Podcast 42. Adrian Jones, Head of Ventures and Strategic Partnerships, SCOR

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon

In this episode Matthew Grant talks to Adrian Jones who heads up Ventures & Strategic Partnerships at SCOR Global P&C, the #5 global reinsurer. P&C Ventures, one of the more active VCs in re/insurance, is fully embedded within SCOR and invests in support of the core business.

Adrian's P&C Ventures team at SCOR invests in carriers, MGAs, and technology companies.  Adrian is also a well-known speaker and writer on innovation and technology in insurance. Read more about Adrian via LinkedIn.

Listen here to podcast 42. It is also available in iTunes, Spotify and Podbean.


Transcript for this podcast

00:11 Matthew Grant: Hello, Matthew Grant here, one of the partners at InsTech London. In this episode, I caught up with another well-known industry figure, Adrian Jones from reinsurer SCOR who was over in London recently. Now, Adrian's day job is Deputy CEO of P&C Partners and he's in charge of Ventures and Strategic Partnerships. But Adrian is also well known as a commentator on Insurance Innovation and future trends. We had a great discussion about a whole range of topics, including the types of companies that SCOR looks to invest in and attention that insurers have between investing for benefits for the core business but also looking for commercial returns as a strategic investor. Adrian is also on the board of B3i and he gives a perspective on how the consortium is getting on and a hint about something that's coming soon with their pilot study to be announced later this year. And finally, he also gives us an update on what he sees happening at Lemonade. Adrian, it's great to see you again. We're here in London, you're based in Paris. What brings you over to the UK this time?

01:23 Adrian Jones: The fact that you had one day of sun this year so I wanted to enjoy it. And I spent the evening of that day of sun at your event last night actually. So it's always good to check in on what people are doing around these parts.

01:39 MG: Great. Well, you've had some pretty hot weather in Paris. So I think you've now jinxed us because it's now a cloudy day in London again. But anyway, let's talk a little bit about you and what we're kind of interested to hear what's been happening at P&C Ventures. So you started off your career at Bain, you did about eight years there. You then went to RenRe and then on to SCOR. Now most people don't start their careers planning to go into insurance unless they've got family members doing it. So what was it that took you from Bain into RenRe?

02:09 AJ: So I fell into insurance like everybody does. When I had just come back from Sweden with Bain and I went in with the staffing manager and they said, "You need to get on the train, go to Princeton, New Jersey and ask for a gentleman at this particular address." And if you know Princeton, you know what insurance company I would have been at. And so I did. That was my first consulting project in insurance. From there I did a couple of other consulting projects and eventually, in 2010, decided it was time to go somewhere else. New York was a pretty miserable place in the immediate post-financial crisis world and so I decided to go to Bermuda and join RenRe as Head of Strategy there. Six years there, and I decided that I had enough of a tropical island so it was time for some foie gras and wine and ended up in Paris.

03:00 MG: Excellent. So, I mean, we haven't really got time to talk about RenRe and the Bermudan reinsurance now but I mean, you've written yourself a lot about what's happening in the insurtech space and the disruptors and to a certain extent, those Bermudan companies including RenRe were, in a way, some of the earliest disruptors in the insurance space in raising billions of dollars of capacity very quickly and taking over the market from what was an established market in the US and Lloyd's.

03:27 AJ: Yeah, and in fact, then continued to drive that disruption as third party capital came in. And those who... Among the Bermudians, those who embraced the third party capital movement ended up doing reasonably well and they're still around and those that did not are gone. And in fact, if you look back to the immediate class of '06, something like 10 of the 16 major reinsurers at the time have disappeared or have been acquired or otherwise no longer independent companies. So reinsurance is a great example of a disruption that actually has happened. And you see the results. Only a few of the strongest companies survive.

04:05 MG: Yeah, and I think you've written an article about that on LinkedIn as well. So if anybody wants to discover a bit more about what Adrian's view is on that, then yeah, you can check it out. So then you went to SCOR in 2016 and a year later, you set up P&C Ventures. Was that something the company asked you to do? Or did you just see an opportunity and take on your own initiative to set it up?

