"Bold." | Transforming Insurance Distribution with Jérémy Sebag, CEO at SPVIE

From intern in an insurance agency to co-founder and CEO of France's 4th biggest insurance wholesale broker. Discover the decisions and methods behind Jérémy Sébag's success and apply them to your business.

Seyna - "Bold." - Transforming Insurance Distribution with Jérémy Sebag, CEO at SPVIE

We all have 24 hours a day. Yet some individuals manage to shape the world we live in. "Bold" explores the DNA and strategies of the individuals who turn their sector upside down.

Today we meet Jérémy Sebag, co-founder of SPVIE. Having started out as a trainee in an insurance agency, Jérémy now manages 600 employees, €90m turnover and €16m EBITDA. What method and strategy has he followed to transform insurance distribution?

Jérémy, before getting into business strategy, tell us THE personality trait that got you where you are today.

I attribute a lot of my success to my obsession with becoming an expert. If I ever get into a subject, I simply never let go. And it’s been the case throughout my career. It is this obsession that led me to specialise. And when I say 'specialise', I'm not talking about following a few years a path I would have ended by chance. I'm talking about the conscious choice of categorically refusing any other route that isn't the one I've chosen.

As the grandson of an insurance tied agent, I have literally been immersed in the insurance industry my whole life. From my first internship in an agency to today, 20 years later, having now become the 4th largest wholesale broker in France. Other friends have gone on to very successful careers in consultancy, finance, various jobs in major corporations... I made the decision to become the best at something.

What key objective did you set for yourself to stay on track?

My goal has always been to become an expert. And becoming an expert means exploring the market for 20 years, from every angle. To achieve this, you have to be polymorphous - which is not something everyone can do. Because it's not just a matter of occupying different roles. Rather, you have to own the position, take risks and work yourself off. I like comparing it to being a professional tennis player. It's only by perfecting the movement, playing set after set for years, that you build up your automatisms and your flair. That superior intuition that allows you to predict where the ball will go. But you build that up through effort and over time.

The ultimate goal is to "create your own legend". This is the asset that will enable you to convince and unite people around you and your vision. That's crucial: building your legend, even before your company.

You talk about 'federating'. Tell me about the role the team played in your success and how you approached it.

For me, the founding team is 50% of the story. Cédric, my co-founder, and I are very different. We don't operate in the same way at all. And yet we've always agreed on everything. Working together on a day-to-day basis, as Good Cop / Bad Cop, etc. all seemed innate. In that regard, we just found each other.

However, one piece of advice I'd give is to get rid of any ego or money problems at all costs. A successful company is one where everyone is in their place and where everyone accepts their place.

With these few principles covered, all that remains is finding the right people to grow your company. Some will be there for the whole adventure, others won't, and that's fine. The important thing is to find people who are as crazy as you are AND, even more importantly, who have a different 'driver' to yours. Personally, I’m naturally drawn towards the top line. So I need someone who lives for cost cutting. And so on.

Very clear! Now tell me a bit about strategy. How do you go about transforming an entire sector like insurance distribution? 

As with any sector, you need to start analysing the key dynamics at play. As we know, insurance is an extraordinarily complex sector. You are immediately propelled into the depths of technicality. And this applies to a vast range of expertise, each more complex than the last: legal, actuarial, data management, UX, compliance, accounting, etc. 

Over the last few decades, the response of traditional players has been to build all these solutions themselves. They have engaged simultaneously on all fronts. But today's economy is all about hyper-specialisation. You have businesses that focus all their resources and brainpower on smoothing out 5% of your value chain. To take a concrete example, of course an insurance company can develop its own anti-fraud solution. But it will go head-to-head up against Shift Technology, its €220m raised and +100 employees dedicating 60 hours a week to the matter. 

In short, every part of the value chain has its champions. And you cannot take them all on at the same time. It is just impossible.

At SPVIE, we've focused on becoming the best in insurance distribution. That was our sole objective for 10 years. But then came the moment where we wanted to take it even further. Switch the approach. 

So we built “Big Broker”: the open infrastructure integrating all the best insurance products on the market into one intuitive platform for retail brokers.

In a nutshell, this means that brokers no longer need to connect to 3 different extranets to compare offers. And if they use comparison webistes, they no longer need to juggle with another tool to manage their contracts and customers. One login to access everything they need to develop their business - from start to finish. 

