Agility, ability and desire to succeed

Yolla El Khoury started in ACE as a Vice President since 2010 to become the Group Vice President in 2015. The Lebanese, Greek national, is an industry icon and is widely acknowledged for her steadfast commitment and contribution to the insurance industry. She is renowned for embracing change and steering the growth of ACE outside Saudi Arabia.

ACE Insurance Brokers, one of the leading insurance and reinsurance brokerage firms in the GCC, has embarked on a major rebranding strategy to enhance ambitious regional growth plans.
With 16 offices in seven Middle East countries, ACE’s refreshed brand identity represents the brokerage’s reliable risk management strategies and empowers customers to ‘embrace challenge’.
ACE Insurance Brokers supported many of the region’s largest projects and insurance programs for decades.
In this interview with BUSINESS LIFE Magazine, Yolla addresses the challenges and opportunities facing the insurance and brokerage landscapes across the GCC and shines light on how ACE Group’s commitment to service excellence will give the Group a competitive advantage in changing times and the digital age.

BL: How does ACE Group add value to the brokerage and consultancy industry?
Yolla El Khoury: Largely through its footprint, ACE’s presence around the GCC is a unique selling point as well as its established track record in placing risks in local and international markets. We are present in every regional market and have global exposure through established international partnerships. We are a local team that serves clients applying international standards in all our dealings.

We also have an outstanding record on service quality as evidenced by our high client retention rate. This is largely due to our hands-on approach where we scrutinize all insurers and reinsurers through strict security evaluation to safeguard our client’s best interest. Our highly professional resources are able to add value to our client through their wide experience and their in depth understanding of the industry.

BL: How can you evaluate the progress achieved by ACE Group in the past few years?
Yolla El Khoury: We have made significant advancements over the past few years. We have, diversified our solutions and offerings especially in the financial and security lines. We have demonstrated great agility and resilience in the face of the region’s economic challenges. We strengthened our presence in All GCC by substantial growth in UAE and Oman. While market players are forced to downsize or to consider mergers, we continue our growth and expansion into new markets and new offerings.

BL: What changes and plans are you preparing for the group?
Yolla El Khoury: Expansion characterizes our approach in 2019. This year, we expanded by establishing a re-insurance entity in the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC). We plan to expand into new markets, particularly in North Africa and to further, diverse our product offering based on specific market needs while continuing to cover traditional risk lines. Areas for diversity include financial lines, energy, contingency and cyber risk, which very few companies serve well. We have accumulated good experience in this line of business over the past years, in addition to our strength in the construction and energy fields.

BL: Briefly describe Cyber Risks and what is your advice to clients?
Yolla El Khoury: Cyber insurance is a type of insurance specifically tailored to cover the financial consequences of risks from cyber-attacks, data breaches and even software failures.
Cyber insurance helps organizations to transfer its risk exposure by offsetting costs and business losses related with a potential security breaches. One important point to bear in mind is that a cyber-insurance does not protect data and does not replace the security controls all companies should have in place.

Cyber-security now poses a major risk, and we now offer cyber insurance solutions across GCC. As brokers, we guide our clients through a selection process to identify the most suitable product and coverage options that will support and safeguard them in their ‘moments of truth’. This includes advisory on important topical issues such as cybersecurity. 
Clients need to understand the benefits and limitations of a cyber insurance policy. By failing to comply with the terms, conditions and exclusions of such a policy, the insurer may deny claims. To ensure compliance, it is important to provide accurate information during the underwriting process so that the insurance policy covers all. If there is a data breach of any kind, it is important that a client understands the methods to guarantee a claim is covered. The client-first approach of ACE ensures our brokers are fully equipped to advise a client through their cyber insurance policy in order to maximize their coverage.

BL: What are the present and future challenges for ACE and for the entire industry?
Yolla El Khoury: Some of the challenges that the industry is facing is the slowdown in economic growth due to the introduction of VAT in the UAE, KSA and now Bahrain. Value added Tax is affecting the insurance industry by creating different kinds of challenges to the companies across the industry, and requiring companies to devote additional financial and human resources in order to cope with the required changes. 
A second challenge is the implementation of more stringent regulations and new accounting standard such as the introduction of IFRS, which is affecting the bottom line of companies across the board. 
In addition, while we welcome the nationalization initiative across the GCC, finding the right candidate to fill the position and training him/her technically to fit into our organization is proving challenging across the group. It is important to note that there are many talents in the GCC especially, the fresh graduates (juniors) who are ready to start their careers and wish to grow professionally in their own countries. I believe, eventually the highest positions in organizations across the GCC will be occupied by nationals.

BL: Are you optimistic about the year 2019? Why?
Yolla El Khoury: There are mergers and JVs occurring amongst local, regional and multinational players. With such changes come growth opportunities. I am therefore optimistic about 2019. The level of competitiveness is rising and risks are evolving. 
The abundance of capacity and large number of players pose a challenge. But there are opportunities for serious providers, especially in sophisticated and specialty lines.

