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Profile of a chief executive:
Markus Hongler (Swiss Mobiliar)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2014
The insurance company Markus Hongler leads was founded in 1826 and has been an important feature of Swiss life ever since. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Hongler's approach is not one that is focused just on short-term success. His aim since he took over the top job in 2011, he says, has been to build Swiss Mobiliar's business organically, strengthening the sectors in which it has strong market penetration and ensuring business sustainability in the long run. The good news is that Mobiliar is doing pretty well in the short run too.
“When you are the CEO of a company which already has 188 years of history, you know that you are just one in a long line of chief executives,” he says with a smile. Nevertheless, he adds that together with the board he did carefully review Mobiliar's existing strategy when he took over, to ensure that it was still appropriate. “And we decided to keep the strategy in place, and to give clear signals to the market, to our employees and customers that this was what we were doing,” he says. “After all, if you're successful and your strategy works, why would you want to change it?”
Switzerland being a multilingual country, Markus Hongler's firm operates with three names, die Mobiliar in German-speaking Switzerland , la Mobilière in Francophone areas and la Mobiliare in the Italian regions. But in all its operations, it tries to ensure that the same core principles are adhered to. According to Hongler, there are three underlying beliefs.
The first, he says, is to be close to its customers, the second to keep things uncomplicated and the third to demonstrate the benefits of Mobiliar's cooperative structure. “These three elements are the drivers for our business,” he explains.
The way these principles are translated into practice is well demonstrated by the procedures which Mobiliar uses to handle claims. Mobiliar has chosen to delegate significant underwriting and claims settlement responsibilities down to the network of eighty general agencies which it uses around the country, even though these are autonomous businesses. It means that, for the vast majority of policyholders, claims are dealt with efficiently at a very local level. “We have moved our general agencies from being a point of sale into a point of service,” Hongler says. He accepts that delegating authority to the agencies involves an element of risk, but says that Mobiliar has successfully established a common culture of how it expects both its own staff and agency staff to operate. “We can build on a common understanding of what we expect people to do. Obviously we provide training and correct when it is necessary, but I do not see any abuse of the competencies we delegate,” he says. And he adds that it makes the job much more interesting for agency staff, too.
Mobiliar is stronger in the non-life field, where it holds about 17% of the Swiss market, than it is in life. It has particular strengths in household and building insurance, and claims that one in three Swiss households insure through Mobiliar. It also has a healthy share of the market for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), where it holds at least a 25% market share.
And gratifyingly, business is growing at above market rates. During 2012, the last full year for which accounts are available, Mobiliar recorded a 4.5% growth rate in non-life premiums, and this improved still further in the first half of 2013 when the growth was 5%, well above the Swiss average market increase of 1.5%. According to Markus Hongler, it is not that Mobiliar is necessarily attracting many more new customers than its competitors – it is that Mobiliar has an enviable track record in hanging on to its existing customers.
The way that, as a cooperative, it rewards its policyholder members undoubtedly contributes to this. An important part of the firm's profits is given back to policyholders. As Markus Hongler explains, this is done not through a dividend as such but rather as a rebate on the following year's premium payment. For example, between July 2012 and June last year, SMEs with Mobiliar cover and drivers with motor insurance were given a 10% rebate on premiums. Since last July, policyholders with household and building cover have been awarded a 20% rebate.
Mobiliar's life side is less important than non-life, contributing less than 20% of the overall profits which the firm generates, but here too Mobiliar has particular market strengths. It is market leader in term life insurance and has a very strong position in underwriting death and disability cover provided as an normal supplement by pension schemes, with roughly 50% market share in this area. However, the company took the strategic decision ten years ago to sell its pension saving business: the risks were simply too great for the benefits, Mobiliar decided.
Mobiliar's cooperative structure includes a 150-strong delegate Assembly, whose role is to represent the interests of Mobiliar's different policyholder bases, including householders, small businesspeople and farmers. Interestingly, though, it is only in the past decade that Mobiliar has chosen to broadcast the fact that it is not a conventionally structured insurer in its marketing and branding work. “We only started ten years ago to tell the market that we are a cooperative,” Hongler says. “We obviously now use in TV campaigns the fact that we give back profit to our customers.” He adds that, as a cooperative, Mobiliar can also take a strong lead in supporting cultural and social good causes and in acknowledging its corporate social responsibilities.
One of the possible drawbacks of cooperative structure, however, might be a certain slowness to respond to market changes. Markus Hongler understands this risk: “Yes, indeed it's a challenge for a company to keep a close eye on innovation, when it is not forced to do so by analysts and ratings agencies. So we have a fully fledged innovation department,” he says.
This department has responsibility for product development, for customer interaction and for improving process efficiency. But it also has the brief to explore what Hongler calls potentially ‘disruptive' innovation: these are “brand new developments which may work or may not work, but which it's worthwhile to test”. One of its most eye-catching moves here in recent years has been a partnership with the Swiss cooperative retailer Migros, to provide motor insurance for people who want to develop the idea of car sharing. Mobiliar has a 37.5% stake in a new business called Sharoo which seeks to exploit a car sharing internet platform developed by Migros. “Our customers can make their cars available to be rented by somebody else and everybody on the internet can search for a car near their home. It works with the iPhone: you get an app [application], and the app allows you to open the car, and lock the car when you give it back. Your usage is charged against your bank account,” Hongler explains. “We were fascinated with this for several reasons. Firstly, how the hell do you insure it? But also Mobiliar has a strong growth programme in place for urban areas and we think that this is a scheme which is very specific for urban areas.”
The Sharoo experiment began at the end of last year and Markus Hongler is watching its progress carefully: “I'm quite curious to see whether this flies or not,” he says.
Markus Hongler came to Mobiliar in 2011 from the multinational insurer Zurich , where he had been chief executive of Zurich 's Swiss division and had also had responsibility for its non-life business across Europe . However, it was something of a homecoming, for it had been with Mobiliar that he had begun his career in insurance, in his then home town of Lucerne . After that first experience with Mobiliar, Hongler spent four years in Geneva with La Genevoise before moving to work for Zurich in 1983. His career has meant that he has had experience both of working for a global insurer and one which is dedicated to its home market. “At Mobiliar we have only the one market, the eight million inhabitants of Switzerland , which makes it easier to focus and deliver the very best service,” he says. By contrast, multinationals inevitably take a global view and don't necessarily serve the specific needs of each individual market, he claims.
But maintaining high levels of service remains a challenge, and Hongler says that his primary management task is to successfully absorb the growth of business which Mobiliar has enjoyed. “You have the responsibility to give the same quality of service to new customers as to existing customers,” he says. “The challenge is how you can grow and maintain customer satisfaction at the same time.”
Mobiliar's head office is in Berne, an hour's journey by train from Markus Hongler's home in Zurich . There's a small flat in Berne he uses when he needs to stay over, but wherever possible he ensures that he has time to spend with his family. His two children are now grown up, but he says that they all enjoy a strong family life. He and his wife find time for classical music, art and travelling. But there is of course a very big advantage which comes from being Swiss: “We spend a lot of time outside walking, and skiing in winter.” Enjoying the natural beauty of the Swiss countryside is, he says, a delight.
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