Insuring in a most difficult time

Matthew von Brockdorff

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Earlier this year, Atlas Insurance appointed Matthew von Brockdorff as its new managing director and CEO. ‘The Malta Business Weekly’ met up with him and asked about his vision for his organisation, the role of digital in serving customers, as well as the challenges and opportunities for insurance firms resulting from the ongoing pandemic

You were appointed managing director and CEO of Atlas Insurance in April of this year. However you have been in the insurance business for several years. Could you give us an overview of your career?

I have been working in the sector for 32 years and obtained my Associateship of the UK Chartered Insurance Institute while working with the family business R. von Brockdorff Insurance Agency. I completed my Fellowship of the Chartered Insurance Institute while gaining experience under the guidance of my father, Robert. At the time, the agency represented Commercial Union, a UK insurance company. For the first 12 years of my career, I worked stints in practically all the departments of the agency.

In 1999, our agency merged with Formosa & Camilleri which acted as agent for Guardian Royal Exchange, Arva at the time agent for Norwich Union and later on Capital agents for AXA Assurances. This led to the formation of Atlas Insurance Agency. Our vision, which materialised, was to eventually evolve into a local insurance company. This finally happened in 2004 upon entry to the EU. Playing a key role in the merger and subsequently the formation of the insurance company helped me widen my horizons.

In 2005, I was appointed deputy managing director, a year before Atlas became the first Protect Cell insurance company in the EU. My focus areas of responsibility at Atlas were claims, information technology, property management and representation at the Malta Insurance Association, where I also served as president for two years.

Matthew von Brockdorff together with #TeamAtlas during the hands-on day at Saġġar’s facility in Wardija. Atlas staff learnt and practised how to grow saplings from seeds and cuttings from other trees, as part of the company’s ongoing commitment to support the environment

What does this new responsibility mean for you and the organisation you lead?

The good leadership and example of my predecessor, Michael Gatt, served me well and has prepared me to be more aware of the challenges of such a role. The appointment to managing director and CEO of Atlas Insurance carries with it great responsibilities to all the stakeholders of our business, including our employees, customers, the public, our business partners and suppliers, regulators and shareholders.

As a highly regulated business and also one where our continued good standing is based on trust and good reputation, I firmly believe that the sustaining of our longstanding key relationships while driving innovation are key to our success.

At the beginning of the year no one forecasted that 2020 would be such an unprecedented year with the COVID-19 pandemic and its profound impact on all aspects of our lives. Do you consider COVID-19 to be the main challenge for the insurance sector?

Few people ever believed that a single pandemic could cause so much disruption to people’s lives and loss in the local and world economy. The insurance sector is an integral part of the economy. When the economy does well the insurance sector benefits and grows and the reverse also applies when there is a downturn in the economy.

During the first half of this year, Atlas managed business operations reasonably well considering the challenging circumstances. In March we experienced severe downturns in values of our investments portfolio due to the drop of the financial markets but slowly the markets have been recovering. Since the outlook of the financial markets is still uncertain it is hard to project how we will end the year. As regards the performance of our insurance operations, we had mixed results as we had several large commercial insurance claims and various travel claims dues to COVID-19. On the positive side for a time we benefited from fewer motor and health insurance claims during the lockdown period although these classes of business are now experiencing increased claims.

The largest threat remains the potential damage and recession in the economy since loss of jobs and closure of businesses as a result of potential, protracted second or subsequent waves of the virus hitting us badly by the end of the year and into next year. We all need to work together to make the best effort to keep our vulnerable members of society safe while saving as many jobs as possible to prevent suffering. We acknowledge the challenge of finding the delicate balance between keeping as many jobs going while protecting the vulnerable. 

What are the other challenges that Atlas and the insurance sector are facing?

Concern about the impact of a recession is by far the greatest challenge and it is likely to manifest itself in many different ways ranging from reduced demand for purchase of insurance to the lack of opportunity to generate returns on investments.

We embarked on an ambitious digital transformation project starting at the beginning of this year. This is designed to help our clients digitally access our products and services in the most effortless way while keeping in mind that many of our clients are more comfortable with human contact. During the lockdown period we were well prepared to maintain easy communication with our customers through our internet-based telephone system enabling clients to effortlessly contact staff who were home-working. Our online chat facility was and remains extremely popular. We have also transformed our branches into safer places to interact with the customers to prevent the spread of the virus over the past months. We were able to move all essential services away from our offices and branches extremely quickly and be agile enough to continue to be ready to do so should the need arise.

All this is possible because of the talented group of people that make Atlas what it is today. We recognise that the retention of our key talent is what will continue to enable us to meet the expectations of our diverse market in future. We will need to ensure that we attract the talent that we will need going forward – also in some new areas.

From a sectorial perspective, we believe that focusing on the changing talent required in the wider financial services sector and indeed in other sectors will be key to success in future.  Scarcity of the right human resources has been a longstanding challenge and our educational system must continue to build bridges with industry to ensure that from a young age our children develop the linguistic, communication and critical thinking skills that are needed to compete in tomorrow’s agile and innovative world. In a dreaded scenario that Malta’s Moneyval assessment is not a good one and/or no COVID-19 vaccine is available by the end of 2021, obviously the outlook is of more concern. Notwithstanding such challenges, investing in talent is the best way to withstand these possible scenarios.

Clearly challenges bring along potential opportunities. Which are the main opportunities for insurance firms that you can see for this year and the foreseeable future?