BL: Why during the recent years, global/regional insurance premiums hardly increased and yet how did reinsurance manage to develop?
Yolla El Khoury: Globally. Some of the world’s top reinsurers had suffered high losses, which subsequently resulted in changes to their underwriting guidelines. Regional accounts are also impacted and they could lose the potential discount that they used to get in previous years. In effect, when global players have a good year, it reflects positively on the industry across the globe and vice versa.

Despite the large volume of premiums in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, insurance penetration in these markets remains low, meaning there are opportunities for growth. This applies to the rest of the GCC as well. We do not foresee an increase in rates but a point to note is that the rates normally vary by lines of business. Depending on the account/client, either underwriters recommend a flat renewal or if the clients have suffered severe losses then they are offered a higher premium. Considering that abundant Reinsurance capacity is available in this part of the world, it is possible to find a company to write the business at a flat rate, no matter the losses. ACE’s challenge as a broker will then be to find the Capacity/Reinsurer who is ready to offer the widest cover at the most competitive terms to safeguard our client interests.

BL: What is the impact of alternative capital in the region?

Yolla El Khoury: Generally, the industry has suffered quite an amount of losses in the past, with 2017 being a bad year for reinsurance. As experienced brokers in the market, we had expected the pricing to increase owing to the losses of a tough year but we were shocked to see that the renewals have been flat with miniscule increases in pricing. This is the impact of alternative capital in the market. 
The underwriters, who paid out for heavy losses in the region, have secured third party capital to safeguard their operation. Nevertheless, they were able to afford renewing at flat rates or at slightly increased rates. Without this influx of capital, they would have struggled. Most reinsurers and syndicates have third party capital on the side to cover very big losses. Without this capital, some players would have gone out of the market or would have applied high pricing during renewals.

BL: Do you think that the Gulf and MENA insurers/clients will go for the digitalization of the industry (i.e. will they prefer to buy insurance online)? Why?
Yolla El Khoury: Well, digital transformation is having a disruptive effect on the industry, globally and regionally. However, our agility means we can quickly adapt to these evolving challenges. Those likely to be most impacted are insurers in traditional sectors, such as automotive and real estate. When it comes to complex risks, clients still require a broker to breakdown the policy and explain the various risks and covers.

For those insurers ready to seize the initiative, digitalization presents an immense opportunity. Customers are pressing for change. They now expect their insurers to offer simple, transparent and flexible products and services—all online. Some international Insurers have begun to respond as many foresee an increase in Customers’ preference for digital insurance in Personal lines of insurance at the minimum, due to an ever-growing change in the use of technology. This may eventually lead to introduction of a good number of digital insurance platforms by Insurers and Agents in the region in the near future, as this is now an accepted form of insurance servicing. 
However, that said, Companies requiring Insurance on a larger scale of insurance coverage will continue to expect direct interaction and personalization of insurance needs through Brokers so they can get the best insurance coverage as possible that encompasses all levels of insurance requirements for the company.

BL: World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim expected the global economy to expand by 3.5% in 2017 and by 3.6% in 2018, what are your comments?
Yolla El Khoury: “At the beginning of 2018 the global economy was firing on all cylinders, but it lost speed during the year and the ride could get even bumpier in the year ahead”, according to World Bank Chief Executive Officer Kristalina Georgieva in Jan 2019. Global economic growth is projected to soften in 2019. In the MENA region, growth is projected to rise slightly. Despite slower global trade growth and tighter external financing conditions, domestic factors, particularly policy reforms, are anticipated to bolster growth in the region. Growth among oil exporters is expected to pick up slightly this year, as GCC countries as a group is accelerating.

BL: What is the outlook for Brokers/Insurers in 2020?
Yolla El Khoury: Looking ahead, there are several areas, which Insurance companies/ Brokers might want to pay close attention. Some of these identified areas include Mergers and Acquisitions, Technology improvements, Talent acquisition, Product development and Regulatory Compliance. The biggest determining factor for future success will be how committed and prepared each carrier is to seize the opportunities presented by ongoing changes in the economy, society, and technology, and to respond before competitors or new market entrants beat them. We at ACE are constantly striving to improve our client satisfaction through continually addressing their needs and requirements and tailoring our insurance products to suit them and in line with the changing economic factors and technological advances.

BL: As a lady leader in the men’s industry, how do you stand out from this crowd? 
Yolla El Khoury: Leadership is an attitude and is not gender specific. You will have to set a good example for others to follow. That is where your commitment, empathy, honesty and integrity come into play. Good communication skills and decision-making capabilities also play a vital role in success and failure of a leader. Any person no matter what gender, need to be proactive and risk adept and has the right attitude and they will make great Leaders.

Agility, ability and desire to succeed

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