Tag Archives: strategy

From Vision to Product (Part 1)

“Define the vision, own the strategy, ship great products” — these are perhaps some of the most commonly uttered phrases in any product management (PM) job description. While they capture much of the essence of what PM entails, those of us who are less familiar with PM as a discipline may find words such as “vision” or “strategy” a bit abstract.

So what is a product vision?

When one Googles around for “product vision,” definitions pop up in various sizes and flavors. To thoroughly understand the idea of a vision, it is important to also understand two other concepts: strategy and tactics.

Here is how I would explain these concepts to a product newcomer:

  • Vision: the goal you’re trying to achieve
  • Strategy: doing the right things toward achieving this goal
  • Tactics: doing these things right

Illustrating via an Analogy

Let’s use an analogy. Suppose I would like to plan an exciting Christmas getaway with my girlfriend this year. I’ve often heard from friends about how Strasbourg turns into a magical place with its elaborate Christmas market. So I begin planning a trip from Heidelberg to Strasbourg by pulling up Google Maps. After a quick dance with the loading spinner, Google Maps presents many options for how to get from Heidelberg to Strasbourg, including going via car, transit or even bicycle. Each transportation mode comes with several routes that I could take.

This user interface captures the essence of “vision” and “strategy” very well. In this case, I have the vision of “an exciting Christmas getaway in Strasbourg,” and Google Maps helps me understand the various strategies I could employ to get there (i.e., mode of transport and route). Just like in the realm of products, there are often several different routes that one could take to arrive at a single destination.

We can continue expanding on this analogy by choosing a transportation mode, then selecting one of the routes. At this point, the user interface outlines detailed turn-by-turn
directions for the route that I have selected. These steps represent the tactical features or milestones that I must achieve to stay on course with the selected strategy: to follow a route that Google Maps recommends for driving from Heidelberg to Strasbourg, I need to carefully follow each turn that it prescribes. Another way tactics play into this analogy could be ways to prepare for the trip so as to minimize the need to stop along the way, such as filling up the gas tank before leaving or bringing lunch. The message here is simple: to properly execute against a product strategy, we need to use the right tactics and make sure they add up to something bigger.

Six Reasons for Having a Product Vision

Now that we have discussed what product visions are at a high level, I hope you understand why they are so important. For those who are still skeptical, there are many practical reasons why you should have a product vision. I will highlight six of my favorite reasons below:

1. Visions Are a Prerequisite for Change

In 1997, the late Steve Jobs narrated a famous TV commercial for Apple called “The Crazy Ones.” The spot ends with him saying: “…the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world… are the ones who do.”

This quote has always stuck with me because it captures the idea that innovation always starts with someone who believes he or she can create something and change the world. For me to have an amazing Christmas getaway in Strasbourg, I need to first have the idea of going on such a trip, and then believe enough in it to act on it. Similarly, to create a product that moves humanity forward, someone must first come up with an idea of how to do so and then act on it with conviction.

See also: How to Speed Up Product Development  

2. Visions Simplify Ideas

One of the school games that left the deepest impression on me was “Telephone,” where the teacher lined up all of the students in a single row and then whispered something into the ear of the first student. The teacher instructed this student to pass on the message by whispering into the ear of the next student. This process repeated until the last student in line received the message. It was always surprising how different the initial message was from what the last student reported.

This game taught me a simple yet important lesson at a young age: Communication is hard. It is especially difficult at scale, where complex ideas must be conveyed across many different teams and organizations. Within the context of a tech startup, how can we make sure that the vision our founders have in their heads is clearly understood by the entire company so that we can collectively execute toward this common end goal?

This is where the product vision comes in — as a team, it is crucial for us to develop a clear and concise vision that conveys the essence of our shared end goal. We should then regularly use this vision in our communication to maximize the chances of everyone understanding the same version of the vision. Each word in the vision statement should serve a specific function toward guiding the team, rather than needlessly adding complexity or further diluting the message. If we do this well, any single team member should be able to articulate an understanding of the vision that matches what the founders had in mind when they founded the company.

3. Visions Align Groups

As companies grow, the responsibilities of team members tend to become increasingly specialized. On a day-to-day basis, this means that people will spend most of their time working on a specific part of the vision and become an expert in that area. While this phenomenon is an important part of organizational evolution, it is important that all team members retain an understanding of how their part fits into the overall collective goal. A well-crafted and clearly communicated product vision can serve as an important tool for aligning groups and empowering team members to make better decisions independently.

4. Visions Unlock Collective Imagination

Different people can have varying perspectives of the same reality. Because of this, a product vision is often the single most empowering tool you can give your team. Given the same goal, team members may have a slightly different view on it, enabling them to use their own imagination to work toward it in a slightly different way. Thus, a well-articulated product vision can be the key that unlocks the maximum potential of your team. When this is done effectively, the collective intelligence of the group will always outperform any individual person regardless of how smart that person may be.

5. Visions Help Distinguish “Motion” From “Progress”

The product vision is the goal of our journey, so it is naturally the single most valuable reference point for differentiating motion from progress. If we ride a horse with our eyes closed, it would be difficult to tell whether we are getting closer to our final destination or not. Conversely, if we know where we want to go and do a pretty good job of keeping our eyes on the prize throughout the trip, we will have a much better idea of whether we’re getting closer with each milestone that we achieve.

