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“Success comes as a combination of a sound working culture and performance” – CEO Q&A with Frédéric Bourgeois of Coface

By Business & Finance
26 November 2020
Frédéric Bourgeois, CEO, Coface
Pictured: Frédéric Bourgeois, Managing Director UK & Ireland, Coface

Frédéric Bourgeois is Managing Director UK & Ireland of Coface, the global trade credit insurance company.

What are the strategic priorities for Coface in 2021?

Given the level of uncertainty, Coface in Ireland as well as in other countries will strive to provide consistent support its clients whilst not exposing its balance sheet to catastrophic losses. In parallel, we continue to invest heavily in our infrastructure so we can cater for our clients’ needs efficiently. We also believe that the wealth of information held in our databases is currently under-utilised and we could add further value to our customers, something which is also true of our extensive network, with people on the ground in more than 60 countries.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

When planning ahead, we always have to consider a high level of uncertainty in our economic and political environment. This is made more complicated now by the level of State intervention which is reaching unheard of proportions across the globe. Moral hazard is becoming more prevalent and can affect the behaviour of insurance players as well as some of our clients. Otherwise a lot of a CEO challenges revolve around culture, maintaining cohesion across the teams in stressful times and striving for the highest level of integrity. 

How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

As much as possible, we have to be fair and predictable, in terms of rewards, sanctions, or just providing the direction of travel. I will always strive to explain my decisions. Hopefully employees can learn from my explanations and understand that I may have a different perspective from theirs, even if they disagree or my position doesn’t suit their immediate interest. Leading by example and being available to staff members is also key to the cohesiveness of a group, more than having shared experience outside of work. Seminars are very nice but nothing beats having gone through turmoil and overcome difficulties together.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Besides the short-term crisis, there is a question mark over whether insurers will remain pure risk carriers or will succeed in bringing solutions to their clients – and whether our customer base will be prepared to pay for added-value. As an industry, we do rank fairly low in the eyes of the corporate world which is prepared to splash millions on consulting, for instance, and fairly little with companies like ours irrespective of our quality of service. Otherwise insurers still have a long way to go relative to the banking industry in terms  of compliance.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

There have been a lot of initiatives around single invoice / single buyer platforms and the jury is still out on these. There is more traction on linking up systems with those of our clients, with technology, unsurprisingly, playing a greater role than ever. This is true across the value chain from web-crawling for information gathering, to automated underwriting or to APIs with our clients. 

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Ideally the credit insurance industry should be able to move away from pushing a family of products to offering solutions and being rewarded for that. We can add a lot of value to our clients due to our unparalleled wealth of data in so many countries in the world. At any point in time, we are at risk on nearly 3 million buyers worldwide so need to maintain the highest possible quality of data.

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

Working in a niche industry means the immediate talent pool is shallow, this is a function of size more than a structural issue to be fixed. This is where the Coface network helps, with people able to try new experiences and countries. In parallel, we always strive to have an influx of new blood, including through apprenticeship, with young people then able to move across various positions or departments.

Have you had to adapt the company objectives in the context of the current economic crisis?

Our ambition, as epitomised in our Build to Lead plan, remains unchanged but the ways to achieve some of our goals had to be adapted. We continue to invest heavily as this is key both for internal processes and the service we can offer to our clients. 

How will Brexit affect you and have you started to feel the effects already?

Brexit brings a lot of change in a number of areas, from GDPR and the transfer of data between the UK and the EU to changing the status of our branch in the UK. Switching from being a passported branch to a third country branch looks fairly semantic yet is not and implies a lot of work, with more regulatory returns to be provided on a quarterly or annual basis. And of course we are monitoring very closely the situation of some sectors which will be more vulnerable to any form of Brexit turmoil.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

It is all too easy to describe success in numerical terms, based solely on growth or returns on equity. Whilst these aspects play a role, they say nothing of the underlying forces at play, of the cohesiveness of staff and organisation, of their ability to cope with external shocks and of the level of investments that will bear fruit in the following years. Success thus comes as a combination of a sound working culture and performance. By education I am a numerical person but it is the shaping up of our company that matters most. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Always spend a lot of time asking questions, gathering opinions, listening to all points of view – and encourage dissenting voices. Accept that a lot of decisions have downsides and we may have to make a choice not between a good and a bad decision, but between two potentially unpalatable outcomes. Yet once that decision has been taken, push it through as hard as possible.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Risk management has been the key consideration as the situation was scary enough in March or April. Despite this overarching concern, we closed our largest transaction ever in each of our global segments: Global Solutions (corporates), Financial Institutions and Single / Political Risk. I count as a big achievement that we didn’t have to reduce staff numbers and am incredibly proud of the way our teams stood up to the rapidly changing environment.

What’s next for your company?

There are few acquisition opportunities in the field of credit insurance, with limited organic growth. This implies to develop services that are core to our main business yet not fully marketed, such as Information and Debt Collection and all their variants. The infrastructure is already largely available for these and anyway we will always continue to invest in the quality of our data and breadth of our network.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

Despite our massive investments, linked to our insurance business, we have never really pushed into Information and Debt Collection with all the resources at hand. We would like to be recognised as a key player in these areas with a high value-added content.