Double interview with Bart De Smet and Jean-Michel Kupper - AG Employee Benefits
Double interview with Bart De Smet and Jean-Michel Kupper

Published on 12/06/2024


Customer intimacy and expertise, a proven recipe for success

​​​​​​​According to Bart De Smet and Jean-Michel Kupper​​

AG is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, while the AG Employee Benefits & Health Care division is celebrating 105 years. In honour of this milestone occasion, former Managing Directors Bart De Smet (1998-2005) and Jean-Michel Kupper (2005-2019) look back at the period when AG Group Insurance merged with the group insurance division of CGER/ASLK Insurance, the Vandenbroucke Act ushered in a new era of complexity, and the economy went through a major crisis. Yet, according to them, it was precisely during these turbulent times that the foundations were laid for the group insurer to become the undisputed market leader.

Just to set the context, what was the group insurance landscape like when you joined AG Group Insurance in​ 1998 and 1999, respectively?

Bart: Back in those days, group insurance was a benefit that only big corporations and subsidiaries of international organisations provided. The legislation was less complex, and there was a lot of competition, notably between the top three players AG, Royale Belge (AXA) and Assubel (Allianz). A few years later, the Vandenbroucke Act was passed, and suddenly group insurance was available to blue-collar workers (via sector-wide plans) and employees at smaller companies.

Jean-Michel: This was obviously a good thing, but it also marked the start of increasing complexity in group insurance. Ever since the Vandenbroucke Act was passed, there's been something new on the legislative front almost every year.

​Where did AG Group Insurance stand at that time?

Bart: When I became responsible for AG's group insurance and healthcare business in 1998, Fortis had two insurers in Belgium: AG 1824 and CGER/ASLK. CGER/ASLK's dynamic group insurance department, led by Jean-Michel, was a tough rival. Under the leadership of CEO Jozef De Mey, I was tasked with integrating the CGER/ASLK and AG teams to create the undisputed market leader in group insurance in Belgium.

Jean-Michel: In 1999, when we merged to become Fortis Employee Benefits, I joined Bart's management team.

What were the hot topics and big challenges back then? ​

Bart: The merger of two rival players naturally brought up a lot of emotions. While a merger may seem like a rational decision on paper, it can only succeed if there is enough empathy for the sensitivities of both parties, if people perceive that there are more opportunities after the merger than before, and if there's an objective evaluation of the situation before the merger. My position as an "outsider" (editor's note: Bart De Smet came from De Vaderlandsche) helped in assessing the situation objectively.​ 

Jean-Michel: It was quite a challenge, and although we didn't manage to win everyone over, I do believe we came out stronger together. The team we formed certainly contributed to this: it excelled at all levels and in all areas.

Bart: Indeed, the foundation for AG Employee Benefits & Health Care's current success was laid during that period, partly because we were both rock-solid believers in the competencies in our teams and also had the size and scale to attract and retain top talent. In the years that followed, the entire team achieved impressive successes.​

A merger also means integrating IT systems, and that's usually no easy feat. How did you handle that?​

Jean-Michel: At the time, we made a conscious decision not to choose one of the existing platforms, but instead to invest heavily in developing a new, innovative IT infrastructure. It took a long time and we weren't always sure we were on the right path, but fortunately our shareholders continued to believe in the importance of these investments and gave us the necessary time for them to pay off. In the end, this turned out to be one of our best decisions. Projects like VELO and the state-of-the-art internet platform e-Benefits have given us an enormous operational and commercial edge.

AG Employee Benefits & Health Care is still reaping the benefits of this today, especially as in the years that followed it became increasingly important to respond quickly and flexibly to the increasing technical and legal complexity of group insurance and to work as efficiently as possible in healthcare.

Investment in digital tools has been an important common thread over the past 20 years including, for example, the more recent development of EB Online and the Health Care platform.

Bart: Indeed, I remember that that significant rate changes and gender parity required tens of thousands of man-hours of IT adjustments at the time. Our efficient systems have allowed us to make these changes much faster since then. It's clear that our modern IT infrastructure gives us a strategic advantage over the competition.​

"AG Employee Benefits & Health Care has propelled itself into the lead for many years to come thanks to the competence and commitment of its people and the efficiency of its IT platforms."

