The CEO of one of the largest Dutch insurance companies, VIVAT, Ron van Oijen, has a clear assignment: growth. As the newly appointed chief executive Van Oijen is equally clear about how he intends to achieve this. “In our industry this is only possible through innovation. Our focus on innovation is not because it’s good PR, but because there is no alternative and we have nothing to lose”, he says.
The basis of this innovation strategy is twofold: transform the culture of VIVAT such that it lives and breathes and delivers on innovation and collaborating with startups. To startups Van Oijen assures that innovation and his strategy to work with them is not lip service, but a real long-term goal. He also assures that he has got full support from the new owner of VIVAT, Anbang Insurance Group, one of China’s largest insurance groups.
In this interview Van Oijen furthermore talks about how he drives innovation throughout the company; how he sees the collaboration with startups and why he thinks that in the long-run VIVAT and its brands such as Zwitserleven, Reaal and asset manager Actiam will work with a thousand of startups. Having worked for over a decade in Asia he also points out what we can learn from innovators from that part of the globe.
StartupJuncture: Why is innovation necessary for your growth strategy?
Ron van Oijen: There are a number of reasons. I think the most important one is that in order to grow in the insurance market you have to create new demand and new markets. It’s hard to pull customers away from competitors. The other reason is that when I came back from Asia I saw that although we are active in life insurances, pensions, non-life insurances, etc. we are not the best in them. We are not the #1. So there lies an opportunity for growth. Closely related is the fact that we are not in the top-3 of the six largest insurance companies in the Netherlands, so we have nothing to lose. I don’t care about what comes after us, but we have to strive to land in the top 3. The only option you then have is to do something completely different and bold. This underdog position is also a blessing, because it makes it easier for me to convince colleagues, supervisory board, etc. because we have nothing to lose.
How do you drive innovation throughout the company?
How do you make sure that everyone is startup and innovation minded in a company that counts 2500 employees? Van Oijen takes a pause, smiles, and says: “One thing is sure: it doesn’t happen overnight. My approach is to drive multiple programs and assign real responsibility from top to down to drive innovation. I first talk with the board members and explain them that this is the way we have to go and cascade that mindset down to the next layer of management and ultimately throughout the whole organization.
Can you explain how that works on a day to day basis?
Yes. First of all, I am supporting innovation initiatives throughout the organization. Like the VIVAT Innovation Network managed by Karel van Straaten and Robert Witteveen. A grassroots network of innovation-savvy people and fellow colleagues who are keen on promoting the innovation mindset throughout the whole organization. I have furthermore assembled an innovation board that counts all the general members, Karel and Robert as permanent members and myself as the chairman. This board meets every week to discuss about our innovation growth strategy. These are not laissez-faire meetings. During these meetings real decisions are made about how we can further innovation through our organization. But we don’t stop there. This month we started with four accelerator programs, accommodated by Innoleaps, consisting of four teams of VIVAT employees whom will spend 13 weeks working on new product innovations. One team will work on a project at UtrechtInc. Also, we are the first company to send over employees to the brand new Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. These colleagues will be educated to be data specialists. In short, we are facilitating our employees to gain more knowledge, and to think as an entrepreneur.
How do startups fit in this picture?
Working with startups is also a thing we want to imbed in our culture in order to foster innovation. The great thing of startup teams is that they view the world differently and act completely differently. The idea is to make our people aware of this way of thinking and doing. Working with 1000 startups is the ultimate goal, but the target for Karel van Straaten, who is our ‘startup guy’ is to scout 250 startups for this year. These startups don’t have to be in the insurance industry. For instance, as they innovate they will need new types of insurance options. This is where we come in and we can create a partnership that is beneficial to both parties. The fact that a relatively large number of startups fail is a calculated risk.
Do you focus on working with a particular type of startup or specific verticals?
Right now we actually have a very open and broad approach. This means that we partner with a diverse set of startups. Testing the waters if you will to see where there is a natural fit between us and the particular startup. Right now we are for instance partnering with srprs.me, a travel startup and the social care startup Careibu. Both of these organizations need insurance products that match their innovations. That’s where we can provide value. In general, one of the criteria we look at is whether the data provided by the startup can help us to provide better services to our customers.
How do the startups benefit from a partnership with VIVAT?
We have extensive knowledge of and experience in running and scaling a company. Most early stage startups don’t have these capabilities. In other words: I am not the right person to run a startup and they are not the right person to run this company. But by working with each other we can learn from each other, because our skills are complementary. This could for instance mean that we support the startup to get their finances up and running. In other cases it might mean that we will consider to fund the startup ourselves.
Some corporate companies prohibit their startup partners to work with their competitor’s even if that might be good for the startup. What’s your take on this?
I believe in openness and transparency. So for us it’s okay if a startup we have partnered with attracts our competitors as their clients. I think we just have to make sure we have the best offer.
Are you a long-term partner for startups?
As an insurance company it’s in our nature to have a long-term focus. Our owner also has a long-term vision. So we are in it for the long-haul, but we will have an important evaluation moment after the first two years. Depending on the partnership this could mean that we double down our support for the particular startup. But it might also mean that we decide to sell our shares in the startup.
How is VIVAT going to realize innovation under your leadership? How is this different compared to other leaders in this space.
I will not look at other companies. The only thing I can say about myself is that I walk the talk about innovation. I think people in this company after so many years of nationalization, reorganizations etc. want to get inspired and excited about the work they do. There is nothing more exciting than innovation. But it’s also a new way of thinking and doing. My job is to instill this entrepreneurial and innovative mentality throughout the whole organization.
How are you going to cope with the interest of your shareholder? Often shareholders are focused on the short-term.
I think we are different, because we are not a listed company, but only have one shareholder. Fortunately, that shareholder is from China. The chairman of our mother company only believes in growing the company through innovation. Anbang Insurance Group is far ahead in the Chinese market with innovation, handling claims via mobile phones for instance. Everything goes via mobile phones. So they are way ahead of Europe. KPMG just reported that out of the five top fintech companies in the world, four are from China. To reiterate, my shareholder and chairman are not looking to quarterly results, but annual results, believe in innovation and have a long-term vision. I think we are very fortunate.
In the last few years there is almost a hype on corporate companies collaborating with startups and pushing for innovation. But no tangible results or breakthrough innovations are achieved. What can Dutch and European leaders learn from their Asian counterparts in bringing about innovation?
I think one issue is that in Europe the bigger the company is the more discussion and compromises you get. Especially in the Netherlands. In the Chinese model there is less of a discussion. If someone really believes in something you fight for it to get it done and that is supported within the management team and you cascade it down, this is what we are going to do. So it’s probably more directive. I think we are using a model that is in between the two, the best of both worlds: directive, but at the same time we listen to what’s happening in the company.
How do the startup ecosystems differ?
First of all, entrepreneurship is everywhere. In Asia, in the US, Europe. In that sense there is no difference. But there is a difference in entrepreneurial environments. The Chinese government has for instance been very supportive of the Chinese startup ecosystem. But the most important thing in the case of China is the sheer size of the domestic market. A small city in China has five million inhabitants. If it works in such a small city you already have something and then it’s relatively easy to roll it out throughout the country and achieve scale fast. That doesn’t count for Europe. If you’re successful with your startup in the Netherlands and you want to roll it out in Germany you almost have to start over again. To build critical mass it’s easier to build a startup there than it’s here. So if you want to be successful as a Dutch startup you have to have an international mindset from the start.