René Hamel has accomplished much in his four-decade career, but his most recent challenge may turn out to be his biggest. As president and CEO of Quebec City-based SSQ Life Insurance Co. Inc., which completed the acquisition of Montreal-based AXA Life Assurance Inc. last year, Hamel must now oversee the integration of the regionally based SSQ Life with AXA’s large national agent network.
The company that SSQ Life is digesting may not be huge, but neither is it small _ it is primarily an individual life insurance provider acquired from Toronto-based Intact Financial Corp. this past January. The deal has allowed SSQ Life to add $1.5 billion to the more than $8 billion in assets under administration already held by SSQ Life. All of the existing contracts and obligations of AXA remain, but that business is now continued as a wholly owned subsidiary known as SSQ Insurance Co. Inc.
It’s a bold move during a period in which market factors, including stubbornly low interest rates and volatile markets, are forcing other insurers to streamline their product shelves and exit some lines of business all together.
But generally poor market conditions haven’t made Hamel doubt the timing of the acquisition. “The assets and liabilities on AXA’s book were well matched,” Hamel says. In fact, current conditions are creating something of an advantage for SSQ Life, he adds, as it was able to acquire AXA for $300 million, less than it might have had to pay in better times.
The deal reflects Hamel’s plans to increase the size and scope of SSQ Life’s business activities significantly. Prior to the acquisition, SSQ Life was a strong regional player in the Quebec market, with three main lines of business: group life insurance, segregated funds branded as ASTRA funds, and property and casualty (P&C) insurance. The acquisition of AXA has added a fourth line: individual life insurance and a small block of specialized group life and health products, such as critical illness. Another major attraction was AXA’s national network of more than 2,000 agents.
Hamel is hoping that the deal will help SSQ Life become a top-tier player in both the group and individual life insurance markets, in and outside of Quebec: “We are currently the No. 1 insurer in Quebec in the group insurance market, but we are still a small player across Canada. We want to see all of our business lines reach that popularity.”
That has meant embarking on an aggressive marketing campaign, including a mix of consumer advertising and road shows for brokers and financial advisors across the country. “We want to meet face to face with as many [managing general agencies] and brokers as possible,” says Hamel. “A lot of brokers aren’t aware of the fact we have a full shelf of products, which goes beyond insurance and includes investments such as segregated funds and guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits.”
Hamel hopes that putting the strengths of SSQ Life and AXA together will greatly boost the company’s business by allowing its agents to offer an integrated range of both insurance and investment products.
Hamel has decades of experience building new insurance businesses from the ground up. Born in 1950, he was raised in Shawinigan, Que., a birthplace he shares with former prime minister Jean Chrétien. When it came time to choose a university course, Hamel took advantage of his talent for math and chose actuarial science. Says Hamel: “Math, to me, is the perfect mix of analytics and poetry.”
With degree in hand, Hamel moved to Montreal in 1972 to join a small actuarial firm, Blondeau & Co., now Optimum Group Inc. He describes his job there as a “baby actuary,” learning the ropes of calculating life insurance policies.
In 1974, Hamel left Optimum Group for a three-year stint as a fully licensed life actuary for a small P&C insurer in Quebec City called L’Union Canadienne Cie D’Assurances. Eventually, Hamel moved up to being head actuary of both the life and P&C business lines for that company.
Unlike many actuaries, who are often more comfortable with numbers than people, Hamel is an engaging speaker and always saw himself working with people. In 1977, he got his opportunity to enter management. His former boss at Optimum Group offered him a position as director of claim operations at Société du Insurance,
the P&C subsidiary of Optimum Group, which eventually led to a position overseeing the entire Canadian division.
Then, SSQ Life, having noticed Hamel’s management skills at Optimum, recruited him in 1986 when SSQ Life was looking to start up its P&C operations. “The chance to start an insurance company from scratch is a rare opportunity,” says Hamel. His first day on the job, he recalls, found him drafting a new vision for SSQ Life’s P&C division. First off the drawing board was a sales plan, says Hamel: “We began with drafting a sales strategy that would leverage SSQ Life’s strength as a group insurer, in which the P&C sales
team would offer P&C products to the individuals within our group [life] plans.”
The success of the original launch led to Hamel being appointed CEO of the P&C division in 1990. By 1995, he was executive vice president of SSQ Life’s pension division. In 2001, he switched to overseeing the other side of SSQ Life’s business, the group life insurance division. In 2008, he stepped into his current role as CEO of SSQ Life.
In the months ahead, there’s no doubt Hamel’s schedule will be packed with dozens of trips across the country, overseeing the integration process. To wind down, Hamel spends weekends with his family in Quebec City’s great outdoors, including skiing and snowshoeing with his wife Ginette and two sons and a daughter, ages 31, 24 and 21, respectively.
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