04:26 AJ: So that was the early days of insurtech. The word had only been coined a year previously. And I saw a number of companies which were doing a lot of really interesting things, and I said, "We need to have a way of actually engaging with these companies." And so, I said, "I've seen how Venture's playbook works. It can work very well. Here's how we would do it." And put together the proposal to make it happen, and we did our first deal in 2017.

04:55 MG: And how easy or difficult was it to convince the management to set up? Because that's quite a big commitment to set up a separate investment fund for every insurer?

05:07 AJ: It is and it isn't. The key is to do it in a slow, controlled manner. So we did not go out and set up a giant unit and hire a 100 people and do it and try to take over the world. We did it in a very slow, controlled way where we said, "Let's actually get in and just do a deal and see how it works and see if we have something here." And once we did that and we discovered actually we have a service and some capital which is very beneficial to startups, and we have a particular way of doing it which can work for us and for them, then it just made sense to keep doing it more and more. And so I gradually sort of transitioned my job from being Head of Strategy to running the Ventures activity and every day I was just spending more and more time on Ventures and that's really how it happened. So we didn't hire our first person into Ventures full-time until earlier this year.

06:00 MG: Good. And that's a classic case of somebody designing their own job and clearly, you must have been successful because then they gave you a full-time role running one of the P&C Ventures divisions. So yeah, can you just talk a little bit about how SCOR sort of reorganized themselves last year into three business units and the part you're looking after yourself?

06:20 AJ: Yeah, so we separated our insurance and our reinsurance businesses. They had previously been somewhat mixed. So we now have reinsurance which is about 75% of our premium and specialty insurance which includes our Lloyd's syndicate, our MGA business and our business solutions business which is about 25% altogether of our €7 billion a premium for the division. Then, you have a whole number of things which operate cross-functionally and that they're not functions, they're actual business units. So a retrocession business, third-party.

06:55 AJ: P&C ventures, underwriting management, alternative solutions, product development. All these sort of things were put under a group called P&C Partners, which is run by Sylvie Van Viet. He's been with the company for a very long time. And so, yeah, we are part of that because what we do and what's challenging about this job, is the fact that we do operate across the various businesses. So that's what's challenging but it's also why there's an opportunity, because I believe that the magic happens when you combine knowledge and skills through multiple domains, that's when you can do really interesting innovative things.

07:33 MG: Great. And then in terms of the objectives of the fund, you've written a very helpful LinkedIn article on this as well called, Building Insurance Futures SCOR P&C Ventures approach, but it'd be helpful just to get at a high level perspective, where is the sort of focus for you between a fund that you're actually looking to see returns from your investment in a pure financial way, versus organizations that you see are going to be critical to, or certainly very valuable to the growth of SCOR, both in what you're doing today, but also into some of the emerging risks you'd like to underwrite.

08:09 AJ: Yeah, so that's the classic tension between strategic value and financial value. Let me tell you about how we think about that. First of all, we are doing this ventures activity because we believe that we are building the insurers of the future. By so doing, we will also build the re-insurer of the future. The insurers of the future that we're building can operate in a couple of different ways. One is we can simply back MGAs and carriers with strategic capacity as well as investment dollars or pounds or euros. Secondly, we are looking for technologies which can help make SCOR a better underwriter, so we exist in the world of aggregated risk. There are some very unique challenges to that world. We're looking for solutions to those. And thirdly, we're looking for solutions for our existing clients, and how we turn them into the insurers of the future. And so we're able to invest across all three of those theses.

09:08 AJ: It's really the first one that we've been focused on so far, but this year we are broadening our focus towards the second and the third. And we found that with that first thesis, which is providing both the investment dollars as well as the capital to start up MGAs and carriers, we can align our interests both internally as well as with our client, through balancing the two sides of that equation. So the challenge for a young company is always growth versus profitability, that's also the challenge for old companies as well. But we've seen very different approaches in the startup world towards that equation. If we are only a re-insure we only have the downside, the maximum that we can benefit is the premium that we take in.

09:57 AJ: If we are only an investor, we only have the upside, the maximum we can lose is the money that we put in, and if you combine those two risk distributions you actually end up with a much better distribution, and it allows us to have a much better conversation with our client around their own challenge of growth versus profitability. And when you do that, that takes some of the tension off of strategic return versus financial return, because we can actually take it in both sides, we're one or the other. The strategic return is the re-insurance that we're generating and the financial return is obvious. We should be able to do both if we do it really well. And so having the relationship across the investment as well as the risk capacity, means that we have every incentive to make that company as successful as possible on both sides of the equation, and it somewhat eliminates the tension which might otherwise exist.

