Interview with Heidi Delobelle and Benoit Halbart - AG Employee Benefits
Heidi Delobelle, CEO, and Benoit Halbart, Managing Director EB/HC, share AG’s views on pension plans, healthcare and coronavirus

Published on 09/02/2021


How does AG’s new management see the future shaping up?

At the end of 2020, Heidi Delobelle took the helm as the new CEO of AG, while Benoit Halbart took over her spot as the Managing Director of AG Employee Benefits & Health Care. Where do they see AG heading in the future? What is their vision regarding COVID-19, pensions and healthcare? An interview with two of the company’s heavyweights.

*The photo in this article is a montage. During the interview, the participants complied in full with the social distancing restrictions.

Recently, there has been a management reshuffle at AG. At the same time, Hans De Cuyper has taken over as the CEO of Ageas. What does this mean for AG?​​

​H: For the relationship between the two companies, Ageas and AG, it's a big benefit that the CEO of Ageas knows AG inside out. This is obviously a big help in terms of business continuity, plus it shows our commitment to internal mobility and an understanding of the company's inner workings. Another important consideration is that both are Belgian companies.

Hans is clearly a good pick as the CEO of Ageas as he has experience in Asia and spent the past seven years at AG, including five as the CEO. The fact that the parent company has inside knowledge of AG is very positive for our business.​

How has COVID-19 affected AG's activities?​​

H: AG has a very big advantage: a highly diversified portfolio, both in terms of assets and products. So all in all, we'll end up having a fairly decent year. While it's true that some products have struggled due to the COVID-19 crisis, others have actually benefited from it. I'll let Benoit fill you in on the specifics.

B: In group Life, we were negatively impacted by the mini stock market crash at the beginning of the year. Although it was followed by a partial correction at the end of the year, we're still feeling the aftershocks. The economic fallout from COVID-19, on the other hand, will hit us somewhat later.

In Healthcare, most scheduled hospital admissions were postponed to give priority to COVID-19 patients. As a result, we're not expecting to see a decrease in hospital stays, but rather a change in their timing in the near future. In fact, requests to reschedule postponed hospital admissions will all come in at the same time, and new patients will probably be in a much worse state as they couldn't, or opted not to, get treatment.

As for the Disability sector, the public health crisis will have a significant psychological impact on workers. Wellbeing and mental health have already been prioritised in our offer for corporate clients.

H: Absolutely, and AG Health Partner is a very good example. With the COVID-19 crisis, we had to reinvent the product. Initially, we were planning to run on-site programmes in the employers' premises, but we quickly realised we had to change that to a digital offer. We started with webinars focused on helping employers address workplace wellbeing more effectively.

Today, in hindsight, we see this as a real success story.​

How will the new federal government impact AG's activities, particularly the second pillar and healthcare?

B: The good news is that the government continues to push the important role of the second pillar. The objective is to make supplementary pension plans universal for all salaried employees. The government also intends to work on administrative simplification and transparency.

As for hospitalisations, we're still fumbling around in the dark at this stage, as the government's policy statement has put the future funding of healthcare on the table. A subject that's more topical than ever, influenced by the COVID-19 agenda.

The government also mentioned employee wellbeing and mental health. These are areas that AG has been working on for several years and intends to build on in the future. For example, return-to-work assistance after extended incapacity leave. As we are one of the pioneers in this area, we have a learning curve that we have used to design our products.

H: The government is about to introduce a "trading account" tax, but we don't have the full details yet. We do, however, already know that the second pillar will be exempt from this tax.​

“The government continues to push the important role of the second pillar of pensions."

How has AG responded to the very low interest rate environment, especially with its investments in Branch 21 and Branch 23?

H: AG has always been a cautious investor. It's very important to us to be able to fulfil the promises we made in the past. It's all due to our advance preparation, which allows us to focus on the future.

With the stimulus packages provided by the national banks - intensified due to the coronavirus crisis - we believe 2021 will see a continuation of the lower-for-longer theme for interest rates. We had to revise our interest rates downward to be able to offer our customers a guaranteed return that reflects the market realities. 

B: I'd like to emphasise that AG, as a global pension player, has a strong presence in both Branch 21 and Branch 23. We regularly adjust our offer, in Branch 21 and Branch 23 as well as in hybrid plans that are a mix of both.

H: Very true, and the point of this hybridity is to give the customer the benefit of both worlds. A certain degree of safety in terms of the return, but also a bit more risk with the possibility of a higher return.​

Where does AG see interest rates heading in the future? Are you expecting any major changes?

H: We expect interest rates to remain low. This is the scenario we have prepared for. AG is adamant about fulfilling its long-term commitments. Which is why we make long-term forecasts to make sure that we can comfortably continue as we are doing now.

