We talked to María José Álvarez of Grupo Catalana Occidente about creating a solid long-term business and generating sustainable social value, and she had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
María José Álvarez: Good. Thank you. I guess like anyone else. We try to adapt to the circumstances and hope that with the vaccination and protection of people, we can return to normal as soon as possible.
Tell us about yourself, your career, how you joined Grupo Catalana Occidente.
María José Álvarez: After graduating in telecommunications, I started my career in the world of consulting. It was good for me to learn how to adapt to the working environment and the business I was dealing with. But it also taught me to recognize the importance of teamwork and to incorporate people from different areas into projects, as everyone can provide a different vision that can enrich the result. All these experiences have helped me, and they continue to do so throughout my career.
Just over 7 years ago, I became part of Grupo Catalana Occidente, who created new management with the aim of establishing synergies between customer-focused innovation projects and the development of strategic marketing and communication with a Group perspective. The challenge was to create common goals and targets for all Group companies.
How does Grupo Catalana Occidente innovate?
María José Álvarez: For Grupo Catalana Occidente, it is fundamental to place our clients at the centre of our strategy, and for this reason, the client is the driving force behind all our innovation processes. In this sense, we are continuously studying our customers’ feedback in order to learn about their needs and thereby provide custom solutions.
At Grupo Catalana Occidente, we are decidedly committed to innovation and believe that success in adapting to the challenges of the future is not only for technology but, above all, for people. For this reason, we are promoting innovation throughout the Grupo Catalana Occidente through our ‘Xplora programme’, an ambitious cultural and organizational transformation plan that combines training, intra-entrepreneurship programmes and the creation of an open innovation ecosystem.
We have also launched inspiring awareness seminars on digital transformation and new technologies.
In the ‘Xplora programme,’ we are working on the implantation of a model to establish an ecosystem of open innovation through the Group’s collaboration with start-ups, research centres and other institutions. To do this, multidisciplinary working groups have been created to innovate in the different trends that we consider will mark the future of the insurance sector, for example, ageing of the population, adopting the IoT (Internet of Things); concerns over cybersecurity or the changes that will occur in the field of mobility.
With a view to 2021, our objectives continue to improve the range of products with new coverage and services. We plan to launch new products in the different lines of work we are developing.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
María José Álvarez: It is clear that 2020 will be a difficult year to forget. The health crisis has caused an economic crisis, the final consequences of which are still unpredictable, among other things, because the way and how long we will take to overcome the disease is still uncertain. However, on this occasion, public institutions have responded much more decisively than in the previous global crisis of 2008. The palliative aid and incentives to restrict activity are allowing many companies to avoid, at least temporarily, their closure.
In the nine first months of the year, we obtained a consolidated profit of 225 million euros, which represents a drop of 33.3% when compared to the same period in the previous year. But despite the drop in results, given the circumstances, we are satisfied with how the financial year has evolved in the first nine months of the year, which are the latest figures we have presented. During this period, the traditional business has grown in turnover and results; the credit insurance business has avoided losses, the solvency ratio, thanks to efficient business management, maintains excellent solvency levels with a ratio of more than 200%. And we think we have maintained a level of service which meets our customers’ expectations.
But I would also like to stress that the vocation of Grupo Catalana Occidente is to create a solid long-term business and generate sustainable social value, which means focusing on not only the achievement of results but also the well-being of people. Therefore, in 2020, as a result of the emergency situation generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Group has doubled its efforts to fulfil this commitment through the following initiatives:
• Contribution of 2.27 million euros to the solidarity fund promoted by Unespa to protect the lives of all personnel in health centres and care homes.
• Support for the CSIC (The Spanish National Research Council) in the research for a future vaccine against COVID-19
• Collaboration with Save The Children to help families whose vulnerable situation has been accentuated by the pandemic.
• Driving measures to alleviate the financial situation of clients with flexibility on payment dates, facilitating splitting and deferment. All insured persons, regardless of their policy, were offered free 24-hour telephone medical services, free of charge, and the provisions resulting from death due to Covid-19 were covered by the life and funeral insurance policies. Furthermore, Cyber Risk Insurance coverage has been extended to employees who telework.
• Teleworking has been implemented to protect employees.
• With regards to brokers, protocols were communicated at all times, and digital signatures were quickly implemented, which has allowed the brokers, thanks to their efforts and professionalism, to continue to provide personalized and agile service to customers.
• A plan was launched to anticipate, without interest, invoicing from the Group’s suppliers, mostly self-employed, in order to enable them to face complicated cash flow moments due to the end of activity during the state of emergency.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
María José Álvarez: As I mentioned earlier, Grupo Catalana Occidente has been able to adapt to the circumstances arising from the pandemic. Thanks to the efforts of all the professionals that are part of the group and technology, we have been able to carry out our activity.
A couple of days before the state of emergency was declared, the implementation of teleworking for all employees of the different companies that make up the group had already been communicated internally. Thanks to the commitment and work of all of our team, we have been able to guarantee the best service to our customers.
Despite the complicated situation we have experienced, the pandemic has also left us important lessons. We have demonstrated our ability to adapt to the circumstances and challenges that arise, and thanks to this in Grupo Catalana Occidente, we have been able to maintain our insurance activity. But above all, we have witnessed the solidarity of people, groups and companies, who have involved themselves in helping to curb this situation.
Furthermore, the confinement also drove the group’s digitalization process; thanks to technology, we have been able to be closer to the insured persons, accompany them, learn about their concerns and try to respond to their needs.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
María José Álvarez: In the group, we understand that the challenge of customer relations is increasingly related to technology. We see new technologies as an opportunity to improve and adapt to the needs of our customers, something that has accelerated due to the circumstances arising from the pandemic.
In this regard, we have implemented services such as video operations, which allow us to manage certain remote incidents. For example, during confinement, 50% of car incidents and 40% of miscellaneous incidents were assessed using this system. We have also made it possible for insured persons to consult with our medical directory professionals electronically.
Furthermore, the implementation of the digital signature has enabled customers to contract products easily and securely and has facilitated the Group’s network of mediators to continue to carry out their business activity normally.
We consider it important that the customer can decide how to interact with us at any given time, whether it is via the telephone, our application or the website. Through these tools, we strengthen the work of our mediation network, with the aim of constantly improving the service we provide to insured persons.
Our e-customer platform, for example, allows customers to access and manage their insurance policies online. Among other things, you can check the status of your home, car, calculate your pension or see the tax savings you have obtained with contributions to your plans.
Your final thoughts?
María José Álvarez: It is very important to highlight the role of insurance, and even more so at times such as now. As an insurance group, we offer reliability above all. In this way, we protect people and companies during uncertainty and help them live with peace of mind so that they can carry out their activity without worrying about possible incidents.
We should also thank the work, effort and sacrifice of all the people who are part of Grupo Catalana Occidente, who have made it possible for us to continue providing the best service to our customers at difficult times and have allowed us to continue our activity.