's Economic and Financial Committee and in the work of the OECD, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the IMF. It was to the IMF in Washington that he went in 2008 for three years, where he was appointed as an IMF Executive Director and Board member and where among other things he oversaw IMF financial assistance programmes in Iceland and Latvia. His appointment to the top job at Folksam followed two brief posts at the Swedish major bank Swedbank and three years as CEO at the Stockholm Stock Exchange (part of Nasdaq OMX).
Nor surprisingly, therefore, he has according to the Swedish media an impressive network of contacts. He is also described by national newspapers variously as energetic, creative and tough-minded. He once told a media outlet, “The first thing I tell new employees is, ‘There is only one thing I get really angry about, and that's if you do not tell me if you think I am doing or saying something wrong. I want my positions to be constantly sharpened. I want a questioning culture, until the decision is taken. Then I expect full loyalty, even if you do not share my opinion'.”
A modern financial undertaking
Jens has more than 3,600 employees to inspire and lead in his quest to ensure that Folksam is transformed in the way that he wants. Although Folksam is economically strong and well able to meet the challenges of the Solvency II Directive, there are areas where traditional structures and ways of working need to be reassessed. Customer service is one such area: “Today's customers expect to be able to handle both life insurance and property insurance whenever they want to do so, and in any channels they want. This is not really possible at Folksam today and something that must change if we are to become a modern financial undertaking. We have to be there for our customers when something happens, and provide personal advice and support. The key to growth is satisfied customers who tell their friends, family and co-workers about their good experiences with Folksam,” he says.
Folksam's mutual status is a valuable asset here. “In our marketing, we often highlight the point that we are customer-owned, especially in connection with payment of dividends to our customers. An effective mutual insurance company is unbeatable. While competitors are forced to distribute money to their shareholders, we can give refunds to our owners – the customers,” Jens explains. Nevertheless, here as elsewhere there is no room for complacency: “Far from everyone is familiar with the mutual concept and many customers choose insurance based solely on price. We have an important task in this area to inform people about what our mutual status means in real terms, and what sets us apart from our competitors,” he goes on.
Folksam has certainly established quite a reputation as an innovative insurer with a strong emphasis on social responsibility. One of its most recent initiatives has been to meet criteria imposed by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) under its eco-labelling standard scheme for business known as Bra Miljöval (Good Environmental Choice). By meeting SSNC's rigorous standards, Folksam is now able to promote itself as the first eco-labelled insurance company in Sweden – and indeed in the world.
The eco-labelling scheme has 43 criteria, including good company environmental practice in areas such as energy efficiency, recycling, electricity purchase and other purchasing decisions. There are also particular standards relevant to insurers, including a requirement that investments are undertaken in line with environmental and ethical principles. This matches perfectly with Folksam's long tradition of social responsible investment. Under Anders Sundström's leadership Folksam was involved with the United Nations in the work which led to the UN's Principles of Responsible Investment initiative in 2006, and Folksam today remains an investor with a commitment to shareholder activism. Last year, for example, it maintained active dialogue with 31 companies where it is holds shares and participated as a shareholder in 43 annual meetings. “We have SEK 330 billion [USD 47 bn] under management. This gives us the ability to influence and change society in the long term. Our objective of persuading companies to assume their social responsibility is very much for the public good,” Folksam tells its customers.
Looking for growth
Folksam also takes its wider international responsibilities seriously, as its strong commitment to ICMIF and to the development of the cooperative and mutual insurance sector makes abundantly clear. Nevertheless, it is to its home market of nine and a half million Swedes that Folksam is committed for its business success. With the exception of a small subsidiary in Finland the company's focus is solely on Sweden , and Jens Henriksson explains that his plan is not to search elsewhere for new growth but rather to find it among his existing customers. “The most important principle is to sell more to existing customers. Then our market share will continue to increase,” he says. However he also adds with a laugh, “At the same time, I am a fully-fledged opportunist and if I see a good opportunity I'll take it.”
What attracted him to Folksam last year, when he took over as CEO? “What appealed to me about Folksam was the potential to link emotion and intellect,” he replies. He talks of the strong tradition at Folksam of arranging collective group insurance policies, which particularly help low-income households get the cover they need. And although his days at the Ministry of Finance and the IMF mean that he is a strong advocate of efficient financial management he also brings a broader sense of the social objectives he is trying to achieve. What motivates him, he says, is “to have fun and to be able to do good at the same time”.
Running a major business is not always a bundle of fun, of course, but Jens tries to maintain as good a work-life balance as he possibly can. He and his wife Emma live in Hägersten on the southern outskirts of Stockholm and have three children. Weekends and holidays are committed as much as possible to the family, Jens says.
Return to my home page