6. Visions Support Effective Prioritization

Similar to #5 above, a product vision provides a quick and simple way to articulate tradeoffs between ideas and make sure we are focusing on the things with the most impact for our customers. The vision helps articulate the amount of “user value” that any given project delivers because everything we do should slightly improve the status quo and move the world closer to the new reality that we’re trying to create.

I hope you’re now convinced and eager to start creating a product vision of your own. The next section discusses some tips for how to go about doing so.

How do I create a product vision?

Vision is about telling a story. When I lived in Seattle, I used to attend this wonderful meetup called “Fresh Ground Stories” hosted by a man named Paul Currington. It occurs monthly
and operates like an open mic specifically for storytelling. Thirty minutes before the event begins, anyone can put his or her name into a box and sign up to tell a story as long as the stories are real and about the individual themselves. I once signed up to tell a story; I was very nervous, so I asked Paul for some advice. He smiled, then calmly said: “Always know your last line before you begin.”

As I continued working in product over the years, I’ve found this advice very helpful for articulating product visions. Within the context of storytelling, your last line is your goal. It is how you want to leave the world when you are done. For product, your vision is what you ultimately want to achieve. It is the summary of how you envision the world looking when you have finished what you’re creating.

At this point, we get into some territory that can be tricky to explain because there isn’t really a “right answer” for how to go about coming up with great product visions. There isn’t a checklist of specific tasks to complete that will ensure you have a 100% success rate. Similar to telling a story or writing a novel, product visions can require lots of imagination and creativity, and inspiration for doing so can come from anywhere.

See also: A Vision for 2028, Powered by Telematics  

Sources of Inspiration

There are two primary buckets: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic

Intrinsic inspiration comes from within:  ideas and feelings that I notice within myself, which I then try to tie into the product that I am working on. Here are some examples:

  • “Imagine a world where…”: A vision can be as simple as seeing what comes out when you try to finish the sentence.
  • Dissatisfaction with the current world: When was the last time you felt like something about the world just could be better? What didn’t feel right about it? How would you make it better if you had a magic wand?
  • Intuition and gut feeling: Sometimes we just have a feeling that something is off and could be improved. Explore these feelings, and try to get to the bottom of them.

Extrinsic

Extrinsic inspiration comes from surroundings: observations about the world that could inform the next step in an ever-evolving society. Some examples are:

  • People around you: When was the last time someone you know said something smart? How might you expand on those ideas and integrate them into your product?
  • Gaps in existing products: What does the competition look like? Are there any customer segments that are underserved?
  • Trends from other industries: Are there other industries that are going through similar changes? For instance, how might we compare and contrast insurtech with fintech and e-commerce?
  • History of the world: Are there past events that vaguely resemble what’s happening in your product area? For example, what parallels can you draw between the rise of manufacturing and the rise of automation?
  • Random person on the street: Basically, extrinsic inspiration can come from anywhere. Perhaps the most important thing is that we pay attention and take time to reflect a bit when we find something interesting.

Giving It a Shot

Armed with the tips from above, perhaps you are ready to create your own product vision now. If you feel comfortable, please share your visions in the comments section; I would love to see what kind of great ideas you have, let’s have a discussion.

The Industry Needs an Intervention

Leaders in the insurance industry, like many other industry executives, are seeking routes to profitable growth amid unprecedented economic, financial and regulatory change. No longer can companies pursue top-line growth for its own sake without adverse consequences or rely on cost cuts alone to boost margins. Today, companies must strike a strategic balance that will sustain profit growth and shareholder returns over the long term.

This is no easy trick, as tectonic forces unsettle the insurance industry — which is accustomed to measuring the pace of change in decades, not years or quarters. A business-as-usual approach falters in the face of quickly shifting customer needs, rising capital requirements, new regulatory burdens, low interest rates, disruptive technology, and new competitors.

Many companies aren’t getting the results they need from textbook moves such as fine-tuning marketing programs, updating products, enhancing customer-service systems or beefing up information technology. That’s because traditional operating levers for executing strategy simply weren’t designed for the challenges confronting insurers today. Strategic success now requires something more: a structural response. A company can’t adapt to 21st-century conditions without modernizing its 20th-century structures.

The key is for companies to realize that strategy equals structure. Strategy — the big and important ways that a company chooses to compete — must naturally and intrinsically weave in key operating model dimensions, including legal entity, tax positioning, capital deployment, organization and governance.

Finally, once strategy and structure are wed, companies must recognize the role of culture in making new structures work, and use their cultural strengths to promote the changes and ensure that they have staying power. Here’s how:

Responding to the Pressures

Rapid evolutionary change has rendered time-honored organizational structures ineffectual or obsolete in many cases. Before attempting to execute new strategies, insurance companies need to reevaluate every dimension of their operating model.

