Interview Of The Week: Hassan El-Shabrawishi

Hassan El-Shabrawishi is AXA Group Chief Innovation Officer and CEO of AXA Next. He is responsible for designing and launching new business models for the global insurance company. He joined the company in 2010 as a business transformation leader responsible for implementing new technologies to improve customer experience across the Mediterranean and Latin America regions. In 2013 he became the executive assistant to the deputy CEO of the AXA Group. In 2014, El-Shabrawishi founded AXA in Egypt and continues to be chairman of its board. He recently spoke to The Innovator about the company’s digital transformation and some key things he has learned since taking on his current position in 2016.

Q: Insurtech startups are disrupting insurance, a multi-trillion dollar business that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. What is the AXA Group doing to transform its business and respond to new forms of competition?

HES: AXA’s purpose is to empower our 107 million customers to live a better life.With customers as the starting point of all our thinking, we will be sure that our actions are relevant, impactful and customer-centric. This way of thinking and acting is the path to move from being a payer to becoming a true partner and to deliver our 2020 ambition strategy built on two pillars: FOCUS, which is about delivering value even in the difficult macro environment around us; and TRANSFORM, which is about adapting our company to our customers’ new realities and their ever-growing expectations.

AXA‘s digital transformation started a long time ago with the establishment of teams dedicated to supporting the entities. AXA has created an ecosystem exclusively dedicated to innovation, so we can better meet our customers’ expectations, everywhere in the world. It encompasses different structures that combine to support innovation at every stage of its development. Our evolution consists of three different categories and parts. One of them is incremental innovation. How can we make our existing entities more digital in the way we interact with existing customers? How can our employees talk to the clients they serve in a completely different way? For example, these teams developed MyAXA, an app that allows customers to see all the contracts and policies to help them to track their claims. This is the kind of service we are developing to support digital transformation. The focus is on how can we create digital services around customers’ usage, claims and data, so that basically we can serve them better.

Q: What about services that go beyond claims?

HES: When Thomas Buberl, our CEO, took over in September 2016 he said he wanted to reinvent our business model and really focus on services that would empower people to live a better life. An example of these assistance type of services is tele-consultations. We are very keen on providing people access to doctors and nurses that they can call 24 hours a day and reaching out to them through a chat or video to consult them about their health. We can really support our clients all around the world this way. We are also working on end-to-end services that make sense for the new needs of clients and their pain points.

Q: What other types of services are you working on?

HES: We have digital partnership teams that reach out to digital players in every country we operate in and try and understand what are the needs of the digital players and how can we innovate our solutions to serve their needs. Usually what they require are non-traditional products: on and off types of insurance that work when I stop driving or car sharing.These partnerships and investments allow AXA to remain at the forefront of digital and technological developments and offer innovative services in a bid to better anticipate and meet the needs of our customers.For example, through our partnership, all riders of Blablacar are insured by AXA. Since July 2017, we are also insuring millions of riders of Uber.

Q: Which parts of AXA Group are involved in digital transformation?

HES: We have different ways to achieve our objectives. One is Kamet, a startup studio dedicated to creating innovative companies in the insurance and asset management sectors. Its aim is to launch, incubate, and build by teaming with the most talented entrepreneurs and supplying the resources (advice, methods, structures and financing) they need to grow and achieve their ambitions.It’s led by an entrepreneur within AXA, who used to work for AXA, left to build his own business, sold it and came back to accompany us to this end. The program is open to any entrepreneur who wants to develop something related to the future of insurance. It is set up as a separate unit so the people working there are really living like entrepreneurs.

Q: What is the thinking behind that?

HES: We wanted the unit to work outside of the type of processes that exist in big companies but really do it in a way that an entrepreneur would want to do. We recruit entrepreneurs from inside and outside the company. Once they join the team we help them reach the right business model, finance the business and grow it separately from our existing business. Each specific business is led by an entrepreneur and they get equity. This is also true for anyone within the group who leaves AXA to work at Kamet.

Q: How big of a program is this and how many businesses have been launched so far?

HES: It is a €100 million euro program over three years. The money is used to finance an initial project and get from an idea to an executable business plan. Five businesses have been launched so far. One is Padoa, a new company that supports employers in launching digital programs for their employees’ wellness and health. Padoa is already serving different clients in France.

Q: How do you work with startups?

HES: We have AXA Strategic Ventures, our dedicated fintech and insurtech investment fund. Endowed with €230 million, this international fund invests in companies at different growth stages: the seed stage through its ASV Early Stage fund, or a later growth stage with ASV Capital. AXA Strategic Ventures invests in startups all around the world and has offices in Paris, San Francisco, New York, and London.

Q: What sort of research and development is AXA Group engaged in?

HES: This is where AXA Next comes in. I am leading a mix of R&D teams to try and use technologies as a way to serve customers’ pain points. It is forward looking and focuses on how to embrace disruption, make it happen and become part of our reality.

A: What sort of new services has AXA Next developed?

HES: A service called fizzy, which we launched in September, is a good example. It is a service, based on smart contracts in the blockchain, that automatically reimburses clients when their flights are delayed. There was huge press interest in this. We got hundreds of thousands of likes across social media which told us that we are getting it right, that this is the future of what insurance could provide to people, a pain-free experience. If your flight is delayed you don’t have to worry about calling and filing a claim. We can address customer pains through technologies like blockchain. We are early adopters of this technology. Since blockchain is using smart contracts it is a binary equation: ‘if this happens then do that.’ If there is delay thanks to public clouds we are informed right away and the customer is immediately compensated. We don’t decide, the blockchain decides, and the customer is compensated as soon as the flight arrives.

Q: How important are new technologies to the launch of your new products?

HES: It is important to remember that technology is a means to an end. Some people use technology as a way to say ‘ok I have blockchain, now how can I use it?’ as the starting point instead of saying ‘what are the customer pain points and how can we make technology a means, rather than an end?’ For us, technologies like blockchain are a means to end that allow us to solve a pain point in a specific area.

Q: You have been in your current job as group head of innovation since September 2016. What have you learned that could help other big companies struggling with digital transformation?

HES: Trying to transform an organization through innovation is very different than trying new business models. Putting everything into one basket is not the right strategy. Figuring out how to use digital to serve existing customers better, faster and more efficiently is completely different than designing services from scratch. If you mix them there is internal resistance.

Q: Is it a resistance to change?

HES: No, the resistance is lack of focus. Our employees want to transform but it makes it difficult to be able to serve their existing clients. Most of the innovators are in call center operations. They will ask things like ‘why can’t our clients take a picture of a car rather than file a cumbersome paper-based claims process.’ You want them to focus on these types of things, serving their customers better. But you can’t tell the same person to also redesign the future of car insurance and design products for self- driving cars. The objectives are not the same.

Q: So what is the right strategy?

HES: Our solution to this — and it is too early to know if we have cracked the code or not — is to separate these things from one another. Our second big learning is that there are many, many ideas. In order to execute you have to have a disciplined process and make it happen. fizzy, our blockchain product, is not an idea anymore. We have launched it and people can buy it.