We're pleased with what AG has offered in the past in terms of products and solutions. At the same time, it's clear that we'll need to adjust our products in the near future. As I said, AG is a firm believer in hybrid solutions. They will be essential in our process of adapting to customer needs.​

What is AG's strategy for Income Care?

B: Our Income Care product is quite well positioned in our Return To Work strategy and the assistance programmes we offer after extended sick leave. According to a Vlerick Business School survey, this type of product is in high demand and appreciated by employees. But the penetration rate for this type of product is, in our opinion, a little too low.​

H: To address this, AG is working on raising awareness among employers.​

“We regularly adjust our offer, in Branch 21 and Branch 23 as well as in hybrid plans that are a mix of both."

What about AG's investments in Corporate Social Responsibility?

H: We are already doing quite a bit on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria, but we may not be communicating enough. When it comes to investments in the financial markets, we already consistently apply this environmental strategy. Our investment decisions are no longer solely based on financial analysis. We also look at the company's ESG impact. AG is the first insurance company to be awarded "Towards Sustainability" certification by Febelfin for certain Branch 21 and Branch 23 products. As a company, we're also CO2 neutral.​

AG Real Estate incorporates the latest sustainability techniques in its developments. Interparking, an AG Real Estate subsidiary, uses special technology in its carparks to keep the air as pure as possible.

In addition, our new AG Campus was designed with eco-friendly features such as solar panels. We currently have close to €500 million invested in the solar and wind energy sector.

B: It's true that we're already doing a lot in this area, but we really need to improve our communication. These initiatives are important to society at large, so it's time we make more of an effort to get the word out to employers. 

What about the impact of COVID-19 at AG itself?

H: Coronavirus has also had an impact on us as a company. Overnight, we went into 100% work from home mode. I'm pleased to say that the switch happened very smoothly. We provided all of our employees with the necessary equipment to work from home in the best possible conditions, and this was greatly appreciated by our staff. We've had no business continuity issues whatsoever. This is because we already had a company-wide work from home policy, which meant that the logistics were up and running before the first wave hit. We were well prepared.

In addition, we have continued to keep our customers close, even at a distance, and have found inventive ways for our staff members to stay connected. So we've been able to maintain that all-important team spirit and collegiality in the age of social distancing.

All of this is part of AG's conscious decision not to furlough any of its employees.

B: Internally, this has been a big success, and we see this reflected in our annual satisfaction survey. All of the customers we surveyed replied that they were even more satisfied than before with the services offered by AG. Everything we put in place internally trickles down to our relationships with our customers. Customers are also very pleased with our coronavirus-related communication as well as our swift response and the measures we have taken

I'd also like to add that we have invested a lot in the connection between our staff members. For example, our SmallTalk initiative that connects three people who don't know each other via video conference, and Workplace - Connect AG, a type of corporate Facebook for employees to keep in touch and management to communicate interactively.

Also, since we were unable to have our annual New Year's reception, we decided to send a gift box full of gourmet goodies to all AG employees.​

“We've been able to maintain that all-important team spirit and collegiality in the age of social distancing. this is part of AG's conscious decision not to furlough any of its employees."

What insights do you gain from customer feedback?

H: The annual satisfaction survey has, first of all, consistently shown that customers are very satisfied with our service. We see that we still have room for improvement in our turnaround times as well as being more proactive in our communication. This is important to the customer. That's why we have since launched our internal "Up To 8!" project. So now we've set ourselves new objective: to reach a score of 8 out of 10 in all satisfaction indicators.

B: Yes, this project reflects AG's ongoing efforts to improve its service and tools. We take the feedback we get in our annual satisfaction survey seriously and use it to make continuous improvements. We also measure the satisfaction of our own AG staff members. This gives us another source of feedback and an even broader view of how we're doing.

Externally, our actions at the employer and employee levels are reflected in tools such as
AG EB Online, My Global Benefits and its supplementary pension payment process, and also the digitalisation of admin processes from A to Z. This is a relatively new development.

A quick word about My Global Benefits, which remains the reference tool on the second pillar market. Fun fact: 60% of people who claim their supplementary pension benefits do so online via My Global Benefits. We will continue to make improvements. We're now currently working on another complex process: digitalising the procedure for leaving the company.  

One last question: what priorities will you be setting in your new position for the coming years?

H: Digital transformation, across the entire company. We need to prepare for the new way of working in the near future. The good old days of working from home once a week are over. We need to keep growing as a company. But also to address the challenges of a low interest rate environment, to continue to successfully manage our portfolio, and to create products that remain attractive to our customers, all while being mindful of our environmental impact.

B: We need to continue to focus on customer proximity by offering products that meet their needs.

All of our current projects point in that direction. Our top priority is to understand customer needs and to do whatever we can to quickly meet them.​

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