European Business catches up with our front page and lead focus – CEO Johan Brinkenberg of Nordic Guarantee who recently won CEO of the year for the Insurance Industry. Johan has transformed the company since he was appointed CEO and he gives us the low-down on the Contractual Guarantee Industry and his big plans for the company that is transforming The Nordic Insurance Sector.
Can tell us in a nutshell what NG actually does and what are your main markets within Europe?
Nordic Guarantee is an insurance company specialised in surety bonds and guarantees. The company was founded in 2003 as a buy-out from one of the largest insurance companies in the Nordic region. From the beginning, we only had business in Sweden and Norway but today we are servicing the markets also in Finland and Denmark. Our clients are mainly in the Construction, Civil engineering and travel industries, but we do business in other industries too. Our main competitors are the banks but also other insurance companies selling the same products as us.
Your now CEO of Nordic Guarantee. When did you first join Nordic Guarantee (NG) what was your previous background?
I was headhunted to Nordic Guarantee in 2004 as the CFO and join the company just after it had been in business for less than a year. More or less in my whole career I have been working with helping financial departments solving process problems and also to build business. Before I joined Nordic Guarantee I was a management consultant with PWC, but I have also worked in private equity and banking in various positions. My years in private equity gave me insights in how to develop companies and laid the foundation for my interest in organisational behaviour, which today is an area where I work a lot as the CEO of Nordic Guarantee.
When you first joined NG , it was originally struggling. What skills do you think it provided in terms of experience in terms of turning the company around? How much did the banking industry provide you with in terms of experience?
I had the luck of been a part of the organisation as CFO for years and therefore knew enough about the business to understand what made it work, in a wider sense. That gave me a head start in understanding what was needed to turn the business around. According to my experience one of the most important skills in situations of turnaround, is to be able to listen. Listen to people in the organisation on what they believe is needed to make the work-place interesting and developing. Without the key staff , it will be very difficult to make the business thrive again. Here is another key area of knowledge. Look in to your staff to see what you have. Are they right to support you in the turnaround? If not, you need to see to it that you have the right skill set on board. In my situation, it became obvious I had some staff that would not fit in to the new structure and culture I wanted to build. So, I had to lay off 25 percent of the staff and start over again. This is another important skill, to be able to make decisions that might hurt. I was fortunate I had key staff that really supported the ideas we had at that time to change the company and strengthen it. Therefore, I had change agents onboard that could help me developing the culture I wanted. My experience from other industries needed in the situation of turning Nordic Guarantee around mainly comes from my years in the private equity business and working with development of companies. Look in to the financials, look in to the staff situation, find out what the business needs to thrive again, get support from the board and the owners, and decide on actions. This is what it is all about. Getting down to the actions needed and do it.
What was initially the first major challenge when you joined and how did overcome it?
When I was appointed CEO of Nordic Guarantee, the resigning chair-man told me “as long as you look after the underwriting of clients, things will go well!”. Well, there was more to do. Each area I looked at in more detail needed to be changed to perform in the way we wanted. We did not have a unified clear picture communicated of where we were heading and what we would like to become. Typical basic areas when building a strong culture for a healthy, profitable organisation on appreciated by its employees. So, I would say that all the details that needed to be changed showed me a bigger need for building the culture. We have all heard the phrase “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast!” and I would say it is true. You really need to look at your culture before you even consider your strategy. Without having buying from your employees on where to go and what to become, the strategy will fail. Running a company is all about dealing with people. And you need to start from the inside to build a reliable and trustworthy communication when dealing with the market. If your employees cannot convey a trustworthy message, your clients will go elsewhere. Your employees need to feel they are supported and that they understand where to go and what to look for to be able to deliver top quality services to your clients.
Do you have big markets out of Europe?
Today, Nordic Guarantee is focusing on the Nordic region and clients working here. This means we also do business with European clients doing business in the Nordic countries. What we also have is a partner in South Africa covering the Sub-Saharan markets with the same products as us. This gives us a position in the market that none of our competitors has. Our partner, Lombard Insurance Company, has a strong position in these markets. Africa is a very interesting and growing market, and as both Nordic and European companies are increasing their investments in Africa, we see an opportunity to grow here together with our partner.
Why do you think firms would choose NG over another competitor? What is NG’s USP?
We interact frequently with our clients. We do not sit in our offices waiting for business to come in. We want to be close to our clients, and that is something we value. It is part of our culture within Nordic Guarantee, to meet and greet. We see each other as the individuals we are and the teams we work in. The same goes when working with our clients. We discuss what is happening in their markets to be er understand their needs and we share knowledge between us. Clients are telling us about their situation in the market, and we share our knowledge to support them with what we can do to help them with their goals. It is all about creating long-term relationships, and our clients see that we are invested in this and engaged to help them succeed in their business. When we recruit people, we often get in contact with candidates from our competitors, and we can see they are interested in us due to what they have heard about us and that we are different from the competitors. This is another USP for us; our strong culture, focus on the teams and having fun at work. This is something we use when interacting with both existing and potential clients. What is in store for NG over the next few years? What side of the business are you looking to develop and where? We still have not reached our Vision. This is something we concentrate on, and we will manage it in a few years’ time. We are certain of it. We have taken the position of The Challenger in the market, and we want to do things differently from our competitors. In the future, we will see a larger Nordic Guarantee, but still not becoming bureaucratic and staff . We want to stay agile and flexible. Our staff will have fun at work and thrive in their personal development. Our clients will see that we grow with them and that we stay true to our values. Being invested in the industry and engaged in our clients’ success.