Structural inadequacies take many forms. Some companies lack the scale needed to generate profitable growth under new capital requirements. Others with siloed, hierarchical organizations lack the flexibility to respond quickly to market shifts. Poor technological capabilities often hamstring old-line insurers facing new digitally oriented rivals. And tax reform and regulation looms as a potential threat to profitability in certain business lines.

See also: Why Is Insurance Industry So Small?

In our work with insurers, we at Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, have seen certain common responses to these pressures. Their responses divide these companies into three groups:

  • The first group of companies have anticipated the effects of marketplace trends and made appropriate structural adjustments, clearing the way to profitable growth. For example, life insurer MetLife avoided costly regulatory mandates by selling registered broker distribution to MassMutual and spinning off its Brighthouse retail operations. Others, including Manulife and Sun Life, have made substantial acquisitions to consolidate scale positions.
  • The second group of companies have recognized the need for structural change, but have yet to carry it out. With plans made, or under discussion, these companies are waiting opportunistically for the right deal to come along.
  • A third group of companies, however, have hunkered down behind existing structures, making only minor tweaks and hoping to emerge from the storm without too much damage. For some, this is a rational choice because of constraints that leave them with little or no maneuvering room. In other cases, action is impeded by a company culture that reflexively rejects certain options.

Companies in the first two groups are giving themselves a chance to win. But the response of companies in the third group smacks of self-delusion in an age when strategy equals structure.

Time for Real Change

Without a doubt, many insurers work diligently and continually to improve their businesses across dimensions. They gather insights into consumer needs and behaviors, nurture unique capabilities to differentiate themselves from competitors, modernize products, update distribution strategies and embrace digitization in all its forms. These are all sound approaches, but they’re inadequate in addressing the unknown facing insurers today. Their belief that they will persist assumes a certain stability in underlying economic and market conditions that hasn’t been seen since the financial collapse nearly a decade ago.

Forces unleashed by that crash and its aftermath undermined the pillars of many insurance business models. We’ve seen years of only modest growth, with property/casualty insurers expanding at a 3% pace, and life insurers barely exceeding 1%.

The long stretch of sluggish global growth has put pressure on revenues and forced insurers to compete harder on price. Near-0% interest rates that have prevailed since the Great Recession are squeezing profit margins, especially in life insurance. On the regulatory front, tougher accounting rules are driving up costs while heavier capital requirements weigh down balance sheets and dilute returns.

Compounding these challenges are the potentially destabilizing effects of tax reform on earnings and growth. Taxes may actually rise for some insurers, an outcome that could force them to raise prices or find other ways to protect shareholder returns. In many cases, the benefits of falling tax rates may be diminished by the loss of deductions for affiliate premiums, limits on deductibility of life reserves, accelerated earnings recognition and a slowdown of deferred acquisition cost deductions.

Competitive dynamics are shifting, too, as expanding “pure play” asset managers such as Vanguard and Fidelity block growth avenues for insurers. Established companies and some new entrants are innovating and experimenting with disruptive distribution models. Others, including private equity firms, are looking to bend the cost curve through aggressive acquisition and sourcing strategies.

To be sure, some long-term trends could benefit certain insurers, or at least improve their risk profile. Longer life spans and the shift of responsibility for retirement funding to individuals may drive demand for annuities and other retirement products.

However, many companies are as unprepared to capitalize on these opportunities as they are to meet long-term challenges. Often the problem comes down to scale. Some insurers lack the resources to build new distribution platforms and customer service capabilities in growing markets such as asset management, group insurance, ancillary benefits and retirement plans. Although offering an individual product may be relatively easy for new market entrants, the difficulty and cost of establishing such platforms creates a desire for scale and increases pressure on smaller competitors.

Sometimes, the issue isn’t scale but a failure to respond quickly enough as conditions change. Buying habits are changing as consumers — particularly the younger cohorts — make more purchases online. Yet our research indicates that people still want some personal assistance with larger and more-complex transactions.

It takes investment and experimentation to find and refine the right business model for new marketplace realities. But some companies haven’t built the necessary assets and capabilities or adjusted to evolving distribution patterns and consumer behaviors.

The proper response to each challenge and opportunity will be different for every company, depending on its unique characteristics and circumstances. In virtually every case, the right solution will involve structural change.

Joining Strategy and Structure

As companies recognize that traditional approaches to annual planning, project funding and technology architecture may be hindering innovation and real-time responses to changing market conditions, many are rethinking and redesigning their core processes to facilitate change. Recent transactions in the sector show the range of structural options for companies that want to advance strategic goals in a changing marketplace. Below are some examples.

Exiting businesses. Sometimes, the best choice is to move out of harm’s way; companies can preserve margins by exiting businesses targeted for higher capital requirements or costly new accounting standards. MetLife’s Brighthouse spin-off bolstered its case for relief from designation as a “systemically important financial institution,” and the associated capital requirements. Exiting U.S. retail life insurance markets also enabled MetLife to focus on faster-growing businesses that are less vulnerable to rock-bottom interest rates. The Hartford recently announced the sale of Talcott Resolution to a group of investors, completing its exit from the life and annuity business.