10:52 MG: Yeah, so it sounds like you've found a way to solve that problem that many insurance companies have, and I think this is one of the reasons so many find it difficult to innovate, which is people tend to be judged largely on short-term returns, underwriters are judged on or paid on their short term underwriting profit. You've got a more longer... You have mix of presumably some short-term but more longer term objectives in there. I guess it's sort of early days yet, but early indications on how things are looking in terms of the companies you've partnered with or invested in.

11:24 AJ: We're very pleased with the performance of all the companies that we've invested in and partnered with, which is seven or eight, depending on how you count right now. But it is very early days, and we have to be patient, it takes three or four years before you see real results. Anybody can go out and write a bunch of premium tomorrow, and then discover that it's actually bad premium. So we want to be very patient with the companies that we're dealing with. My view is this is a little bit like a long tail line of business, it's more like casualty than it is property. But what I mean by that is, it does take time before you see the real results, and frankly we don't know, but we're very pleased with how things are going so far.

12:08 MG: Good, and you tend to keep it pretty close to your chest about who it is you're investing with. You certainly don't announce it on your website, and certainly the research I've done I couldn't easily find out who you're investing with. Obviously, that's intentional. What is the reason for not be willing to disclose who you're already involved with?

12:30 AJ: We don't necessarily feel the need to, to be honest. We try to trade on our credibility, and the offer that we bring, which I described a few minutes ago, we don't necessarily trade on the fact that we were early investors in ABC or XYZ company, which is, I find how a lot of venture capitalists market themselves, and that's how they're known. I'd much rather be known as someone who understands how the insurance business operates, who can bring the capabilities of a global company like SCOR to benefit a young startup operation, and who can structure a very good long-term relationship with that company. If I'm known for those things, then it doesn't matter, anything else.

13:12 MG: Okay. And you tend to invest series A, series B, I don't think you do much on the seed round of funding.

13:19 AJ: The definitions are fuzzy, but we've probably done some late seed, you could say.

13:25 MG: So Adrian we've talked a little bit about SCOR here. Of course you yourself have got your own personal views, which may or may not represent what the company views are. So it'd be, "We're interested to get some of what you're seeing out in the landscape for insure tech and emerging risks. So as you look at there, the last few years, are there any companies... And recognizing this is not anything to do with companies you may or may not have invested in, but companies you've seen that you feel have been successful and are good role models for anybody else wanting to understand what success looks like in the insurtech world.

14:00 AJ: So thanks, Matt. As we talked, this is just personal views at this point. So I operate primarily in the MGA carrier space, or at least have so far in terms of our investments. I think that there is a lot in that space in part because those are businesses which generate a good recurring revenue stream and actually generate underwriting profitability. And if you know how to do that really well, I think there's no better business model in this industry than doing that. So companies which have done that particularly well? I'll give you one example. But everybody needs to follow their own path here, and what's right for one company is not necessarily what's right for another. So one of the companies which is disclosed because I'm on the board, is a company called States Title, title insurance company in the United States which is underwriting title based on artificial intelligence. They can deliver a curative-free title commitment in a matter of two minutes, rather than the typical two days to two weeks. Title is one of these lines of business which most people outside the US have never even heard of. It guarantees that when you buy land, you actually own the land that you think you own. It guarantees the title to that property. States started out as a carrier. They got proof of concept. They were able to demonstrate that this new way of underwriting actually worked.

15:35 AJ: They then said, "Well, what's the best way to scale this?" And it turned out that the best way to scale it was to do an acquisition of an existing company to get the infrastructure that would have taken years to build on their own, to get the licenses that would have taken years, to get the people. And so started looking at the list of what title companies were available, and found one, and actually made that acquisition in January of this year. So they went from being a very small start-up operation to owning the No. 8 title insurance company in the course of two years, from founding to where they are now. I think that that is an extraordinary accomplishment for them and for that team. I think it puts them on the map in the way that they wouldn't have been before. But it required betting the entire company on this acquisition, and some extraordinary deal-making skills to actually pull it off because how do you, as a two-year-old venture-backed company, go out and acquire a big incumbent? That's not easy to do. And so I think the people on the start-up side need to be thinking really big about what they could potentially accomplish.

