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 our inaugural interview, we met with Charles Verspieren, Director of Retail Affinity and Speciality Insurance, Director of the Verspieren International Network and a board member of the brokerage firm of the same name.
Verspieren has remained under family control for five generations since launch in 1880. This is an exceptional achievement in a market generally marked by acquisitions by large groups and fierce international competition.
Spotlight: How did the Verspieren adventure begin?
Charles Verspieren: The firm was founded in 1880 in Roubaix, the birthplace of the French textile industry. As the means of production became more mechanised, professionals were increasingly required to address fire risks. But prevention resources at the time, both in terms of communication and equipment, failed to effectively protect against fire damage. The only way to control a fire in those days was basically to see it coming at a sufficiently early stage. To help large industrial companies succeed in their business despite this type of risk, Alfred Verspieren founded the insurance brokerage firm Verspieren.
How would you sum up the philosophy of the Verspieren group since its beginnings?
CV: The group’s philosophy can be summed up in the way it has won new customers to survive, embraced risk, and cultivated diversity.
It successfully attracted new customers after losing its entire customer portfolio owing to the demise of the textile industry in northern France. Fortunately, the company was able to count on its strong reputation for listening to customers and providing them with solutions, carrying its expertise over to other sectors such as retail, aviation and the renewable energy industry.
We have embraced risk because it is highly representative of our customer culture as well as our ability to take entrepreneurial risks. The right to make mistakes and the spirit of initiative remain key values at Verspieren and a central focus in the training of our teams.
The group has cultivated diversity through the diverse array of talents that make up our teams. Diversity remains a key focus of our recruitment strategy. We employ people from all sectors and professions, often without an insurance background, the aim being to safeguard our unique culture of challenging and innovating.
As a broker, we listen carefully to our customers, rolling out bespoke solutions in response to their challenges. In short, ours is a cobuilding approach.
It's fascinating to see how a corporate culture can be cultivated and persist over more than a century! Taking a closer look at business strategy, can you tell us about the main phases in the history of the company? Apart from the textile crisis in northern France, what are some of the main obstacles the company has faced?
CV: The period of the two world wars was exceptional in that insurance was relegated to a very minor priority. During the First World War, some shareholders were mobilised on the front and others were taken prisoner, while the factories were requisitioned for weapons. A further blow came with the Second World War, when all the employees at Châteauroux had to be transferred so that we could keep the business going.
A further key phase was the swift globalisation of the market, which directly threatened the independence of the family business.
In 1980, Verspieren initiated an external growth strategy, consolidating the company as a group based on business-line expertise sets, broken down by division. In 1999, we sold our insurance company, Lloyd Continental, and refocused on brokerage and advisory. This brought us complementarity with brokerage and access to the reinsurance market, but the company was becoming too small relative to global insurance giants. This culture shock was essential, enabling us to focus on our key strength: helping our customers to build their protection.
What sets you apart in the brokerage market? I believe you have a highly singular governance system.
CV: You must be referring to the unusual profile of our shareholders.
At Verspieren, shareholders are part of the management team and are closely involved in operations. They are present on a daily basis at the company, engaged with our customers and employees to keep a close eye on developments in the insurance market. This presence in the field makes us extremely responsive and agile in exploring new business territories. By listening closely to customers, we are able to quickly adapt and rally all the teams around customer satisfaction. We define ourselves first and foremost as entrepreneurs serving other entrepreneurs.
We also operate on a short-cycle basis, regularly asking the departments to update their strategic plan. This means that we can provide our customers and employees with concrete visibility on our trajectory, whether in terms of IT tools or workspaces.
Cobuilding is clearly integral to all levels of the company. But sometimes success is forged through specific decisions at specific times. What are some of the best intuitive moves made by your company thus far?
CV: I would mention two. First, in the 1980s, we listened attentively to a customer looking to expand on the US market though we were yet to operate internationally. To help our customer start up operations in the United States, we took the bold step of contacting a US broker to check the viability of a partnership. As a result, not only was our client insured there, but we formed the premises of our Verspieren International network, which I recently became responsible for.
Second, 30 years ago, a retail customer told us they were seeking to generate additional revenue from their sales. This marked the start-up of our affinity department, through which we helped to increase in-store sales flows by integrating insurance services into a loyalty card.
Thank you for all this information, Charles. Now it’s time for our two classic “How We Made It” questions: What is your best memory at the group and which company inspires you on a daily basis?
CV: My best memory involves a case of customer satisfaction that led to the climbing of Mont Blanc. In 2015-2016, we provide insurance training to a customer of ours, Syndicat des Guides de Haut Montagne (a union of mountain climbing guides). To thank us, and to consolidate our bond, the union asked us to set up a ten-person team to climb Mont Blanc together. It was an extraordinary moment!
In terms of the company that most inspires me, I would say Exotec. First, because this Nordic start-up is based in Wasquehal, which is home to Verspieren's headquarters. And because of its innovation. The company has designed an order preparation system with a fleet of robots capable of moving in three dimensions. It also manages the logistics of several Amazon warehouses. And lastly, because it ranks as the 25th French unicorn.
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