The tall centennial pines obstruct the view in every direction. The map is useless, no point of reference is in sight. I am lost. The dark, seemingly infinite Swedish forest has swallowed me merciless. I must not succumb to the tiredness and the fear of being alone. I must act. But where do I go? Which sign should I follow? I know something – if I go north, there’s a small lake. It doesn’t matter which lake, Sweden’s morphology is a colander – each hole, a lake. On the lakeshore I will have an open view and from there on, I will recognize a landmark. The decision is taken, I start running again.
No, you are not visiting the wrong page. And yes, this is my “190 story.” It might seem like the start of a fantasy novel, and there is, indeed, a ‘dragon’ involved! But this is actually the tale of a five-day orienteering competition in which I took part near the village of Anderstorp, in the Swedish wilderness 410 kilometers from Stockholm, more than three decades ago. I will tell you in a moment how this story ended. But first, let me explain to you why this is so important to me and for my path in Generali.
I will start with the basics. Orienteering is a popular sport in the Nordics. Players are given a map and a compass and around 30 checkpoints they must pass in the least amount of time possible. Since there is no specified track, orienteering combines athletics, navigation abilities, decision making and strategy. Orienteering teaches you how to take quick decisions under stress, to respect and listen to yourself and to nature and, most importantly, how not to get lost along your course.
Orienteering was my favorite sport in the years of my engineering studies at the Politecnico of Milan, before joining Generali. I prepared quite well by becoming three-time junior Italian champion and a member of the national team.
And then I joined Generali. The moment I crossed the huge carved wooden doors of the company’s Headquarters in Trieste, Italy – the one where Generali moved in 1886, 55 years after its foundation – I felt immediately humbled. Not because of my neck-tie, which I did not even know how to wear, but because of the prestige and tradition which you could literally breathe. Those were the years of the popular saying: “When the Chairman of Generali enters the room, even ministers stand up.” A newly graduated engineer, I joined as an “impiegato di IV livello” (“4th-level employee”), a rather bureaucratic way to say that I was at the very bottom of the ladder.
Awe soon gave room to surprise. My first role at Generali was in the Research department. There, I realized insurance is not a dusty, gloomy, somewhat boring business that only serves to remind people who are alive that “sooner or later they are going to be injured or dead.” To my surprise, there was a lot to learn in insurance. In those years, I had the honor of meeting outstanding personalities – for example, professor Luciano Daboni, a pioneer in the actuarial and statistical sciences, who used to collaborate with my department and, every afternoon, came by our office to give us lessons of actuarial sciences, free of charge... There was also a lot of innovation. I had my epiphany in the United States, where I was sent by Generali to study the practices of two local health insurers, two giant corporations, bigger than Generali itself. In a country where there was – and, in many aspects, there still is – no national healthcare system, insurers had to be creative and fill the gap.
A start-up in the ‘90s
But it was only in my next task that I could put innovation into practice.
Today, when we think of start-ups, we imagine Silicon Valley, billion-dollar IPOs and extravagant 20-something billionaires walking through their offices in sandals and shorts.
In 1994, starting a new business was way less fancy. In that year, together with two or three colleagues and friends, I founded Genertel, which later became one of Italy’s leading telephone and online (also known as ‘direct’) insurers. We were 10 colleagues when we underwrote the first policy from a small apartment in Largo Bonifacio in Trieste, which served as our Headquarters, two floors below the small apartment where I used to live. Our customer service center consisted of two desks and four telephones that we would pick up in turns, the printer was in the corridor and our archive was a tub in the bathroom. At Genertel, I started as Marketing Manager and ended up as Chief Commercial & Operations Officer, in charge of Sales, Marketing, Back Offices, Operations and IT. The day I left, at the end of 2005, the company employed 500 people serving more than half a million customers. We created a new market niche and pioneered a new way of providing insurance. The initial resistances and challenges were strong, but we were a group of resolute, far-sighted people. We had a passion for customers and a clear understanding of their needs, which were evolving under the growing influence of mobile phones and the internet. We fought, we took risks, we worked hard, and in the end we succeeded. And above all, we have always been supported in our disruptive effort by Generali, the largest and most traditional Italian insurance company.
Many times I have been asked: Which are the benefits of working for such a big company like Generali? There are many, but one that shaped my career more than others is the chance to be exposed to an international business.
My first international role was as Area Manager in 2006, with the responsibility over the operations in German-speaking countries. I oversaw the performance of a number of business units within the Head Office until March 2015. For almost a year, in 2013, I served as Head of the Business Performance Management Unit in charge of Central Europe, including Italy. This was a watershed moment in my career because I contributed to kick off the turnaround of the Group’s operations in Italy. This restructuring project in Generali’s major market was a massive and necessary endeavor, since the business unit had too many brands, too many product factories and all in all too many untapped synergies. With the Italian reorganization, I practiced for what was about to come a couple of years later in Germany.
