How We Made It: Aon Group

November 3, 2022

Entrepreneurship is a fascinating journey but fraught with pitfalls. 

Because at Spotlight, we like to highlight successful insurance strategies, we decided to launch “How We Made It”, a new series of interviews showcasing business strategies and decisions that have transformed small firms into large brokerage companies. 

For this second interview, let's meet Antoine Lamy-Rested, Chief Commercial Officer at Aon. After eleven years with the leader Marsh, Antoine is seduced by the group's entrepreneurial spirit and joins Aon to foster its market conquest.

Spotlight: Aon is an international group born in the United States from the merger in 1982 between Ryan Insurance Group (RSG) and Combined International Corporation. What was the reason for this merger?

Antoine Lamy-Rested:  Other than the France-Germany World Cup semi-final that I watched as a child, I don't remember much about 1982 [Laughs].

On a more serious note, it seems to me that this merger was carried out to generate business synergies both on the P&C front and at a human level. On the one hand, there was Combined International Corporation, a veteran of the Great Depression era specialized in life insurance, and on the other, Ryan Insurance Group, a small insurance firm of five people founded in 1965 specialized in the distribution of complementary motor warranties. Managed by the father of Aon group’s founder, Patrick G. Ryan, Ryan Insurance Group ran car dealerships through which it distributed its insurance policies.

What I find interesting is the impact this small 5-people firm had on the trajectory of an entire group. In fact, following the merger, Ryan (father) was able to instill such a strong "distributor" culture that the group ended up abandoning its risk carrying business. From then on, the group followed only one goal: becoming leaders in insurance distribution. This pivot, led by his son, remains to date one of the Group’s most defining moments.

In more than 40 years of existence, has the group gone through significant periods of crisis? If so, which ones?

When I arrived in 2009, while the Aon Group was very successful as a whole, its French subsidiary was in crisis. In fact, the company's turnover was dropping and margins were close to zero if not negative. The company was under stress and was suffering from the recent relocation of its headquarters to Colombes, which made the premises difficult to access for both employees and clients. This may seem benign, but this type of decision can have a significant impact on the attractiveness and operational efficiency of a company.

This is why the group took the matter in hand and barely 18 months later, the entire company moved to Rue de la Fédération in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. I mention this example because the fact they could terminate the leases, find office space and relocate 1000 employees within 18 months says a lot about the group's execution culture. As a matter of fact, the move marked the rebirth of Aon France, which continues to build on its momentum with an 11% organic growth rate in 2022.

Aon now has over 50,000 employees in 120 countries. What has made such a scale possible in just 40 years?

First of all, there is this ability to make and implement decisions quickly. That’s illustrated in the above I mentioned, but the importance attached to speed is deeply rooted in all levels of the company. No matter how senior the position, we force ourselves to make decisions quickly, and to implement them as fast as possible. 

But Aon is also about the ability to reinvent ourselves on an ongoing-basis. I believe this is largely due to our commercial DNA and our entrepreneurial spirit. The group does not hesitate to acquire businesses when needed and sell activities that no longer make sense. In 2008, for example, the Aon Group even went so far as to buy the world leader in reinsurance brokerage, the London-based firm Benfield. The operation was an important strategic move to become a leader in this segment, so the group just took action.

We could also mention the acquisition of Stroz Friedberg, a company specialized in IT due diligence and protection implementation, which is now part of the Aon Cyber Solutions branch.

 

How would you define the corporate culture of the Aon Group? What are its main pillars (training, rituals...)?

The Aon culture is very much marked by the figure of the challenger. This implies a permanent race to become the No. 1 across all markets. This obviously has a considerable influence on our external growth dynamic, but without ever neglecting our other values. For example, the notion of collegiality, collaboration and questioning is extremely important within the company. In fact, this was a very important point of attention before validating the acquisition of Chapka. We wanted to be sure that this travel insurance specialist would be willing to open up to other risks and other horizons. 

Furthermore, I believe that Aon stands out for its pragmatism, which can be seen in the importance given to results, and its very humane DNA. Our values are "United", "Committed" and "Passionate" and are brought to life through our management and training. For example, we have recently set up our Climate School, which focuses on sustainable development awareness and was launched in partnership with AXA.

As for a ritual, it's implicit, but we encourage teams to systematically celebrate success - with the idea that success will bring success.

At Aon you help individuals "make better decisions." How do you make your services evolve? For that matter, what risks have you identified in your clients in 2022?

As brokers, our services don't fundamentally change much. 

We need to have the right analysis, the right understanding, the right dialogue with our clients. This enables us to translate them into terms that are understandable to a third party, which is the insurer. Our objective is therefore to attract the right skills and talents to support our clients. 

In addition to the cyber risks that we have been addressing for the past ten years, I would like to highlight two major risks that have arisen more recently. 

The first, which we thought had disappeared in Europe, is war. Indeed, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is bringing its share of supply chain issues, and in particular the supply of wheat and agricultural products. Beyond the political gravity of the situation, these are new risks to which we must adapt to offer solutions to our customers. 

Then, of course, there are the problems linked to climate change, such as natural disasters. While these had tended to hit the United States more until now, France is no longer spared. I would take as an example the hundreds of millions of euros in losses caused by hail last summer.

The interview is coming to an end. Thank you Antoine for your time and your analysis. To end the exchange, our traditional questions: The last piece of content that inspired you to take action (Book, article, podcast, discussion, etc.)

Simon Sinek's talk on Navy Seals and the Trust VS Performance matrix. I highly recommend it!

A company you particularly admire (Insurance or non-insurance)

The luxury house Hermès. For me, it is the fascinating story of a saddlery craftsman who became an international leader by managing to revisit his equestrian universe to a wide range of fashion products and accessories. All this without ever denying its French spirit with lightness and poetry.

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