16:48 AJ: And I think people on the incumbent side need to think about, "Well, what's in our closet?" Meaning insurance companies are a collection of all sorts of different businesses, and we supposedly generate value from the diversification. But at some point, you just decide, "There are some things in here which don't work. Those are things which we ought to think really creatively around. How do we turn this into a business? Can we spin it out into some separate business? Can we sell it to a start-up operator? Is there somebody out there that has a better use for this asset than we do?" And that was the case with the title company that got acquired. And I think it's going to turn out to be a brilliant partnership between the seller and States Title as the buyer.

17:31 MG: That's very helpful, thanks. And the essence of that is insurance ultimately is not unlike any other major technology marketplace where you need founders with vision, the ability to scale, the ability to move very, very quickly. And I think it's partly the reason that a number of companies that started off two or three years ago when, as he said, through the insurtech was coined, have struggled a little bit because they just don't have the ability to... Or don't have the vision and the full-length ability to really scale. And yeah, it takes many tough decisions, but move really quickly. And insurance companies generally struggled to work with those companies that are too small. That is interesting, that MGA. So technology linking see more companies now where they are both MGAs, and they've got technology. And some interesting ones, they're actually using their experience as MGA to be able to also sell on some of their technology. Good. I just want us to talk about something else you're involved with which is B3i, the blockchain consortium. We had a lot of talk about blockchain last year. We know there are some activities going on at B3i. I'm not aware of anything that's very explicit just now that they're working on. Is there anything you can reveal about what their opportunity was, where the focus of the aspirations is for 2019?

18:53 AJ: Yes. I joined the board of B3i when we did the latest fundraise earlier this year. B3i has been a little bit quieter than they were last year because they have been entirely focused on developing the core initial product which is a CapEx OL Reinsurance placement product. I have seen the initial version of the product which is going to be released to the people who are involved with it in a matter of a couple of weeks. It's an extraordinary product. They have put a tremendous amount of effort into it. We recently had a hackathon in Zurich where a group of about 40 insurers, re-insurers, and brokers went through and tested the product, and sent more than a thousand messages back and forth, ran several different treaties through the product. And, of course, there were some bugs, but they were all fixable. I think it's gonna be a tremendous product. I think we're all very excited about it. And then the company will be expanding beyond that, of course. I think there's one additional thing which needs to be said about B3i. Although the B stands for blockchain, the company is not a blockchain company. It was initially formed as a way for a number of industry participants to explore blockchain technology. And it is still using distributed ledger technology, which is of course very similar, not exactly the same.

20:20 AJ: But if you notice in the first press really announcing the funding, the word blockchain wasn't used. The point of B3i is not to be a blockchain company. It is to solve a really big industry problem which is the inefficiencies which we have in the transfer of risk across the value chain. We believe that DLT could potentially be a solution, but what we're really focused on is how do we actually solve that problem. And in order to solve that problem, I believe that we need to have everyone in the industry involved in coming together and forward solutions to it. If every one of us just goes out and tries to solve it on our own, it will never be solved, because the problem is the interface between insure, re-insure and broker. And therefore we have to have everyone involved in solving that, and that's why B3i having 17 insurers and re-insurers as its shareholders, and its sole shareholders, I think is a very exciting initiative, because their customers are their owners. We're all here, we're waiting for this product to come out. And like I said, I think it will be tremendous when it does.

21:24 MG: Now, in the space of platforms for re-insurance and efficient exchange of information between insurers and re-insurers and obviously working with the re-insurance brokers, seems to be getting a lot more attention this year. And yeah, there's probably a dozen companies out there working a space. Ultimately, it's probably not going to be one single organization that owns that space, but I think it's intriguing to see how that plays out over time. And no, so great to hear that that's actually now going to go to pilot study, and I guess people will be able to get more visibility into that later on this year.

