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Profile of a chief executive:
Hilde Vernaillen (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, 2013
“You're the sixth largest insurer in Belgium but you're also a cooperative group – so what does that mean exactly?” asked a Belgian journalist who was interviewing Hilde Vernaillen shortly after she took over the reins at P&V in June 2011.
Our difference, she replied, is that, as a cooperative, we have a different approach to our customers. “We can work for the long-term, without having to worry about the constant pressure over the next three-month financial results,” she went on.
P&V has certainly demonstrated that it is a long-term feature of the Belgian insurance scene. Originally founded in 1907, P&V (at that stage known as La Prévoyance Sociale) began as a response by the country's social democratic movement to the needs of workers for affordable insurance, at a time when they were vulnerable to exploitation and sharp practices from the existing commercial insurers. After a shaky start the fledgling enterprise was given strong foundations in the period after the First World War through the inspired leadership of Joseph Lemaire. The cooperative grew to be an established player in the Belgian market.
But as Hilde Vernaillen knows, no company, however long established, can afford to rest on its laurels. She took over as CEO on the retirement of her predecessor, Jacques Forest , who had himself steered the business through a major period of change, most radically through the takeover in 2007of ING's former insurance business in Belgium . The acquisition of ING Insurance brought in at one stroke over eight hundred new staff to join the 1300 existing employees, and also effectively enabled P&V to double in size. The ING deal followed a series of other smaller acquisitions, made in the previous few years.
“We had a strategy of growth through acquisitions not for the sake of growth but to become a more significant player in certain markets,” Hilde explains. In particular, given the continuing importance in Belgium of insurance brokers in product distribution, P&V needed to strengthen this side of its operation. “So, yes, we were very busy with those acquisitions, and putting a lot of time into integrating systems and organizations,” she adds.
Having reached the point, however, where gross premium income is now approaching EUR 1.5 billion (USD 2 bn), P&V's future development no longer depends on large-scale acquisition activities and Hilde Vernaillen says that she is now looking to grow the business organically. Her aim is to ensure that that the company she leads is able to steal a march on its competitors by being well-managed and cost-competitive. Costs have been scrutinized and savings made where appropriate, the quality of the insurance portfolio has been examined, and work undertaken to ensure good asset management – all the usual things, Hilde says, that you would expect an effective insurance company to be doing.
But P&V is also seeking to bring its cooperative values directly into its operations by strengthening the focus on the customer. One aspect of this is the way that P&V is handling claims. A new project, known as Claims 2.0, is seeking to make the claims process as straightforward as possible. Using the technical services offered by Inter-Mutuelles Assistance (P&V is a part-owner of IMA Belgium), the aim is to restore the position the customer was in before the claims event. “What we try to do is to restore as much as we can instead of sending money,” Hilde says. Where the best result is to pay a claim in cash, P&V tries to make an offer as quickly as possible, sometimes even during an initial claims phone conversation.
Claims 2.0 and the emphasis on customer-focus represents a big change project within the organization, Hilde adds. “The biggest change is in people's heads. Claims managers often think they have to do anything to pay as little as possible. What we say is: no, you have to pay what the client expects. Of course, we must not be naïve to the risk of fraud, but we want to deliver clearly in relation to the expectations of the client,” she explains.
Change management has been, in her own words, a fil rouge – a common thread - in Hilde Vernaillen's career. Her first job after graduating from Leuven university where she had studied applied economics was at the savings bank Codep, at that stage a subsidiary of P&V. She recalls how, aged 24, she was invited to brief the Codep board on a project she was responsible for running. When, a few years later, P&V disposed of Codep and Hilde found herself for a short time working for a major commercial bank, it was Jacques Forest who sought her out and brought her back into the cooperative business world. She was given a series of responsibilities for work associated with the changes Forest was initiating, including the restructuring of P&V agency network and the handling of the acquisitions processes. She joined P&V's Executive Committee as a director in 2006 and was appointed as Forest 's successor in 2010, a year before his retirement. At that point, she was 42.
She is P&V's first female CEO in an industry where it is still unusual to find women at the top (although, as ICMIF's recent report Women in Leadership Positions suggests, perhaps less unusual in the cooperative and mutual sector). She clearly relishes the challenges which come with her post (“I have always loved what I do, it's a passion,” she says), but is aware too that other talented women may choose paths in their lives which take them off the career ladder. At P&V, she says, the overall gender balance among the 1800 staff is almost exactly 50:50, but at higher management levels the balance swings much more towards men. Some women make the choice to work part-time for family reasons, she says, an entirely legitimate choice but one which means they are less likely to be available for promotion to the top. But Hilde Vernaillen goes on to add that P&V now has three women in the five-strong Executive Committee: “and there's no other insurer in Belgium who has more than one woman there,” she says.
Among other challenges, Hilde Vernaillen has to address the issue of the brands which P&V uses. As well as products sold under its own name, it also operates the Vivium brand for products sold through independent insurance brokers. Direct internet purchase of insurance in Belgium is still unusual, but P&V also has a small online operation using the brand name Actel. Back-office administration is integrated for all three brands, but maintaining brand reputation for three separate brands is, as Hilde explains, costly and this is clearly an area where she and her colleagues are considering options for the future.
She is also working to build market share in some of the specialised areas where P&V has traditionally been strong. As well as individual customers, P&V targets one-person businesses, small and medium sized enterprises and institutional clients, such as local authorities, trade unions and the Belgian network of ‘public centres for social action' (CPASs), which help support social inclusion. P&V sells ‘second pillar' pensions (collective pension plans additional to the basic state pension) to many organizations, an important component of the insurer's overall business.
Given the significance of language in a country which has seen deep divisions emerging between French and Flemish political organizations, Hilde Vernaillen is particularly well equipped to relate to both communities. Her father, she says, was Dutch speaking and her mother French speaking. Her first five years were spent in Leuven, in Flanders, but then she and her parents moved to Binche, in French-speaking Wallonia . Later came periods living back in Flanders, including her university period at Leuven . Now she and her husband (himself from Ghent in Flanders) live close to Brussels , conveniently placed for the commute to P&V's head office, an impressive office block just to the north of the city centre. Hilde Vernaillen adds to her tally of languages by being fluent in English as well.
Having a husband who supports her in her work (and understands if she has work commitments at evening and weekends) is essential, she says, adding that she would struggle if she had to combine work with responsibilities for young children. In fact, she is step-mum to two children from her husband's first relationship, and together they are both now grandparents to a little granddaughter. Hilde is also close to her younger sister, playing a very active role as aunt to her sister's two young children. “I try to spend a lot of time with my family,” she says.
There are also other pleasures, too, including hiking and riding. Cooking is a passion as well, and something she is particularly requested to undertake when her sister's children come to stay. She accepts, though, that home time is necessarily limited these days. Guiding P&V through the next stage of its long life is for the moment her primary responsibility, and it is a challenge which she is embracing with enthusiasm.
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