My last position before moving to Germany was as Regional CEO for Europe, Middle East and Africa. I took that role at the end of 2013, when I was asked to create an entirely new structure to oversee 23 insurance companies in 12 countries. Albeit exhausting, travelling to so many places was a uniquely enriching experience that made me appreciate diversity on one hand, and the whole “human race” on the other. By working with 11,000 employees speaking nine different languages and practicing five different religions, in those two years I had the opportunity to learn more about cultures and habits than in the rest of my life.
The place I call my second home now is Munich, Germany. I moved here in April 2015, when I was appointed as Country Manager for Germany and CEO of Generali Deutschland.
The task I had to face was daunting. Generali’s operations in Germany were scattered across a complex organization with 14 employer companies and seven separate brands. Distribution networks were cannibalizing each other and the profitability of the Life business was dented by a portfolio of old policies with high guaranteed rates in a world of sub-zero interest rates. My team and I integrated all the employer entities into two and all the brands into three. We maximized the distribution firepower by merging the Generali agents’ network into DVAG – Germany’s largest and most successful financial and insurance sales organization with 18,000 full-time advisors – and strengthened the leadership position in the direct channel through CosmosDirekt, Europe’s biggest ‘insurtech’ and online insurer. We sold the legacy Life portfolio to a specialized player, concluding a blueprint deal for the whole sector and freeing up 1.8 billion Euro of cash for more profitable allocations. We modernized the product mix with innovative solutions in the field of telematics, domotics, wellness and hybrid Life products.
If my experience at Generali Italia was helpful in restructuring the German business, the one at Genertel proved essential to never lose sight of customers, and my orienteering skills helped me not to get lost in such a complex terrain…
Six years after the start of the German reorganization, Generali Deutschland today is perfectly positioned to reach its ambitious goal to become Germany’s number one insurer in terms of profitable growth, return on capital and innovation. My 9,500 colleagues and I are adamant about it.
The DNA of Generali
2021 marks the year of the 190th anniversary of Generali, but also of my 30th career anniversary in this company. Recently, I saw the amazing celebratory light show projected on the Generali Tower in Milan and it had me thinking. Watching this beautiful modern building, I reminisced about the sandy soccer field where I used to play as a kid with my friends, in the shade of the only high-rise building in Verona: “il grattacielo delle Generali” (“the Generali sky-scraper”). At that time, I did not know what Generali was, I only knew that it was big. Maybe I was indeed destined for Generali. I grew up under the wings of the Generali lion. Generali shaped the man I am today, and – I like to think – I contributed to shape Generali into the company it is today.
So what is this Generali identity? What is the fundamental cultural trait that sets Generali apart from competitors? What is the company’s DNA that replicated itself throughout the last 190 years and that now runs also in my blood?
To me, it is the attention to human beings. People – employees, customers, agents, shareholders, and ultimately all stakeholders – and their quality of life come first at Generali. Neither the procedure, nor the system, nor the profit are central here. People are. I have breathed this ‘humanism’ since the day I crossed those huge carved wooden doors and I commit to promote it every single day.
How did it end?
The experiences I had and the remarkable people I met so far at Generali allowed me to learn and develop insurance skills, commercial shrewdness, courage. I had been meeting outstanding men and women with strategic vision, creativity and innovation instinct. They taught me a measured and poised management style, bare of any arrogance. They taught me the importance of feeling part of a team and relying on other people. These are, in my opinion, the most important features of a leader.
Incidentally, many of these are also the characteristics you need when you find yourself lost in a Swedish forest during an orienteering game. So it is now time to tell you how the story ended.
I reach the lake and the sweet, fresh breeze offers me some respite from the fatigue of the run. Alas, no landmark around me. No mountain, no bell tower, no barn. I am about to lose all of my hopes. Suddenly, I hear a voice: “Hey, italiano!” I immediately recognize him. Being the only Italian competitor out of 27,000 participants at the start, I could only manage to befriend a Norwegian champion with Italian origins and a very Italian, mythological surname: Drago.
I turn my head and there he is: Lars Drago, the Norwegian champion, helping me exit that lumber maze. He knows every centimeter of that maze, it is his home turf. Once we are out of the forest and I am safe, Lars speeds up and I see him disappear in the horizon.
I guess had he not helped me, he would have ranked higher. I don’t remember how he finished and I don’t remember how I ranked, but honestly I don’t care. I only remember what Drago taught me: when things get tough, what can make the difference is people helping people. This is also what makes Generali great.
And, by the way, I can always say that I was the best (and only) Italian!