A winning formula: Customer-centric business strategy

Business strategy. It can drive phenomenal success or lead to epic failure. And there’s plenty out there to learn about it. A quick Google search generates more than 1.4 trillion results in less than .52 seconds. So, what does an effective business strategy mean in the highly competitive construction insurance industry? According to Gary Kaplan, President, North America Construction, keeping customers at the center of everything you do – from setting a long-term vision to the day-to-day details – is critical for success.

Since starting XL Catlin’s North America construction business in 2010, Gary has continued to refine the business strategy to keep up with changing customer needs and address new emerging risks. And it’s been a winning formula. By 2017, the multi-line construction insurance team achieved a major milestone — $2 billion in gross written insurance premium in just seven years of operations.

“Effective business strategy is a team effort. Everyone has a role to play in keeping the focus on customers,” says Gary. Here’s why.

How do you develop your business strategy?

Kaplan: Our strategy comes together through our project centric Leadership, Planning and Execution business model. This is a disciplined process that sets priorities based on what matters most. Our model provides a road map of what to do and when to do it. It helps us to listen better to our customers, focus on results, develop talent, empower our people through accountability and test critical assumptions.

We update our strategy each May, prior to doing our Financial Plan and right after we get direction from senior leadership. We bring in a lot of external insights by completing our Competitor, Broker and Geographic Analysis and evaluating emerging risks.

Who’s involved in the process?

Building and refining our strategy is an ‘all team’ effort. We’re a flat organization so we welcome all input throughout the year through our all-team monthly virtual calls. As far as the annual strategy sessions go, we now invite our Extended Leadership Team (ELT) members to join us and help shape the future together. We understand the benefits of including many in important decisions. With greater diversity of experience and thinking, we can accomplish more and also achieve higher buy-in to the ultimate decisions made. That’s one of the main reasons why we formed the ELT.

As part of this year’s strategy program, our ELT members completed a rigorous competitive analysis on our policy forms. We evaluated areas to improve and to address coverage gaps. Keeping ahead of competition is an ongoing part of our strategy. We look at our competitors from multiple angles and dig into the details on organizational structure, talent, book size, strategy, value proposition, products/services offered and other anecdotal evidence.

How do you keep customers part of this?

Customer feedback is central to our strategy development. In fact, every May for the last five years, we host our annual Construction Customer Council. We bring together leading contractors and subcontractors to share ideas and best practices, look ahead to what’s coming next, and discuss the top concerns. Our council members help to drive the agenda for this annual meeting. We focus on the topics that matter most to them. We pose tough questions and listen closely to their answers. This is all part of what we call, “Voice of the Customer”. With ongoing fresh insights, we continuously look for new ways to serve customers better. This industry is highly competitive, so raising the bar on service is where we differentiate ourselves.

What are you hearing? Anything new?

Our council members have gotten to know each other well over the years and have forged strong bonds — which mean that there’s a good amount of healthy debate on hot topics. That’s what we like to see. At our recent Customer Council program in Nashville, there was a lively exchange of ideas and concerns – everything from the rise of Artificial Intelligence, wearables, and modular construction. This is reshaping how work is done and creating new types of exposures. We also had a panel discussion on Diversity & Inclusion. The message was clear – there’s a lot of work to be done in making the construction and insurance industries ‘inclusive’ for all. D&I can’t be a short-term initiative or “a check in the box”. If companies want real change, it needs to be embraced by senior leadership, and sustained through ongoing work to shift the mindset.

Throughout the year, we also continue to listen and test our value proposition with both our brokers and customers. We want to better understand why we win new business – really dig into what brokers and customers value most. Just because we’ve had success in the past, doesn’t mean it’s forever. We have to keep going back and asking what products and services are valued most and ask if we are meeting and exceeding expectations in those areas. You can’t afford to lose sight of this. If you do, your business strategy is doomed.

What’s next for your business strategy?

Our business strategy is like a continuous improvement loop. It’s never officially done. As a team, we constantly look for new ideas, new processes, new products and new services that can better support our customers and brokers.

Also, my educational background is in chemistry, so I often think of refining strategy as similar to a mixture in a beaker glass. What elements do you add to the mixture to make it more effective or stronger? These are critical decisions to make. Some of the ‘elements’ could be collaborating with a new technology company, or investing to make a process more efficient, or updating a policy form to keep up with emerging risks. No matter what – it’s all about refining the winning formula that starts and ends with what customers want most.


About the Author

Gary S. Kaplan is President -North America Construction at AXA XL. With nearly four decades in the industry, Gary Kaplan is passionate about customer-centric business strategy and continuous improvement.