22:00 AJ: Can I just comment on that? Yeah, I think the product, which should be ready for live testing at 11... Sorry, not live testing, but actually live product going through it at 1120. I think the product will be great. You're right that there are a whole number of initiatives which are out there, initiatives, companies, whatever. This is a really big problem, and the key is going to be that we design what we're doing in such a way that we can all work together. So all the DLT initiatives in the industry are running on our three quarter right now. So there will at least be a common transaction engine underneath. Then we need to make sure there's a common data definition layer above that, and then people can build where they wish to build, provided that it's all interoperable. And I think ultimately, there will be several solutions which will all need to come together and speak in a common language in order to solve the problem.

22:55 MG: So it's by the way of solving that you're creating another ecosystem. So B3i might, you know, create the main platform, but you enable people coming in, and you might have different ideas or just different options about how they do the user interface or specialize in certain businesses. And providing they're built on earth recorder and they use the same standards, is what you're coming up with, then you're kind of open to people building separate products, albeit you don't want to be going often doing in a different language, in a different continent, in a different island, and the two can't talk to each other.

23:31 AJ: Yeah, the key is that they're interoperable, they're built on similar technology, and ideally, we don't have multiple parties trying to solve the exact same part of a very big problem. If we make sure that we're all kind of playing next to each other, not on top of each other, then I think that we'll have great success.

23:52 MG: Fantastic. Good. Well, just moving on to a separate area, you and Matic have only written a few articles now I think about the financial results of Lemonade, you have Metromile in there. Again, I think these are written as Adrian Jones, as an individual rather than representing SCOR. But yes, yes, yeah, it's a very sort of thoughtful commentary in there about, I suppose just reflecting some of the challenges and asking some pertinent questions about, at what point does a start-up no longer become a start-up? At what point should you start to be looking at financial results that are actually commercially acceptable, as opposed to it's a study initially as a growth for revenue. How do you think these companies do now? It's about a year ago, I think, since you wrote these articles, but are you seeing continuation of a theme, or anything else you want to comment on about what you've seen since then?

24:44 AJ: Yeah, so we didn't publish for the first quarter of this year, but we did publish on Mateo's page, in annual review last year. I think that if I come in again just as my own personal opinions, I was very impressed by the post that Lemonade put out where they actually went into detail in their financial numbers for the first time, and said where they felt like they were doing well and where they weren't, and why they felt like they were going to do better. This isn't to say that I agreed with everything that was in that post, but I felt like it was a much greater level of maturity than we've seen from most startups in terms of addressing the numbers. Because the numbers are publicly available, and I think that people who study this industry should understand them and be aware of them. So I was very impressed with that. I think it will become harder and harder as you go along to take out each incremental point on the last ratio. So we're not there yet. There's still a lot of hard work to do, and it gets harder as you go along, not easier. But that said, I think that they have shown a nice improvement from where they initially started out, and I think that's really to be commended with more work to do.

26:01 MG: Good. Can we look forward to the next round of reviews from you and Mateo at some point in the near future?

26:10 AJ: A lot of people are looking at these numbers right, now and Mateo and I just need to decide how we would do it in a manner which is differentiated and insightful now.

26:19 MG: Okay. Well, I know a lot of people commented on the last one, so I'm sure you got a very receptive audience out there just waiting for your next opinion. So just actually on that topic of articles, we're talking now, we bumped into each other at a few conferences, you came a long to our Instech London event last night, how do you balance all that time of being out there publicly, putting some full leadership out there, and then just doing the day job?

26:43 AJ: Well, your event was great because it's short and sweet. There are, what? Seven, eight people that spoke over the course of an hour, probably? And then of course you had the one-minute pitches at the very end, which I find great, because you learned as much in one minute as you do in an hour sometimes. It's tough because I spend a lot of time on the road. I've been, in the last two months, to San Francisco twice, South Africa, Asia, Zurich, Milan, here, New York. So yeah, it's a lot of time on the road. One of the things I do with conferences is I limit myself to one conference a quarter, because otherwise you can spend all of your time at conferences and you end up not having the time to actually properly prepare and follow up. It's a lot of work to get the proper meeting scheduled, and it's a lot of work to make sure that you're following up properly. So I self-imposed that limit.

