When asked to share the digitalisation journey of insurance giant Chubb, Michael Eksteen offered a simple analogy: “you don’t trade in your car and ask that they use the same engine and wheels of your previous car.”
Speaking as vice president of digital across the Asia-Pacific region, the Singapore-based executive acknowledged the delicate balancing act of implementing new technologies while accounting for previous investments and legacy infrastructure. “At some point, you need to make a choice between fixing up the old version, hoping for better efficiency whilst impacting the environment, versus a completely new driving experience,” he said. “The world is changing and will change even faster, and technology will change accordingly. Technology should always be a core, dynamic enabler.”
Eksteen was quick to acknowledge however that technology—whether artificial intelligence, machine learning or automation—cannot become disruptive in isolation. “What will be disruptive is the person or company that understands how to package this into a product that the market wants,” he said. “Technology must allow for incremental, better efficiency and overall, a better customer experience.”
Since joining the organisation in May 2016, Eksteen has built Chubb Digital from the ground up. From concept to creation, Chubb Digital now operates as an integrated digital unit in Asia-Pacific, tasked with transforming insurance from product-focused to customer-first.
Eksteen’s remit includes the development of the Chubb Asia-Pacific digitalisation vision, business strategy and core team. This spans responsibility for architecting and developing the Chubb API and cloud infrastructure, digital products and new digital economy partner on-boarding strategy, which includes Uber, DBS, and Grab.
The innovation originated from a need to transform the existing legacy business into a digitally integrated one. According to Eksteen, the objective “was and still is” end-to-end digitalisation and simplification of the insurance product process. This means assuming responsibility for the full life cycle, spanning new policy sales to servicing and claims.
Add in the complexities of Covid-19 and Eksteen—recently recognised in the augural CIO50 ASEAN Awards— acknowledged the business has adopted a ‘crouch and hold’ rugby-style approach. “In other words, focus on stability,” he added. “We are moving to the next phase of our digital business, having built a good core platform over the last two to three years. We are razor focused on strategic partnerships and ecosystem growth where technology will play a significant role in on-boarding, integration, optimisation and ongoing innovation of insurance services.”
According to Eksteen, the notion of ‘unique’ innovation doesn’t exist, with instead the deployment and packaging of such innovation key to “making a difference”.
Specific to Chubb, and through a digital-first approach, the business on-boarded best-of-0breed partners also operating in the digital ecosystem, such as Grab and DBS.
Building a tech bridge to business
Despite success, Eksteen acknowledged that transforming legacy businesses is a disruptive endeavour in large corporate environments in which the systems in place previously served a “very meaningful and profitable purpose”. Therefore, digital leaders must overcome large portions of the business which “do not see the need for change”, especially if change is a moving and abstract target.
In response, Eksteen and his team tackled the “unsexy” areas of transformation, from structure, operations and back-end IT to culture and way of thinking, spanning the entire organisation.
Unsurprisingly, Chubb’s technology investment is aligned with business growth to enhance efficiency across the entire organisation. “If we grow, we have more to reinvest back to enhance our key capabilities,” Eksteen explained. “We measure success in technology by two key indicators: revenue and efficiency. Revenue is also a key measurement of positive customer experience and overall impact. While technology is seen as a key enabler, it’s the business model built around product offerings and service experience localised for key markets that is the differentiator.”
15 years of success and failure build character
Operating in the trenches of digital and mobile technology for more than 15 years, Eksteen has experienced a healthy mix of success and failure during his career, having started out in his homeland of South Africa. “It builds character and wisdom as I move on,” he acknowledged. “The one constant throughout my journey has been to create. I like building things and to then stand back to look at how that idea transformed into reality, something tangible and seeing it grow.”
Having founded and co-founded a range of diverse technology ventures—such as Tech in Africa—Eksteen remains an entrepreneur at heart, citing his greatest career achievement as “enabling people”. “I take great pride in seeing people gain confidence and advance as the business grows,” he said. “Yes, we have done a few cool things on the technology and product front, but the people behind it gaining greater competency and confidence, and then advancing their careers as a result is the achievement, and that leads to all the other obvious business results.”
On the flip side, however, Eksteen accepted that challenges occur when companies lack clear vision, in addition to side-stepping simple, actionable steps to get there in the first place. “In a fluid world, the companies that lack vision and do not place absolute trust in their teams to execute, will find it very hard to get anything done and will be constantly chasing and reacting to the next big thing,” he added.
“Leaders do not win races by committees, you win races by envisioning it, ensuring your teams understand what you want to achieve, then putting in place the steps to plan and prepare for it. On race day, you should get out of the way and let the teams deliver the results. Then you assess, optimise and the cycle starts again.”
As a result, Eksteen believes a successful modern-day technology executive can be judged by two key criteria. “Firstly, think like a business owner or an entrepreneur,” he said. “This means having a crystal-clear vision and the formulation of the right business model at the heart of it. At the core, you have efficiency and constant measurement of performance. Any inefficiency will hamper your ability to scale sustainably.”
Secondly, Eksteen said the ability to attract talent and build multi-functional teams to work effectively within very fluid environments—while not becoming distracted by the floodgates of challenges and market shifts—is be crucial. “A greater focus on the people is the key to any business success,” he advised. “Once you have the team in place, you can build just about anything with technology and excel in product innovation.”