Partnerships and acquisitions. When scale is an issue, the solution may lie outside the company or in new structural approaches. Some insurers form partnerships to expand distribution, diversify product portfolios or bolster capabilities. Companies also adjust their scale and capital structures through mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. Sun Life paid $975 million in 2016 for Assurant’s employee benefits business, filling gaps in its product portfolio and gaining scale to compete with larger rivals. MassMutual’s purchase of MetLife’s broker-dealer network in 2016 enlarged the MassMutual brokerage force by 70% and freed MetLife to pursue new distribution channels.

Expanding into new lines and geographies. New product lines offer another path to faster growth or fatter profit margins. Several insurers have moved into expanding markets with lower capital requirements, such as asset management. Voya, Sun Life and MassMutual have acquired or established third-party asset management units to capitalize on investment expertise they developed managing internal portfolios. The Hartford recently agreed to acquire Aetna’s U.S. group life and disability business, deepening and enhancing its group benefits distribution capabilities and accelerating digital technology plans. We also see companies establishing technology-focused subsidiaries such as Reinsurance Group of America’s (RGA’s) RGAx and AIG’s Blackboard.

Cutting costs. Some companies have moved aggressively to improve their cost structure. Insurers seeking greater financial flexibility have divested assets that require significant capital reserves. Aegon unleashed $700 million in capital by selling blocks of run-off annuity business to Wilton Re in 2017. An insurer that offloads its defined-benefit plan to another via pension-risk transfer frees up capital and eliminates continuing pension funding requirements. Other cost-saving moves focus on workforce expenses. In addition to rightsizing staff, such measures include relocating workers to low-cost areas or jurisdictions offering significant tax incentives. Prudential and Manulife slashed expenses by establishing overseas operating centers that take advantage of labor cost arbitrage, create global economies of scale and reduce taxes.

See also: Key Findings on the Insurance Industry

Transformation and Culture

Once companies have launched ambitious structural initiatives, they don’t always recognize the role of culture in making the new structures work. But this is a mistake.

Culture is a pattern of behaviors, norms and mind-sets that have grown up around existing organizational structures; the two (culture and structure) are tightly linked, and you can’t change one without affecting the other. No culture is all good or all bad. But certain cultural traits are more relevant to structural change than others.

Cultural attributes affect a company’s ability to make necessary changes. A company that is consensus-driven and focused on preventing problems before they arise may be indecisive and slow to act. These traits may cause it to wait too long and miss the optimal moment for a structural transformation. Other companies, by contrast, have a tradition of quickly seizing opportunities. When this trait is supported by other important characteristics — more single points of accountability, strong leadership and an aligned senior management team — it can foster the rapid decision making essential to structural change.

Culture also comes into play after executives decide to initiate structural change. Most employees have strong emotional connections to the culture — this source of pride, along with a clear and inspiring vision of the future, can motivate them to line up behind the change and can inspire collaboration across organizational boundaries to drive the transformation. Leaders at all levels can generate momentum by signaling the desired cultural shifts and embodying the new behaviors needed to execute structural change.

A new structure without a corresponding evolution of culture amounts to little more than a redesigned organization chart. Culture makes or breaks the new structure, influencing factors as diverse as resource allocation, governance and the ability to follow through on a vow to “change how work gets done.” It’s not uncommon for a company to expend tremendous effort and resources on a complete structural overhaul, only to see incompatible cultural norms thwart its strategic execution. For example, a new, streamlined operating model intended to accelerate decision making and foster cross-functional collaboration won’t take root in a culture that exalts hierarchy and encourages employees to focus on narrow functional priorities.

Culture also influences a company’s willingness to make the deep structural changes in time to avert a crisis. Those who wait until market conditions have undermined their operating model put themselves at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, few companies attempt structural change in “peacetime.”

Absent a crisis, cultural expectations often limit directors to a narrow role monitoring indicators such as growth and profitability, while management concentrates on achieving specific strategic objectives. Under this traditional allocation of responsibilities, emerging structural issues may not get enough attention. Successful companies, by contrast, continually reassess their structure in light of evolving market conditions. They understand that organizational structures aren’t permanent fixtures, but strategic choices to be reconsidered as circumstances and objectives change.

Capitalizing on Changes

Amid the confusion of today’s insurance industry, one thing is clear: Business as usual won’t deliver sustained, profitable growth. As powerful forces reshape markets, conventional tools for executing strategy are losing their effectiveness. Today’s challenges are not operational, but structural. Many insurers lack the scale, capabilities or efficiency to compete effectively as competition intensifies, regulatory burdens increase and financial pressures rise.

Winning companies are meeting structural challenges with structural solutions. Approaches vary from company to company. Some add scale or enhance capabilities, whereas others streamline cost structures or exit lagging business lines. With the right cultural support, these structural responses position a company to capitalize on industry changes that are confounding competitors.

You can find the article originally published on Strategy & Business.

This article was written by Bruce Brodie, Rutger von Post and Michael Mariani.

Why You Need a Digital Leader

Nineteen percent of the world’s top 2,500 companies have appointed an executive, commonly known as a chief digital officer (CDO), to oversee the digital transformation of their business, according to the results of a new study about the role from Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business.

