Profile of a chief executive:
Grzegorz Buczkowski, (Towarzystwo Ubezpiecze ń Wzajemnych)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2009
In one sense TUW SKOK, the Polish insurance company which Grzegorz Buczkowski heads, is still a relatively young venture. A product of the challenging work to reconstruct Poland's economic and social structures in the years after the toppling of communist rule in 1989, it was established in its present form only in 1997. TUW (Towarzystwo Ubezpiecze ń Wzajemnych) is the insurance company created by Poland 's active credit union movement SKOK (Sp ół dzielczych Kas Oszcz ę dno ś ciowo Kredytowych): its name in English means broadly the Cooperative Savings and Credit Union Mutual Insurance Company.
But in another sense, TUW SKOK, and the whole SKOK movement, has deep roots in Poland . “There was a very strong tradition of cooperative finance in pre-World War II Poland, going back to the nineteenth century,” Grzegorz Buczkowski explains. Small farmers and labourers at that time suffered from being unable to access the financial services they needed, and the answer – as elsewhere in Europe – was a cooperative one. Poland 's coops had their own inspirational leader, whose role was comparable to that played in Germany by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen: “Franciszek Stefczyk was a country teacher who became the organiser and chief apostle of financial cooperatives, both in the time when Poland was partitioned and after it regained its independence in 1918. The financial cooperative movement grew to include over 3500 local institutions, the vast majority of which were based in rural areas, serving close to 1.5 million members,” Grzegorz says.
But that all changed with World War II. After the war, the new communist government nationalised the cooperatives and combined them with the state savings bank. Poland would have to wait for the emergence of the Solidarity trade union and the fall of communist rule to be able once again to nurture these cooperative shoots.
“The SKOK initiative came from Solidarity circles and has enjoyed Solidarity's excellent support throughout its existence,” Grzegorz explains. Indeed the credit union movement's national federation KSKOK is led by Grzegorz Bierecki, who was an activist in Solidarity, and Solidarity's former deputy chairman Lech Kaczynski has also strongly supported the movement – a no doubt useful contact, since he is now the president of the Republic of Poland .
Grzegorz Buczkowski himself had a direct role in those exciting but difficult years immediately after 1989 in helping create this new movement, as he recalls: “My personal involvement with credit unions goes back to the very beginning of the effort to reconstruct the movement. I was part of the initial team of six people who formed the initiative group aiming to rebuild credit unions in Poland .” This was 1990, and Grzegorz was straight out of university. “I started as a translator. I then moved to being responsible for the international relations aspect of the initiative,” he explains. His fluency in English comes partly from having studied English literature for his first degree in Gdansk – the English novelist DH Lawrence was one of his specialist subjects, he remembers – as well as the time he spent in Scotland, where he studied finance and strategic management as part of an MBA course.
And then, still in his twenties, he was given the task of establishing an insurance company for the young credit union movement. This first venture, a collaborative one with the US credit union insurer (and ICMIF member) CUNA Mutual continued until 1997, by which time the Polish credit union movement was ready to take full ownership of its insurance arm and TUW SKOK in its current form became established. Grzegorz Buczkowski was its chief executive, the role he has played ever since.
TUW SKOK has grown organically. Initially it began by providing corporate products aimed at the individual credit unions, and then moved into offering insurance products tied in with credit unions' own products to their members. Now there is another step forward in the development: “We are expanding into individual freestanding products, offered to individual SKOK members,” Grzegorz says. “We want to explore the opportunities offered to us by a target group of 1.7 million members. Our main focus for the near future will be to deliver individual insurance products – home, auto, accident, and such things – to this group, using the best technology available, both for delivery and claim handling.”
Growth in recent years has been encouragingly rapid. Premium income for TUW SKOK has increased from 37m zlotys (USD 12m) in 2004 to 71m zlotys (USD 24m) in 2007. During the same period, net profit more than tripled, from 10m zlotys (USD 3m) to 32m zlotys (USD 10m).
The growth in life business, which is operated through the associated life company TU SKOK Ż ycie, has been even more dramatic. This company, previously MetLife Poland , was acquired by the credit union movement in 2002, the only instance of a Polish financial institution taking over a foreign-owned company. From a very low base (1m zloty or USD 0.3m in 2004), premium income has increased to 55m zloty (USD 18m) in 2007.
Inevitably, growth, whilst very welcome, brings its own challenges. The difficulties have been the usual ones, Grzegorz Buczkowski says: “We found it a challenge to adjust the organisation and its habits to the changing requirements of the market and to provide highest quality human resources to meet the demand. IT remains a constant challenge, as we make extensive use of it in processing high volumes of individual transactions with SKOK members.” But TUW SKOK seems to be getting it right. “We pride ourselves on having been quite successful in maintaining a service culture: we enjoy an excellent reputation with our members and have received numerous customer service awards,” he adds.
Although credit union members find it easier to engage with their own SKOK rather than to the national SKOK insurer, TUW SKOK takes efforts to make its mutuality a real one. “We have consciously resolved to market our products under the SKOK Insurance brand, which allows us to communicate an image of an insurance institution which belongs to the movement. We actively communicate with our members and with SKOKs through our website and we publish a monthly newsletter which is distributed both through the SKOK network and directly to our members. We encourage their participation in our annual meetings. The truth, however, is that member involvement could be higher,” Grzegorz Buczkowski says candidly.
Having had support from foreign credit unions and cooperative insurers during the early years in Poland after 1989, Grzegorz is now trying to offer back some of that support to others. A particular interest of his is microinsurance, where he has been active internationally in moves to promote the concept. “This has been a way to return some of the assistance we received. I also enjoy the intellectual challenge of working on new initiatives and the opportunity to track back to the most basic principles of insurance – providing financial stability and protection to those in need,” he says.
There is however a life outside insurance. He may have moved on since his days as an undergraduate studying English literature but he says he still enjoys a good book: the contemporary English writer Martin Amis is one current favourite. And then there is sport. Grzegorz describes himself as an avid football fan, though his favoured football club is a long day's journey from the Baltic sea resort of Sopot near Gdansk, where the SKOK movement has its base: he is a fully-signed up supporter of Barça, the famous Catalan football club FC Barcelona.
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