Profile of a chief executive:
Jacques Forest (P&V, Belgium)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2007
Jacques Forest, the chairman of Belgian cooperative insurer P&V, admits that he doesn't seek the limelight. Normally he's cautious of too much media attention and he's critical of the way that journalists can sometimes distort the message or simplify the story. But this year he accepts that a certain amount of publicity is necessary. After all, it's not every year that the company you lead celebrates its one hundredth birthday.
The story of P&V's first hundred years is a fascinating one. The company has played a significant role in the wider story of the Belgian labour movement, and – particularly through the visionary internationalism of its pioneering head Joseph Lemaire - can justifiably claim to have played the key role in the successful creation of what is now ICMIF.
But it's not just P&V's history which has been attracting the headlines this year. In June, the company grabbed the attention of the Belgian business world when it announced that it was taking over ING Insurance Belgium, the national subsidiary of the Dutch-based financial multinational ING. The move (subject to regulatory approval) will mean another 840 members of staff joining the 1300 or so existing employees of the company, and will also propel P&V up the Belgian insurance league table into sixth place.
The take-over of ING's Belgian operation is the most dramatic sign of P&V's ambitions for the future, but it is by no means the first time the company has looked to expand and develop by means of targeted acquisition activity. Three years ago P&V strengthened the network of brokers who sell its products through a series of deals with both Zurich and ERGO. And Jacques Forest hints that the ING acquisition may not be the end of the story. “P&V is always open for opportunities,” he says. “If new opportunities for growth through acquisitions present themselves, we won't hesitate, provided that they can contribute to the improvement of the quality of our customer service and our products.” There has to be added value to be gained, he stresses. He also makes it clear that this strategy doesn't mean that caution is thrown to the winds. “We will only look into an opportunity if the necessary resources, both financial and human, are available,” he adds.
The reason the ING deal fits so well with P&V's strategy is that it means a further growth in the broker network which is available for selling the company's products. In recent years, P&V has developed what it calls a multi-channel and multi-brand strategy. It markets its products under three main brands. The P&V name is reserved for products which are sold by its own network of sales agents. Products sold through insurance brokers carry the VIVIUM and VIVIUM Life names, whilst the company has also dipped a toe into telephone and internet delivery of products, marketed as Actel.
The P&V family of companies reflects this multi-channel distribution policy. VIVIUM and VIVIUM Life are established as subsidiary companies, together achieving total premium income of about €220m in 2006, a little over a quarter of P&V's total premium income of approximately €800m . (The total asset base of P&V last year stood at about €6.3 bn, of which the two VIVIUM companies' share was about €1.8 bn.) The plan now is to fuse these two subsidiaries with ING's Belgian operation to create a new company, which will continue the VIVIUM name. P&V also owns a smaller chain of brokers, Piette and Partners, operating mainly in the Flemish area of Belgium. The Actel direct business is structured as a separate company, too, though as yet this remains a relatively small operation.
It is the traditional P&V life and non-life business, with products sold under its own name by dedicated sales representatives, which still contributes the majority of the company's income. However, the organisation of this side of the business has been subject to scrutiny in recent years, most dramatically with the decision taken two years ago to move from a directly employed sales force to a new arrangement where sales staff are self-employed. The move, which met with some opposition at the time, is strongly defended by Jacques Forest, who says that the change was done primarily to encourage a fresh commercial impetus “It also enabled the company to reduce the high overheads cost burden it was carrying and to improve its performance” he says.
Jacques Forest, who was born in a small town thirty or so kilometres south-west of Brussels in April 1944, came to P&V in 1980 from the Belgian cooperative federation Febecoop, which he had joined after his university studies in Brussels and where he had risen quickly to become assistant secretary general. His personal commitment to P&V's cooperative ethos is deep-rooted, and comes perhaps not only from his time as Febecoop (he remains today the federation's Chairman) but also in part from his own family's identification with the Belgian labour movement. His grandfather was deeply involved in the movement; his father was a metalworker, his mother a nurse. His decision to work for Febecoop meant turning his back on a scientific career; his academic studies were in physics, a subject for which he admits to still having a passionate interest.
P&V's annual report prominently headlines each year its cooperative principles, and Jacques Forest is keen to stress the benefits from not being beholden to investors. “At P&V the interest of the consumer prevails, not that of the shareholder. That difference in approach becomes apparent in the content and quality of our service and our products, as well as in the way the company profits are used,” he says. It means, among other things, being freed from short-term demands for investors for returns, enabling a longer-term view of the way forward for the business. It also means being able to support the P&V Foundation, the independent charitable operation which funds initiatives working with young people. “The Foundation tries to work for a society based on the principles of solidarity, emancipation and active citizenship, in which every young person is able to participate,” Jacques Forest explains.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the business can afford to be any less commercially efficient in the way it is run. It's an issue Jacques Forest understands well. “The permanent feature which runs through the whole history of P&V is the difficult balancing act between social objectives and economic efficiency for the business,” he says. He's obviously delighted that under his leadership P&V is in good commercial health in its centenary year.
But how easy is to be a medium-sized insurer in a country like Belgium with a relatively small home population? “A certain company size is definitely necessary, but as a middle-sized player we don't see the competition with large international companies as a problem for us,” Jacques Forest says. P&V's market knowledge, market proximity, credibility and stability are real assets in reaching P&V's target markets of individuals and small and medium-sized companies, he maintains.
Nevertheless, given the location of P&V's head office on Brussels' inner ring road a short distance from the main European Parliament building, it would be surprising if the company didn't have a strong sense of the world beyond the borders of its home country. Recent moves in Europe make it much easier to develop European-wide cooperatives and mutuals and Jacques Forest has been quoted elsewhere as talking of the dream of creating one large European cooperative insurer. That may be a vision, but in today's real world P&V's commercial strategy has to be geared to the needs of its home market. “We focus in the first place on the further development of the Belgian market, as well as in Luxembourg ,” Jacques Forest says.
It's worth remembering however that P&V has long been a key member of the Euresa network which gives it close links with other mutual insurers in France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, as well as (since Euresa expanded in 2005) in Portugal, Spain and Greece. One interesting aspect of the take-over of ING's Belgian operations is that fellow Euresa members Macif (France), Maif (France) and Unipol (Italy ) are contributing a share of the capital, and will hold seats on the restructured VIVIUM board. “This could be a cooperation which has future opportunities,” Jacques Forest says.
It's a happy coincidence that P&V's centenary this year can be linked to ICMIF's Biennial Conference, being held in Brussels this September. You sense, however, that Jacques Forest and his colleagues are looking forward as much as back into their history. P&V is clearly not resting on its past achievements.
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