Though this number might seem modest, it more than tripled last year’s figure, of only 6%. Sixty percent of the digital leaders identified in our most recent study have been hired within the past two years.

Strategy&’s 2016 Chief Digital Officer Study looks at the top 2,500 public companies around the world by market capitalization to better understand how many companies have appointed a digital leader, who they are and where the position fits into companies’ hierarchies. For the purposes of this study, the CDO is defined as that executive, no matter the title, who has been given the task of putting into practice the digital mission of his or her company or business unit.

See also: The Dawn of Digital Reinsurance  

In light of the significant increase in digital leaders across industry, company size and region, companies would do well to start believing the hype around the new position.

  • Companies in the financial services and consumer-focused industries have the highest digital leader ratio. According to our study, 35% of insurance companies have digital leaders, and 27% of both banking and consumer products companies do, as well.
  • European companies are hiring CDOs at faster rates than companies elsewhere (38% in Europe vs. 23% in North America, 13% in South and Latin America and 7% in Asia-Pacific).
  • Larger companies continue to remain ahead of the curve in appointing digital leaders. The percentage of companies with CDOs by market cap peaks at 33% for Quartile 4, then decreases to 18% for Quartile 3, 15% for Quartile 2 and 10% for Quartile 1.

Creating a unified vision for digital

“For a growing number of companies, it’s just not feasible any longer to spread out various digital efforts among separate business units,” says Pierre Peladeau, a leading digital practitioner and study co-author with Strategy&, partner with PwC France. “It may work during early stages of digitalization, but as a company moves toward a more advanced stage of digital maturity, a unified approach is needed to execute a more comprehensive digital strategy.”

Taking the helm of a holistic digital strategy means different things for different companies. While some look externally for digital leaders, others engage existing leadership and a diverse group of stakeholders to help manage the transition. For these reasons, digital executives come in various forms, with a variety of different skills in tow. While marketing and sales-backed leaders dominated last year (34% and 17%, respectively), this year 32% of digital leaders bring technology backgrounds to the job, up from 14%.

“One of the most daunting challenges for any digital leader is how to develop new digital applications at the same time as they’re dealing with legacy IT systems that have been vital to a company’s operation for years,” says Mathias Herzog, Strategy& co-author and partner with PwC US. “As this becomes more and more apparent, we should continue to see a growing number of executives with the technical expertise necessary to navigate a company’s multi-faceted digital assets.”

Knowing how to work within these constraints while simultaneously maintaining the operational agility needed to move digitalization efforts forward will be key for any incumbent digital leader.

See also: It’s Time to Accelerate Digital Change  

“The CDO’s role, by definition, is transformational,” says Olaf Acker, co-author and Digital Services leader with PwC Strategy& Germany. “Which means anyone assuming the role has to balance the old technologies with the new, technical expertise with an understanding of internal organizational mechanisms and a vision for a company’s future that also aligns with its longstanding mission.”

Methodology

Strategy& examined the global top 2,500 listed companies by market capitalization as of July 1, 2016, as defined by Bloomberg.

For more information, please visit www.strategyand.pwc.com/cdostudy. A copy of the study and breakdowns by industry, company size and geography are also available from the media contact.

Why to Simplify Corporate Structures

With their variety of business strategies and product innovations, financial services organizations often have very complex corporate structures. The mix of regulated operating, distribution, investment, holding and dormant companies – together with various special-purpose vehicles – means that few employees fully know the complexity of an enterprise’s legal entity structure.

Generally, management prefers simplicity and accountability. Accordingly, it typically organizes enterprises into distinct, separately managed, strategic business units (SBUs), which are overlaid on top of the existing legal entity structure, with the SBUs sharing various legal entities. This management approach creates a simplified internal view of financial performance relative to the legal entity structure; however, it often masks the considerable extra work (and therefore potentially avoidable cost) associated with the corporate structure within an organization’s corporate accounting, tax and other back-office functions.

Few organizations start off with a complex corporate structure or seek to achieve one, but a combination of factors can lead to complexity:

  • Growth by acquisition – Entities inherited as part of an acquisition and entities (such as holding companies) formed to make acquisitions;
  • Tax strategies – Entities formed to minimize multi-jurisdictional taxation, preserve the utility of tax attributes (such as basis, losses and credits) or effectively manage product state taxes;
  • Historical regulatory requirements – Companies formed to facilitate various regulated pricing tiers (particularly in property and casualty (P&C) insurance); and,
  • Business line expansion and reorganization – Organic growth into new product areas, alignment within different market segments (sometimes under reinsurance pooling arrangements), discontinued business, etc.

Complexity adds to administrative costs and can slow production of management information. In the capital structure work that PwC performs, we frequently find that a company’s structure is out of date; for example, the original rationale for a tax planning structure is no longer applicable because of a change in law, or a legal entity structure established to facilitate a line of business has survived even though the line of business has not. As another example, an entity that was established before the advent of the entity classification election regime (i.e. “check the box” rule) now may be unnecessary to achieve the intended tax benefits. Accordingly, organizations should examine the costs and benefits of maintaining current structures.