I believe that all sectors in the services industry, especially in the areas of financial and insurance services, need to invest more in the digital capabilities to deliver a better and more efficient customer journey, across all touchpoints. COVID-19 has brought about an acceleration of such need and has been a catalyst for this transformation. Investment in technology can help us to continue to exceed customer expectations in a simpler and more cost-effective way. In more difficult economic times, where economic growth cannot support increasing costs, this will be critical for us and our industry. For instance, our new platform and services will enable our customers to experience unprecedented new service levels. It will be fast, convenient and flexible enabling us to provide new solutions. With more powerful tools at hand it will also enable our employees to dedicate more time to service our customers.

Another key opportunity is understanding better our customers’ needs and being more flexible in the way we interface with them. Habits and consumption patterns are changing and we have to be at the forefront to understand the new trends and adapt our business to continue to succeed.

Investment in talent continues to be our overriding priority. The pandemic crisis has been a big test for us to prove that our people are our most important asset. Upon the outbreak in March, we adopted an extremely flexible approach to working from home and tried to cater for every personal situation to ensure that everyone felt supported. The resultant feedback and engagement from our employees has been uplifting. We have meanwhile had to constantly adapt our working situation to the ever-changing circumstances and we are committed to ensure that flexible home working arrangements, where desired and possible, will continue in the future even post COVID-19.

Another opportunity for our industry and indeed for our whole economy is Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG). To satisfy our purpose and our stakeholders, we must move towards operating in the most sustainable way possible and we must spread the word. We believe that we can improve things and should be part of the movement to do so.  This is not only because our stakeholders will increasingly demand this, as is greatly needed in Malta, but because we believe that this is the correct way for us to sustain our future and that of future generations.  We must fight short-term thinking and we should influence our economy to move towards a more sustainable one.

You emphasise a lot on the wellbeing of your employees and have branded the team as #TeamAtlas. What is so special about working for Atlas?

The most inspiring employee feedback about working at Atlas is that there is a “family feeling” and that Atlas is like a second home whether working at the office or now also from home, remotely. We are strong believers in the importance of work-life-balance as well as mental and physical health and wellness of our employees. This proved to be vital in this pandemic period, with various sessions organised for our colleagues on subjects ranging from stress management, parenting issues, working remotely and ergonomics. Atlas Healthcare has also introduced a 24/7 Employee Assistance Programme through ICAS International on the local market just last year. We feel this is a real opportunity for our clients to give their staff that all important shoulder and support to lean on. The service includes not only psychological support but also legal, financial and management support in a totally confidential manner even for their family members. We also promote physical fitness by providing circuit training, boxercise and yoga classes straight after (or before) work now also remotely.

Atlas has an online learning management system which, together with regular training in person and on the job, enables us to develop and monitor varied development needs. These range from the requirements by legislation under the Insurance Distribution Directive to cyber security and data protection to important product and service updates. 

Prior to COVID-19, our Social Club was very active organising many fun events for all as well as the popular individual departmental social and team-building events. We have meanwhile had to improvise and organise remote events such as quizzes, games and others to keep up the positive team feeling while working remotely.

The origins of Atlas go back to 100 years ago. Could you briefly explain how this legacy is an important part of the firm’s vision for the future? What is the strategic focus of Atlas moving forward?

Atlas’s history goes back to 1920s and has its roots firmly set in the early days of marine cargo insurance and general commerce and trade at the time. The Atlas shareholders’ family businesses owned insurance agencies representing various UK insurance companies as the industry developed over the years.

I am a third generation member of a multi-family-owned business that has now transformed itself and implemented Corporate Governance to the highest levels. Atlas’s vision is to achieve profitable growth and to provide security and value to all stakeholders with a purpose beyond profit. We clearly recognise the immediate challenges ahead to achieve growth in time when our economy is expected to suffer.

As stated earlier, we believe that our powerful digital transformation process will help us to further excel in customer experience in the future. We are also implementing change through our people by cultivating talent to meet our future needs as a learning organisation. We believe that success can only be achieved by respecting our employees and motivating them through our programme to Delight our employees and Demonstrate work life balance. This focus area is even more of a challenge in this unsettling COVID-19 period. We are totally committed to remain close to our customers and intermediaries always listening and reacting to feedback on how to improve our service.

ESG and Corporate Social Responsibility are high on our agenda and we will be further increasing our focus on these areas in the future.

Playing waterpolo has always been one of the passions of Matthew von Brockdorff

We are aware you are passionate about the environment, among other things. Who is Matthew von Brockdorff on a personal level?

I have been married to Angie for 27 years and have a daughter Sandie, a son Christian and two dogs. Sport and fitness including running, cycling, swimming and waterpolo play an important part of my life. I firmly believe that fitness helps the mind as well as the body. I am also a strong supporter and active participant of the fitness classes organised by our Wellness Committee.

I am passionate about the environment as it so necessary for us to conserve our limited natural resources both for us and for future generations. I am proud that Atlas have taken on the Saġġar initiative to nurture and plant trees in the hope that we will be able to see success in this area. As a supporter of local heritage, I am also proud that we sponsored Din L-Art Helwa’s Torri L-Abjad restoration project as well as several other similar sponsorships in the past.

I am also an active member and past president of Rotary Club La Valette Malta, having been involved in several local and international charitable projects over the years. My interest in heritage led me to become a member of the Executive Committee of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, which excels in promoting Maltese heritage. Also serving on the board of JAYE Malta (Young Enterprise), provides me with an opportunity to contribute towards many students benefiting from the experience gained through participation in the JAYE programmes and competitions.