Jean-Michel Kupper​

Bart: Despite our successes, we stayed humble and never believed that we were unbeatable. We continued to innovate and support our customers with tailor-made solutions. Customer intimacy was, and remains, our greatest strength.​

What anecdotes will you always remember from your time at AG Employee Benefits & Health Care?

Jean-Michel: I'll never forget how guaranteed interest rates on existing contracts fell from 3.25% to 2.25% in 2013. It was an unprecedented event, with no legal context, regulatory support or political backing, and with considerable resistance from our customers, the social partners and the media, who saw this as the end of group insurance. We were under pressure from pension funds, and the general public was still reeling from the Fortis debacle.

All eyes were on us to take the first step as the market leader. To preserve our long-term profitability and keep our promises to customers, we went ahead with the interest rate cut but at the same time introduced a unique formula with profit sharing guaranteed for three years.

I remember how nervous this made our sales team, and rightfully so. Before introducing our action plan at the sales meeting, I played "Are You Ready" by Pacific Gas & Electric to break the tension. The song lifted everyone's spirits and became our anthem. This really gave us a boost, including for the many interest rate cuts that would follow afterwards.

Bart: I'll never forget the discussions on our first sector fund, for the food industry. The benefits statement we initially proposed almost led to the end of the collaboration before it had even started properly... it turned out to be far too complicated. After consulting with our interlocutors and a heated internal discussion with our lawyers about the legal obligations, we ended up with a benefits statement that we still use today. This version contains all the mandatory information but starts with a clear summary of the four most important issues for the employee: how much has my employer contributed, how much have I saved, how much will I collect upon retirement, and how much will my family get if I die.

This story demonstrates AG's commitment to following the law and effectively communicating to customers. We may have occasionally lost customers to competitors who interpreted the rules more "creatively". However, our philosophy is that those who push the boundaries of what is legally permissible today will sooner or later cross a line, with all the consequences for the customer and its plan participants.

Speaking of transparency, during the 2008 financial crisis, Jean-Michel, then the head of EB, and myself, as the CEO of AG, visited our EB customers to personally assure them that the savings they had entrusted to us on behalf of their employees were prudently and responsibly invested. We showed them exactly where we had invested their accrued reserves and reassured them about our solvency and asset/liability management. This proved to be a game changer and a valuable lesson in customer communication and transparency.​

​"Customer intimacy goes beyond mere words. Both our account managers and our management have a strong presence in the field."

Bart De Smet​

What do you look back on as being your greatest achievements? Your biggest sources of pride?

Jean-Michel: There is so much to be proud of. I've had the honour and pleasure of leading an exceptionally talented and dedicated team: Heidi and Benoit are brilliant examples. Thanks to our customer intimacy strategy, we've worked with customers who are generally happy with our service, our solutions and our added value in supplementary pensions and healthcare. And together we've been able to contribute to boosting AG Employee Benefits & Health Care's position as a strong market leader. 

Bart: Even after 25 years, I'm still incredibly proud of the talent we've brought together and the development opportunities we've given our people. The abundance of talent ensured that succession was never an issue. When I moved to the broker channel, I could rest easy knowing I had left everything in Jean-Michel's very capable hands. Jean-Michel was my right-hand man for many years, someone who complemented me perfectly and was always a great source of support. Later, Heidi Delobelle took over from Jean-Michel and in turn passed the baton to Benoit Halbart when she became the CEO of AG. Heidi and Benoit, who were youngsters when I joined AG in 1998, have had impressive careers. The quality of our staff, at every level by the way, is our greatest strength and inspires confidence in our customers. As the market leader, we've also always capitalised on the expertise of our people, which has benefited our products and the sector. ​

Final question: how do you think AG Employee Benefits & Health Care has managed to establish itself as a market leader over the years?​

Jean-Michel: I'd say it's definitely our strategy and the winning combination of customer intimacy plus "trust in expertise". We specialise in tailor-made solutions in a complex technical and legal context and focus on sustainable, long-term relationships.

Bart: We've succeeded by consistently investing in talent, prioritising customer intimacy, maintaining a solid financial base and fostering a culture of creativity-led entrepreneurship.

Also read the interview with our current and previous managing director. Experienced in employee benefits, Benoit Halbart and Heidi Delobelle provide a round-up of the past period and look confidently to the years to come.