European Business recently caught up with Marianna Politopoulou who is current Chairman of BoD & CEO of NN Hellas about her extraordinary rise to the top of Greece’s leading insurance company and her challenges along the way.
Becoming a CEO of one of the largest multinational companies in Greece — is an achievement. NN Hellas where you are CEO is demonstrating really good numbers right now.Growth and profitability are present and a record 10-year sales has been achieved.
What have you felt are the biggest challenges you were faced with as CEO in NN Hellas?”
When I took over as CEO on 1 May 2016, the biggest challenges I had to face was the financial and cultural turnaround in one of the largest and most reputable insurance companies in Greece with a history of 36 years in the country and more than 170 years abroad. We leveraged on the strong values, our best in class Sales Networks, NN group policies and applied clear and modern internal governance principles. We focused on people, and people working together in a coordinated manner brought the financial results. We needed to review the organizational structure and redefine roles and responsibilities. We reset the strategic direction of the company, improved efficiency and have started on a journey to change the mindset where necessary. Teamwork has been the most challenging aspect of this turnaround but simultaneously our biggest success factor in our people-centric strategy along the NN values “care clear commit” that have guided our every step.
During your career in Greece and abroad, you’ve held several senior management/CEO positions at such places like EFG Eurobank, Inchape Hellas Group, Credit Agricole Indosuez Luxembourg and National Bank of Greece. It makes you an exception from the rule, as there are not so many women in top positions at multinational companies.What was your journey to the top like? Do you have any suggestions ,or advice , for women that want to reach similar positions?
I was appointed at top management positions very early in my career and at the age of 30 I was already managing the avant-garde internet banking BU of a large bank in Luxembourg. Personally, I have never experienced discrimination at work because of my gender. Respect and trust from my superiors came as a result from consistent and hard work. It is true that family priorities with respect to children may present difficulties for women to occupy top positions and to have to maybe compromise between family and career ambitions. Yet, in my opinion, this is a decision that women have to make and not use the usual cliché as an excuse. I do, however, believe that the family and close network has to provide support-psychological and practical for both genders in order for them to progress in their career. I am grateful that my family and my children have been the inspiration for my journey and have supported me in my professional life. The family dynamics from my happy childhood to the upbringing of my children have discretely offered me intensive leadership training and how to connect with people. I am delighted to have reached a healthy work life balance, which in my view is key to fulfillment and happiness.
Having knowledge of both the banking sector and the retail industries gives you some unique perspective on the company’s operations. Insurance industry is a bit different, even more sensitive.Could you tell us more on how it differs from the banking industry and what other strategies and entrepreneurial principles do you wish to apply at NN Hellas?
Although the two sectors are relevant and share common practices, they have different business models, they serve diverse purposes in the economy and are exposed to different risks.
The banking industry in Greece is more mature with regards to technology, data analytics, customer segmentation and communication. However the insurance sector deals with longer term business, risk and actuarial models and is more sensitive from a social perspective especially for health and pension as we underwrite new business on assumptions that our successors will have to deal with in 20 or 30 years from now. Risk management with a strong socially responsible and people-centric lens is the essence of anything we do at NN Hellas. This is what makes it complex but also fascinating.
Having an extensive track record in financial services along with experience and communication with large networks has been a great asset in my transition to the insurance sector. The know-how of B2B and B2C operating models with partners and end customers, the computerized systems as well as the innovative best practices of the banking sector can contribute to the improvement of the quality of services provided by an insurance company. All of the above were among my top priorities and part of the strategy I started applying to NN Hellas from the moment I joined the organization.
The insurance industry was quite new to you, and yet you seemed to have made a success of your tenure so far. Are there any particular skills that you need more than others while working in NN Hellas?
Even though I hadn’t worked for an insurance company before assuming the position of NN Hellas CEO, I look at the insurance industry as part of the broader financial sector; insurance companies deal with investments, long-term contracts, have access to a wide range of networks and maintain strong ties with corporate partners and clients.
Leadership skills from my past experience enabled faster progress in our transformation plan and contributed to a successful business turnaround. Additionally, the selection and development of the right executives led to the formation of a strong Management Team that facilitated a new corporate culture. Finally, my strong personal values that are aligned with our corporate values guided my planning, problem-solving and decision-making skills and have contributed to the establishment of a renewed internal governance model by connecting with people with consistency, transparency and care.
NN Hellas is operating in Greece for more than 36 years now. Do you think that in order to reach best results in insurance sector, proper cooperation between state and insurance companies is needed? What is the NN Hellas position in the country? Do you need to work with state institutions a lot?
The financial crisis in Greece has unfortunately affected the social security system in the country both in terms of health care and pension. Insurance companies have the responsibility to help fill the gaps and work closely with the government and institutions to ensure that Greek citizens have access to the healthcare services and pension.I am a firm believer in the collaboration between the public and the private sector. By complementing the social security system, insurance companies can provide citizens with quality health services and help them protect their financial future. NN Hellas is currently the top international Life insurance company in Greece. We align with stakeholders as well as with the Hellenic Association of Insurance Companies in the local market, to ensure the sustainability and growth of our sector to support our social mission along with business priorities.
NN Hellas, as the top foreign life and health insurer, will continue to strive for the modernization and reliability of the sector, emphasizing values in doing business and improving the quality of life for our customers. Our primary aspiration for the immediate future is to complete the operational and structural transformation we started in 2017, increase our profitability and value to the shareholders and maximize our organic growth potential while evaluating any inorganic opportunities that may arise. This transformation process is the pathway to our ultimate goal: to become a best-in-class company in every aspect but especially in providing best-in-class customer service.
We also believe that success is more than just being profitable. Therefore NN Hellas aspires to be a socially responsible organization that produces a positive footprint in the community it operates and fulfils its mission of people-centricity. We plan and implement impactful CSR programmes that support the Greek people and especially the younger generations.
This year, for the first time, NN Hellas in collaboration with Orange Grove, an initiative of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Athens, have organized the startup competition Ideas that Change Us, which targets technology and health startups with solutions promoting prevention, wellness and better health. The teams with the best ideas will take part in the acceleration program, tailored to help them start their own businesses. This CSR initiative aims to promote youth entrepreneurship in Greece and help young people fulfil their business goals.
Apart from the competition Ideas that Change Us, we offer the scholarship program NN Future Matters, through which Greek students have the chance to complete a master’s program in top universities in the Netherlands. It is worth-mentioning that out of the 31 scholarships granted this year to students from 8 European countries, 10 of them are Greek.
We are also honoured to be the Gold Sponsor to the Hellenic Olympic Team for 2018-2020. This sponsorship is the most important one in the 36-year-history of NN Hellas. Being able to support the Greek athletes competing in 2020 Tokyo Olympics fills us with pride, as we show our commitment to the Olympic ideals that are compatible with our core values: “we care, we are clear, we commit.”
How do you think insurance industry will look like 10 years from now? And NN Hellas — what will it look like?
The economic recession in Greece and the reductions in disposable income have also affected the private insurance industry the previous years. Recently, Greece reported successful exit from the ESM program after 8 years of deep recession and move to growth, while continuing structural reforms. These developments build confidence on the potential of the promising private insurance industry.
I expect that in the next 10 years, we will witness a drastic change in the quality and diversity of products offered in the Greek market, as the demand for private insurance will increase. I am confident that NN Hellas will lead the industry, staying close to its consumer base, operating with transparency and meritocracy and providing a range of rich and innovative insurance solutions. We aim to be a brand of reference, offering insurance and more.