If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here…

The punchline to the famous Irish joke about an Englishman lost in the in the backroads of Ireland and seeking direction from a local, brings to mind the persistent struggle which now faces many longstanding businesses, with the (re)insurance industry being no exception.

Burdened by legacy processes and systems, many fail to cope (in terms of creating value) in a world which is changing around them in ways that make a mockery of the argument that incremental and gradual change is still a feasible strategic approach towards long-term viability.

While “move fast and break things” is probably not the best alternative, it does contain the kernel of truth. There needs to be not only a comprehensive plan, but swift and effective execution.

In January, Oliver Wyman published a paper entitled “The Mindset Collision”, in which it contrasted the “Vision” and the “Value” mindsets- the former being focused on building the business of the future, foreseeing and adapting to new technologies and disruptors; while the latter focuses on delivering financial returns within a fairly short timeframe. In reality, of course, any business which hopes to have a viable and sustainable future needs to blend both approaches. It is all very well having grand visions, but without clear expectations of what return an investment should bring, there is a serious risk of wasting both time and resources- something that will not be lost on those who observe the travails of Softbank’s “Vision Fund”.

If one considers the (re)insurance industry, it tends over time, in the aggregate and in developed markets, to grow at roughly the rate of overall economic growth. This means that, unless one can either find a more efficient way of delivering the product, one has either to seek new markets, or create products that meet unfulfilled needs that command “value added” rather than “cost plus” pricing. Even regulators have realized that the industry needs to be encouraged to take more risks in terms of development by introducing the concept of the regulatory “sandbox”. Without at least some “vision”, the industry’s incumbents (other than those which have scale and network advantages) run the risk of “death by a thousand cuts”, as new competitors, unburdened by the above-mentioned legacy issues, peel away revenues from the most profitable business areas, or provide better-tailored products. Otherwise, as Oliver Wyman puts it, the risk is becoming the financial equivalent of a “dumb utility”, providing capacity priced at the margin, if one is lucky. Not exactly an enticing prospect.

The irony is that in a world full of complex and developing risks, the industry has the opportunity to grow and prosper if it can decide what it wants to be and how to achieve that. Maintaining the status quo, and repeating the usual hopeful mantras about improving underwriting quality, or re-deploying capital and capacity away from “unprofitable lines” is simply evidence of a state of denial. It singularly fails the “vision” test, as well as the “value” one, because it changes nothing.

If you do not understand that past is no longer prologue, and that nimbleness and adaptability, coupled with a clear purpose, are (frankly, as they always were) essential traits, businesses risk becoming, not just a “dumb utility”, but a “financial zombie”, unaware of its own reality, and doomed to stumbling and flailing about until someone “disaggregates” it.

The Awbury Team

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