Jean-François Chalifoux has landed at the top of a leading Quebec insurer just as it finds itself consolidating a wave of recent acquisitions and preparing for even more growth.
Although Chalifoux is an actuary by training, he says he’s not a numbers person; rather, he says, he’s a people person who just happens to be good at math. Both skills are likely to be crucial as he takes over as CEO of Quebec City-based SSQ Life Insurance Company Inc.
Chalifoux says he’s up for the challenge, and he’s ambitious about what the firm can accomplish as it prepares to expand even further outside its key markets and product lines.
“Not so long ago, SSQ was a small organization. It is now a medium-sized organization, and it’s on its way to becoming a large organization,” says Chalifoux. “It’s really been rapidly evolving in the past five years, and I think it’s [SSQ’s] entrepreneurial spirit that has pushed the organization to keep growing and expanding into new territories, new lines of business.”
Chalifoux, 45, joined SSQ as recently as July and took over as CEO in mid-September, following the retirement of his predecessor, René Hamel. Chalifoux holds a degree in actuarial science from Laval University, and he has held a number of executive positions with Canadian insurers throughout his career, both on the property and casualty (P&C) and life and health sides of the insurance business. His experience includes 10 years with Lévis, Que.-based Desjardins Group, for which he most recently was head of its personal insurance division.
Since joining SSQ, Chalifoux says, his focus has been on learning everything there is to know about the company and its history. “I’ve always believed that it’s essential to understand where a company is coming from before you [determine] its future,” he says.
Adding to the challenge of learning all aspects of a new company is the fact that Chalifoux joined SSQ during a period of considerable growth and evolution for the firm. The company has made several acquisitions in the past few years, including a Trois-Rivières, Que.-based distributor of auto insurance products in 2011, AXA Life Insurance Inc. in 2012 and a travel insurance distributor based in Granby, Que. in 2014.
“Recently [SSQ] has been changing a lot,” says Chalifoux. “So, it’s very interesting to be involved in this part of the company’s history.”
The acquisitions reflect efforts by SSQ to diversify its mix of products as well as its geographical presence. The company historically focused most heavily on the group life and health insurance business, and market share has been strongest in the province of Quebec.
SSQ’s $300-million acquisition of AXA from Toronto-based Intact Financial Corp. marked SSQ’s first foray into individual life insurance products and brought a hefty new geographical presence in the form of new offices as well as a Canada-wide product distribution network.
Chalifoux says he views individual life insurance as a market with significant growth potential for SSQ. “We have large market share in the province of Quebec,” he says, “but in Ontario, Atlantic Canada and Western Canada, there’s a lot of market share to gain.”
SSQ also is taking steps to diversify its distribution and customer service channels to ensure its products and services are accessible to consumers through whichever medium they’re most comfortable using. Chalifoux says that, although independent advisors will always have a role in serving clients who are looking for complex insurance products, he anticipates that a growing proportion of consumers will begin turning to the web for more straightforward types of coverage.
“It’s important to respect the consumers’ preference, whether they want to do business via an independent broker, whether they want to do business face-to-face with one of our employees, through an agent in our call centres or online – either through the web or through a mobile application,” Chalifoux says. “We’re in a multi-product and multi-distribution era, and it’s important for SSQ to be present however the customers want to do business with SSQ.”
Enhancing SSQ’s online channel will be a key area of focus for Chalifoux. SSQ already provides clients with the capability to get quotes on P&C insurance products online, and, he says, the firm is working to enhance clients’ capabilities to apply for life insurance products online, as well.
Chalifoux, based on his experience in the industry, notes that the P&C side of the business generally is more technologically advanced and innovative compared with the life insurance side. However, he adds, the life insurance space is on the cusp of its own transformation, as that side of the industry has begun embracing technology in new ways.
SSQ has implemented a variety of advanced technological tools and applications across all of its business segments, according to Chalifoux, such as mobile apps that group insurance clients can use to manage their coverage and claims. One of Chalifoux’s key priorities in his new role is to continue enhancing SSQ’s technological offerings to keep up with changing consumer expectations.
“We can gain a lot of efficiencies and improve customers’ experience greatly if we administer and service the insurance products better in line with [clients’] expectations,” he says. “There is a lot of development to do in the next few years.”
Chalifoux’s efforts on the technological front fit in with his longer-term goal of strengthening SSQ’s identity in the marketplace as a forward-thinking and approachable industry player: “We intend to develop SSQ as an innovative, customer-centric organization. That’s really going to be my focus for the medium to long term.”
He acknowledges that the company faces hefty competition as it expands across the country, particularly from the country’s biggest life insurers, as well as from new, emerging competitors that are challenging the insurance industry’s traditional ways of doing business. Robo-advisors, for example, are gaining momentum, and Chalifoux suspects that major technology industry conglomerates could make a foray into financial services.
“We know what to expect from our traditional competitors,” he says, “but looking at how companies such as Google or Facebook could get into our industry and look at things differently than what we are doing now, [that] is certainly something that we should all be concerned with.”
The changing regulatory environment also presents challenges for all industry players, Chalifoux says. Quebec’s financial services industry, in particular, is facing potentially widespread regulatory changes as that province’s Ministry of Finance pursues a review of Bill 188, the legislation regarding the distribution of financial products and services. “This is something that affects all of us,” Chalifoux says.
Even though SSQ has grown in the past few years, Chalifoux says, SSQ has the advantage in being smaller than its larger insurance industry competitors.
“We are agile, and we have an entrepreneurial culture,” he says. “As we grow, it will be extremely important to build upon this agility and this entrepreneurial culture to adapt to an evolving marketplace and increasingly demanding customer expectations.”
This element of innovation, as well as the collaborative nature of the business, are things that Chalifoux enjoys about working in the insurance industry.
“I’ve always been more on the people side than the numbers side,” he says. “But, that said, understanding the numbers, understanding how the products are made and having an in-depth knowledge of the basics of insurance really prepares me well for the operations side, the management side. It helps me build a vision and establish strategy.”
Outside the office, Chalifoux enjoys cycling, running and downhill skiing with his two sons, who are aged 13 and 15. “It’s a good way,” Chalifoux says, “for me to escape a hectic schedule.”
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