27:40 AJ: But yeah, it's not easy because we're a really small operation, it's just a couple of us, and we're trying to support both SCOR internally and helped to drive that internal culture change, and we're also trying to be as many places as we can in the world to make sure that we understand what's going on, so that when things happen, we can make sure that we're at the forefront of them. I think what has been a very positive surprise, I'll put my SCOR hat back on for a moment here, is we've been really supported by people in the organization, much more than I expected. I've had several people come and sit down in front of my desk and say, "Adrian, I'm really excited about what you're doing. Please tell me what can I do to support you." And I've had several of those conversations and I've had other people who'd never have said that, but they've just started sending things our way. And so actually, we source a lot of our deals just because people are out there in the market, and they're known, and when they find these sort of things they then send them on to us and we work with them to try to execute. So we spend very little time actually trying to proactively source ourselves. So that's one area where we take out a significant chunk of time. We also don't need to fund raise, which is quite nice.

29:01 AJ: So suddenly more than half of what the traditional VC does is gone from our day job. So that's a little bit of how we try to manage it.

29:08 MG: Well, I've known SCOR for many years and always very much enjoyed working with people there. Of course, you also have the benefit now with Jean-Paul Constantine in his role of CEO for SCOR Re, it's somebody who comes at this from a modeling background, Jean-Paul and I knew each other 20 years ago, in catastrophe modeling, so I think also that French heritage, that I've always felt is a very strong analytical background but balanced with an ability to develop relationships, sort of trade-off between the pure analysis with the intuition that is increasingly important as you get through your career and know what's going on. No, it's good to go to hear that's coming from the inside as well. So you're talking about the team, do you want to talk a little bit about the colleagues you're working with here and New York, and in Paris?

30:00 AJ: Yeah, so the team is basically myself as team leader, we have a fellow here who's known to probably many listeners of your podcast, named Will Thorne, who handles all of our EEMIA ex-French speaking markets business for P&C ventures; Pierre Favonac, whose title is Head of Strategy and Business Development, he's my successor here in that role, he handles all of our French speaking markets; and then I handle primarily the Americas along with a fellow named Will Bird who we hired out of one of the primary carriers earlier this year, and then between Will and me, we also cover Asia as well. So we haven't yet had a chance to do anything in Asia, but we are looking for opportunities there. Asia is not a monolith, it's a whole bunch of different countries ranging from the very big and incredibly difficult India and China to very mature markets like Japan and Australia, and then some emerging markets like Vietnam and Indonesia, and places like that. So we're looking to spend more time there and be more active there going forward as part of our geographic strategy.

31:11 MG: Well, very impressive the coverage you get from such a small team albeit, you've got the SCOR team in the background to help you as well but still, you've done a lot with a very small group.

31:24 AJ: One thing that I didn't mention, which I think is pretty relevant for people who are thinking about working with SCOR, is when we are looking to do an investment/strategic partnership, we have a single committee which makes all those decisions. The committee has the final decision-making authority, everything that comes to us, we take to that committee, so they see our entire pipeline and we select particular ones to talk about each time the committee meets. So therefore we don't go through a long process of working your way up the organization until eventually you reach some middle manager who says "No, I don't like that", we do it through this committee, and it enables us, I think, to make decisions much more quickly and hopefully more efficiently for the people that we work with. Because, unfortunately, we can't work with 90-some percent of the people that approach us, but if we can tell them that very quickly and point them in the right direction, then we try to do that as well.

32:19 MG: Thanks very much for carving some time out of what I know is a very busy schedule. So if anybody wants to learn a bit more about P&C ventures or believes they've got a deal you should take a look at, what's the best way for them to find you.

32:36 AJ: Yeah, thanks, Matt and I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today as well. I've followed what you've done in the space for a while, and I appreciate the thoughtful commentary that you put out as well. In terms of working with P&C ventures, the easiest way is simply to ping us a message on LinkedIn. We also have a P&C ventures webpage on SCOR.com, which has an email address, PCVentures@SCOR.com, just ping us that, send us some materials. We pride ourselves on being able to, if it's not something that we're able to work with, we pride ourselves in being able to very quickly say that it's not, and if it is, then working efficiently in a centralized and local manner towards getting some sort of resolution.

33:21 MG: Fascinating talking to you, you've given some hints of things to come and look out for in the near future. So we can actually get together again in a year's time, and lots of interesting things that'll happen then, we can pick up on. But thank you again, and I hope the rest of your trip in London is a success, and the sun is shining for you in Paris when you get back. Thank you.

33:40 AJ: Thank you Matt.