The complexity of corporate structures in financial services is evident in the insurance industry’s use of legal entities. As the table below shows, among P&C and life and health (L&H) insurers, the top 25 insurance groups hold a majority of industry capital (69% in P&C, 58% in L&H). Despite this concentration, there is evidence that inefficiencies exist: There is a high number of dormant entities relative to total legal entities and the number of domiciles some groups are managing. The number of domiciles tends to be five or fewer for most insurers, but in some extreme cases there are as many as 12 domiciles for P&C companies and 31 for L&H companies (primarily because of health maintenance organization (HMO) entities). When factoring in the potential costs (real and opportunity costs) of maintaining unused or underutilized legal entities, the impact on the industry as a whole is very real.

Insurance industry capital is relatively concentrated
P&C L&H
Groups ~330 ~250
Legal entities ~2,700 ~1,800
Capital in top 25 groups 69% 58%


But there are indications of inefficiency

Dormant entities 150+ 300+
Fronting entities 500+ 100+
Range of domiciles/groups 1-12 1-31


Source: SNL, PwC Analysis

Legal entity cost

Organizations rightly consider the costs of administering legal entities a normal part of doing business. Such frictional costs vary by organization and entity usage and typically include:

  • Financial reporting costs – Licensed insurance companies require separate annual and quarterly financial statement preparation in their state of domicile. The time spent on statement preparation correlates to complexity. The greater the number of legal entities, the greater the complexity and the higher the risk
    of misstatement.
  • Auditing costs – These costs will vary with the size and complexity of the balance sheet. Again, costs tend to be correlated with complexity (e.g., degree of intercompany transactions, complex reinsurance structures, investments/financial products, etc.).
  • State assessments – Premium or loss-based assessments for a variety of state programs will vary in size relative to the business written in the legal entity. It is important to recognize that minimum assessments also can apply even when business is no longer written on a direct or net basis.
  • Regulatory exams – State regulators conduct both market conduct exams and financial exams of insurance companies domiciled in their respective jurisdictions. Market conduct exams occur on an as-needed basis and relate to examination of operational (sales, underwriting, claims) business practices. Certain domiciles are more challenging than others. Financial exams occur every three to five years, at the insurance company’s expense.
  • Tax – Each legal entity in the structure adds to the company’s overall compliance burden, as insurance companies are required to prepare and file forms with state and federal tax authorities on a periodic basis even when dormant. A company also may be required to respond to periodic inquiries about its activities, or lack thereof, and may be subject to minimum taxes and filing fees. Active operating companies must monitor and manage the interplay of premium tax rates and retaliatory taxes, which arise when states in lower tax jurisdictions increase state taxes to match the level of the domicile state, if it is higher.
  • Management time – Spans all of the above areas. The more complex a legal entity structure, the more time middle management and, in some cases, senior management have to spend on issues related to excess legal entities.

In light of these frictional costs, the expense of administering an overly complex legal entity structure can be considerable. Eliminating redundant or unused entities through merging companies, outright sale of the insurance company (or companies) or clearing out the liabilities and selling a “shell” company can result in significant savings.

Improving access to capital

Moving capital through legal entities can be complicated by regulatory constraints and often involves frictional costs such as sub-optimal tax consequences (e.g., withholding taxes on dividends from a foreign subsidiary and excise taxes on premiums paid to a foreign affiliate). Capital trapped in dormant or underutilized entities will provide sub-optimal returns and therefore serve as a drag on the overall group return on equity. For example, an organization with a 15% corporate required rate of return and a 5% average investment portfolio rate of return has a 10% opportunity cost of maintaining the capital in a redundant legal entity. Accordingly, one of the few positive outcomes of the financial crisis has been insurers’ streamlining their corporate structures to simplify internal access to capital and gain capital efficiency.

One method of improving capital deployment in a dormant or underutilized entity is through merger with a continuing entity. However, before merging a licensed company out of existence, insurers need to consider the marketability of the unwanted entity in terms of the number and location of state licenses, the degree to which the company has gross liabilities, the type of liabilities (e.g., excluding asbestos and environmental), the domicile state, the credit quality of the counterparty backing the reinsurance contract or contracts used to create the shell, etc. In light of the regulatory hurdles and time delays that accompany the obtainment of state licenses, there is a market for selling licensed companies as “shell” companies. The process typically requires transferring insurance liabilities out of the legal entity through indemnity – or preferably assumption – reinsurance. This market has yielded significant value to its customers. That said, it is critical to gain proper restructuring advice before entering into these transactions because undesirable accounting and risk-based capital outcomes can result from poorly structured reinsurance transactions.

Simplifying corporate structure: Opportunities & challenges

Eliminating unnecessary organizational complexity and reducing associated frictional expenses are the main reasons to undertake a corporate simplification program. The benefits of corporate simplification are:

  • Streamlined financial management across a manageable number of entities;
  • Removal of unnecessary frictional costs;
  • Reduced overall state tax burden, leading to competitive advantages in market pricing;
  • Consolidation of entities within favorable state regulatory environments;
  • Identification of alternative capital structures or mechanisms to free trapped capital for the top-tier company to use for other purposes;
  • Generation of capital through the sale of unnecessary licensed companies as “shell” companies.