As for the insurers, all they have to do is hand over their products and we'll take care of the rest. Integration of underwriters, underwriting solution, documentation management, etc. Big Broker lets insurers focus on what they know best: risk. The entire distribution stack is provided on a turnkey basis. They instantly benefit from the best technologies on the market... without investing €1 in their development.

The advantage of positioning yourself as an aggregator in a fragmented market is that you unlock growth opportunities for everyone, before benefiting from it yourself. When all the players are integrated, all the interests end up aligned. That's where you start to see exponential growth.

I understand. Have you had any pivotal moments along the way?

I've had plenty, but two come to mind...
The first happened over coffee with Jean-Marie Pironneau in 2015. Jean-Marie Pironneau was a computer freak; the creator of Visual Studio, from which stems Visual Basics. At the time, we understood that conquering the market would entail giving retail brokers total control over their portfolio. And the only way to do that was to build a front AND back end, from scratch. So I outlined the vision, asked him if he wanted to transform insurance distribution and off we went. We'd known each other for 15 minutes. 

You have to get to the stage where nobody can say 'no' to you any more. And that takes experience, a clear vision and relentless determination.
I also recall that breakfast at the Carlton in 2016 - which I couldn't afford at the time. It was my first time at Réavie, THE major Health Insurance event in France. I didn't know a soul. I was waiting for my partner in the blue chairs on the Nice Croisette. All I had was a coffee with someone I'd been recommended to see. As it turned out, that ordinary coffee led to an introduction to those who were going to help me finance my business development through advance payment. A decisive moment in our history. From then on, we went from 2 million to 3 million, to 5 million, to 11 million, to 24 million, to 49 million in revenues.

The key takeaway here is the importance of leverage. If your competitors are moving faster, it's not necessarily because they're better. They might simply be pulling the levers that allow them to play bigger.

I imagine you've been through some difficult times too. Can you think of a particular crisis ...?

The Autorité de Contrôle Prudentiel et de Résolution (ACPR) audits in 2023. 

Let me start by saying that in our case, the audit ended without the slightest sanction after a 24-months marathon.

Obviously, this audit hurt the company. We went from 10,000 contracts to 500 the following year. But my brain is wired to turn any crisis into an opportunity.

Our security processes were well oiled, but could be strengthened in the eyes of the ACPR. When the audit arose, we simply took it as the trigger for a restructuring plan. This took almost 2 and a half years. But today, we have completely converted our products to API, we have structurally modified our information systems, we have modernised our IT, and we have recruited massively.

2 and a half years is a long time. Where do you draw your resilience from?

2 things: the family and the team.

The family because they're really my rock. If things go wrong, I know I can count on them. On the contrary, if something goes wrong at home, it can impact the rest of your life.

Then, of course, there's the team. If your team is fighting, it's impossible to give up. This is especially true when you've already set up a business and know how to deal with these tense situations.

Thank you for your time and advice, Jérémy. I'd like to finish with one last question: what do you think will be the next wave of transformation in insurance distribution?

For me, the next wave will be conversational. In a few years' time, typing will have disappeared. We'll have our virtual assistants making recommendations for our everyday activities and purchases. And we need to prepare for that. Because the change will not be confined to how we communicate with our systems. All referencing mechanisms will be on their head. How do you make yourself seen and heard in a digitally vocal world?

And once you have your customers’ attention, how do you instantly close the sale? Our online attention span today is 8 seconds. Imagine what it will be tomorrow, in a world where we hardly ever read anymore. The winners will be those who manage to coordinate the best ecosystems of solutions - for pricing, underwriting, generating policies and so on. In short, the future of insurance is Open Insurance, hence our investment in 'Big Broker', which I mentioned earlier.

I'll finish by saying that these are long and complicated projects. To bring them to fruition, we need professionals who stop thinking about their short-term objectives and focus more fundamentally on their long-term legacy. They will be the real 'talents' of tomorrow.


About Jérémy

In addition to his responsibilities at SPVIE, Jérémy was Chairman of the Ile-de-France / Centre region of Planète CSCA, the insurance brokers' union, for 4 years.

He is also chairman of "Assure-moi un projet", an association whose aim it is to identify, train and support future leaders in the insurance brokerage sector and give people who are changing careers access to the brokerage profession.

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