However, the simplification program does present some challenges:

  • Internal resource constraints may limit design and implementation of the simplification;
  • Regulatory approvals for material changes may prolong implementation;
  • Product filings may need to be updated;
  • Re-domestication of entities may present political or regulatory issues (including perceived or real job losses or transfers, closed block regulatory requirements, etc.) that can delay the process;
  • Changes in legal entity structure can affect near-term business operations and supporting technology platforms. For example, changes in legal entities used by the insurance underwriting organization may require process changes in the distribution channel as new and renewal business is mapped to different entities;
  • Selling or merging active operating companies can also present challenges for management, including: identifying intercompany accounts between merged entities; updating intercompany agreements, such as intercompany reinsurance pooling agreements, to reflect the changes; cleaning up outstanding legal entity accounting reconciliations, if any; re-mapping ledgers for historical data; re-mapping upstream company eliminations; creating and maintaining merged company historical financials for statutory and GAAP/IFRS financial statements; locating and analyzing details of historic tax attributes (such as basis and earnings and profits) and studying qualification for tax-free reorganization; potential reversal of subsidiary surplus impacts from asset purchase/sale transactions within the holding company structure; and potential scrutiny over differing methodologies, if any, used for accounting (e.g., deferred acquisition cost) or actuarial reserve methodologies used by the entities to be merged.

The corporate simplification process

Many large insurance organizations have some level of corporate simplification on their annual to-do list, but the initiative often gets pushed aside because of gaps between corporate and business priorities and available resources. The corporate simplification process requires a champion who can take into account and balance varying points of view, call upon required resources, facilitate project management and authorize access to subject-matter expertise. Moreover, a corporate simplification program must balance corporate (tax, regulatory, governance and financial reporting costs) and business (customer, distribution, products, process and technology) needs and considerations. Depending on the complexity of the organization and underlying challenges, a simplification initiative can take several months to well over a year.

The three stages of such an initiative include:

  1. Assess – The ultimate goal of a corporate simplification process is a streamlined corporate structure that corresponds to business core competencies and strategy. This structure will have an efficient balance of cost, risk, regulatory, tax, capital, governance and operational parameters that aligns business operations with the legal entity structure. In the initial phase of the initiative, representatives from corporate and business areas must come together to review the current use of legal entities and create the desired future organizational structure, as well as take into account the existing corporate environment (rather than what existed in the past). If the simplification effort is part of a broader business unit re-alignment, the assessment and design phase will require a significant commitment of time and effort to redefine the desired business strategy. If the simplification is taking place within a well-defined business unit structure, then the focus can be limited to streamlining and reducing overall cost within the existing business unit strategies.

A complete inventory of legal entities should be created outlining information such as the business use, applicable business unit, domicile, direct and net business written (for insurance companies only), required/minimum capital, actual capital, potential for elimination, and other information as defined by the group. Furthermore, to complete the assessment of the simplification effort, a business impact analysis that includes a premium tax analysis by state domicile and a regulatory domicile analysis should occur at this stage. Companies also need to carefully look at their portfolio of companies to ensure they have the entities they need today and for the near future.

  1. Design – As the plan starts to take shape, the project team must conduct a deeper analysis of accounting, business and technology transition issues. The deliverable will be a proposed road map that:
  • Outlines a streamlined legal entity organization structure with greater capital efficiency and alignment with business strategy;
  • Identifies the proposed combinations/eliminations of insurance and non-insurance entities;
  • Describes the proposed movement of capital (including extraordinary dividends required) and reinsurance transactions to effectuate the change (if applicable); and
  • Establishes a communication plan within a high-level timeline.

This outline of proposed changes must be well vetted internally before the organization approaches regulators, rating agencies and other constituents.

  1. Implement – Once the design is ready, project management and subject-matter expert resource requirements must be confirmed. Program and change management and associated governance structures are critical throughout the planning and implementation phases as the number of work streams, constituents, interdependencies and issues can be substantial for larger-scale simplification programs. Once the team is in place, it must create detailed implementation project plans, identify quick wins, establish an effective communication plan and establish an issue/dependency management process. Communication to all constituents – employees, sales force/agents, regulators, rating agencies and policyholders – is vital in any simplification initiative.

Following the design phase, those entities that have common activities, objectives, operational process or customer segmentation can be merged, which should effectively align business and legal entity structure. The remaining, redundant legal entities should be eliminated, sold as-is or sold as a shell. This final step will result in cost savings and the raising of new capital through the sale of licensed shell companies.

chart 2

Conclusion: Corporate simplification is a priority

In light of the need to be nimble while reducing costs, corporate simplification should be at the top of the corporate to-do list. A well-managed corporate simplification program provides strategic alignment of entities, reduces costs and facilitates more efficient use of capital. The companies that execute an effective corporate simplification process and maintain a commitment to simplification over time will succeed in reducing costs and be able to devote their time and attention to valuable activities.

The 2 New Realities Because of Big Data

I have some bad news. There are no longer any easy or obvious niches of sustained, guaranteed profits in insurance. In today’s environment of big data and analytics, all the easy wins are too quickly identified, targeted and brought back to par. If you’ve found a profitable niche, be aware that the rest of the industry is looking and will eventually find it, too.

Why? The industry has simply gotten very good at knowing what it insures and being able to effectively price to risk.

Once upon a time, it was sufficient to rely on basic historical data to identify profitable segments. Loss ratio is lower for small risks in Wisconsin? Let’s target those. Today, however, all of these “obvious” wins stand out like beacons in the darkness.

To win in a game where the players have access to big data and advanced analytics, carriers should consider two new realities:

  • You can’t count on finding easy opportunities down intuitive paths. If it’s easy and intuitive, you can bet that everyone else will eventually find it, too.
  • Sustainable opportunities lie in embracing the non-obvious and the counter-intuitive: finding multivariate relationships between variables, using data from novel sources and incorporating information from other coverages.

Just knowing what you insure is only the start. The big trick is putting new information to good use. How can carriers translate information on these new opportunities into action? In particular, how can carriers better price to risk?

We see two general strategies that carriers are using in pricing to risk:

  • Put risks into categories based on predicted profitability level
  • Put risks into categories based on predicted loss

The difference appears subtle at first glance. Which approach a given carrier will take is driven by its ability to employ flexible pricing. As we will now explore, it’s possible for carriers to implement risk-based pricing in both price-constrained and flexible-rate environments.

Predicting Profitability: Triage Model

In the first strategy, carriers evaluate their ability to profitably write a risk using their current pricing structure. This strategy often prevails where there are constraints on pricing flexibility, such as regulatory constraints, and it allows a carrier to price to risk, even when the market-facing price on any given risk is fixed.

The most common application here is a true triage model: Use the predicted profitability on a single risk to determine appetite. Often, the carrier will translate a model score to a “red/yellow/green” score that the underwriter (or automated system) uses to guide her evaluation of whether the risk fits the appetite. The triage model is used to shut off the flow of unprofitable business by simply refusing to offer coverage at prices below the level of profitability.

A triage model can also be implemented as an agency-facing tool. When agents get an indication (red/yellow/green again), they start to learn what the carrier’s appetite will be and are more likely to send only business that fits the appetite. This approach has the added benefit of reducing underwriting time and expense for the carrier; the decline rate drops, and the bind/quote rate rises when the agents have more visibility into carrier appetite.

A final application carriers are using is in overall account evaluation. It may be that a carrier has little or no flexibility on workers’ compensation prices, but significant pricing flexibility on pricing for the business owners policy (BOP) cover. By knowing exactly how profitable (or unprofitable) the WC policy will be at current rates, the carrier can adjust price on the BOP side to bring the entire account to target profitability.

Predicting Loss: Pricing Model

If a carrier has pricing flexibility, pricing to risk is more straightforward: Simply adjust price on a per-risk basis. That said, there are still several viable approaches to individual risk pricing. Regardless of approach, one of the key problems these carriers must address is the disruption that inevitably follows any new approach to pricing, particularly on renewal business.

The first, and least disruptive, approach is to use a pricing model exclusively on new business opportunities. This allows the carrier to effectively act as a sniper and take over-priced business from competitors. This is the strategy employed by several of the big personal auto carriers in their “switch to us and save 12%” campaigns. Here we see “know what you insure” being played out in living color; carriers are betting that their models are better able to identify good risks, and offer better prices, than the pricing models employed by the rest of the market.

Second, carriers can price to risk by employing a more granular rate structure. This is sometimes referred to as “tiering” – the model helps define different levels of loss potential, and those varying levels are reflected in a multi-tiered rate plan. One key advantage here is that this might open some new markets and opportunities not in better risks, but in higher-risk categories. By offering coverage for these higher-cost risks, at higher rates, the carrier can still maintain profitability.

Finally, there is the most dramatic and potentially most disruptive strategy: pricing every piece of new and renewal business to risk. This is sometimes called re-underwriting the book. Here, the carrier is putting a lot of faith in the new model to correctly identify risk and identify the correct price for all risks. It’s very common in this scenario for the carrier to place caps on a single-year price change. For example, there may be renewals that are indicated at +35% rate, but annual change will be limited to +10%. Alternatively, carriers may not take price at all on renewal accounts, unless there are exposure changes or losses on the expiring policy.

Know What You Insure

Ultimately, the winners in the insurance space are the carriers that best know what they insure. Fortunately, in an environment where big data is becoming more available, and more advanced analytics are being employed, it’s now possible for most carriers to acquire this knowledge. Whether they’re using this knowledge in building strategy, smarter underwriting or pricing to risk, the results are the same: consistent profitability.

Sometimes there are pricing constraints that would, at first glance, make effectively pricing to risk challenging. As we have discussed, there are still some viable approaches for carriers facing price inflexibility. Even for carriers with unlimited price flexibility, pricing to risk isn’t as easy as simply applying a model rate to each account; insurers must take care to avoid unnecessary price disruption. We’ve discussed several approaches here, as well.

Effectively pricing to risk gives carriers the opportunity to win without relying on protecting a secret, profitable niche. In the end, this will give them the ability to profit in multiple markets and multiple niches across the entire spectrum of risk quality.