Why should a woman lead a country

"Women lead more successfully on average"

06/21/2019 Positions magazine
Interview VIG boss Elisabeth Stadler

Mathematician, head of the Vienna Insurance Group - and successful in a male domain: Elisabeth Stadler on insuring coal-fired power plants, the debate about a commission cover - and her preference for a British secret agent.

At the top: for three years Elisabeth Stadler CEO of the Vienna Insurance Group and thus one of the most important insurance managers in Europe

© Stefan Fürtbauer

The GDV reporters Thomas Wendel and Jörn Paterak already noticed that the Vienna Insurance Group is not a small insurer from the visitor badges: With the numbers 153,000 and 153,001 they passed the entry barriers at the reception of the group headquarters in downtown Vienna. Then it went upstairs at a leisurely pace: Even today, the best way to get to the interview in the boardroom in the VIG high-rise is by paternoster - even if the modern elevators next door are sure to save a few seconds of time.

Ms. Stadler, the German satirist Jan Böhmermann said on ORF that Austria could not be ruled by a 32-year-old insurance agent. Do many of your mediators look like the now overthrown Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz?
Elisabeth Stadler:
Do you really think he looks like an insurance agent? Not me. In addition, sales have long since changed. The typical representative cliché can hardly be found today.

How high is the proportion of female intermediaries in your company?
Here, in fact, men dominate, with around 75 percent. Although the gender ratio is balanced across the entire industry, women are primarily employed in administration. In doing so, they are very successful in sales - and very consistently.

There are real waves of turnover among men: They see exactly the summer months or the winter holidays. Women work much more consistently throughout the year.

Isn't that an argument to increase the proportion of women in sales?
IT: We try that. We address women returning to work who have previously taken time off for their children. Women are often more convincing and empathetic, especially in sales - it is easier for them to build a relationship of trust with customers. In addition, the free time management is very attractive for female intermediaries. Because when is the agent with the customer? More in the evening or on the weekend. These are the times when working husbands are at home and can take care of the children.

Do you see a fundamental problem with young talent in sales?
Yes. It's everywhere. Everyone is looking.

Is that more of a demographic reason, or does the industry have an image problem?
The image of earlier days certainly plays a role. But that has nothing to do with reality: Today, sales representatives have to explain everything to customers, advise them as needed, keep records, keyword: IDD advice guidelines.

Now, with you, there is not only a woman at the head of the largest insurance group in Austria and the entire Central and Eastern European region - the VIG Executive Board is also 50 percent female.
We undoubtedly play a pioneering role in this. I also notice that with applications. When women sit across from us, they often say: I want to work at VIG because women have better opportunities here than elsewhere. I hope that this goes through to sales.

In the financial sector in particular, women are very rare in management positions. What do you attribute that to?
There is no getting around mathematics in the financial sector. When I think back to my school days, that wasn't exactly the girls' favorite subject. Technical and math professions are more likely to attract men.

But it was obviously your favorite subject - you studied actuarial mathematics. How many female fellow students did you have?
: We were only twelve graduates. A third of them were girls.

What happened to the others?
Two were once employed by us and then switched to IT and consulting, one is a housewife and mother.

Can women manage big changes better than men?
Women lead companies more successfully on average. This is statistically proven by many studies. The Peterson Institute for International Economics once examined 21,980 companies in 91 countries. Result: Profitable companies with at least 30 percent women on the management level achieve a net profit that is one percentage point higher than comparable companies without women on the executive floor. That is one of the reasons why we are trying to get more women into management positions. We already have many female CEOs in the roughly 50 VIG Group companies. This is more common in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. (Editor's note: Ms. Stadler cited several studies in the conversation: Web links * at the end of the interview)

No clichés: with outdated role models, the VIG boss do nothing. For them, it depends on performance - and on controlled chance

© Stefan Fürtbauer

Why is that?
After the collapse of communism, many of the former male leaders took advantage of their positions. Corruption was widespread. Women were considered to be far less susceptible to this. That is why the proportion of female executives in Central and Eastern Europe is higher than in Austria.

How do you feel about risk personally? As a mathematician, do you check everything in advance?
That is what distinguishes women from men: We are not so willing to take risks. Same for me. Basically, I do a lot of research and think carefully about the effects.

So is that a facet of the female leadership style?
I mean that, and it fits our business philosophy. We pursue a very conservative investment and reinsurance strategy.

In a gender-neutral question: what makes a good manager?
Competence. Not only professional, but also social competence. The image of the manager is changing: We no longer need star managers, but team players who ask their employees for their opinion and develop and implement the strategy together with them. There are much flatter hierarchies today: Many specialists already communicate directly with the board of directors. They no longer need hierarchies and personnel management as they did in the past.

The risk manager

The CEO of the Vienna Insurance Group notices that she is rather uncomfortable with the issue of equality, Elisabeth Stadler, 57, at. For them, it's all about performance, not gender. The trained actuary made it to the top in the male-dominated industry: VIG Holding is the most broadly positioned insurer in Central and Eastern Europe with premium income of 9.7 billion euros and a profit of 485 million euros (2018). Stadler's empire includes around 50 group subsidiaries in 25 countries, including the two German InterRisk companies that are GDV members.

Are you heading straight for your current position?
That's not how it works. I always say: a career is controlled by chance. Of course, you can always signal that you want to take on greater responsibility. On the other hand, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The job of CEO of a large international corporation is only filled once every few years. So you have to be ready and available at precisely such a point in time.

VIG is heavily involved in Eastern Europe and the Balkans - even in Belarus. It almost seems as if you want to rebuild the Habsburg Empire.
We believe in Eastern Europe: the countries have huge growth potential. In many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, people currently only spend EUR 200 or EUR 300 per capita on insurance per year - in Germany it is EUR 2,800 and in Austria more than EUR 2,000.

"Positions" newsletter

Stay up to date

Subscribe to the "Positions" magazine's newsletter.

Are you not afraid of political or economic upheaval?
Of course something always happens. Whether in Poland, Hungary or just now in Romania, it can be difficult. But if you are very broadly positioned in 25 countries, as we are, you can compensate for one or the other turbulence in the overall performance. The diversity of our group absorbs something like that. Even in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is a really difficult market, we achieved a positive result after two years.

Is the label “Austria” helpful here?
We Austrians are mentally very similar to the people from these countries. The past connects, and Vienna has been named the most livable city in the world by the consulting company Mercer for nine years in a row.

As the boss, you have a lot of responsibility, also beyond day-to-day business. In view of climate change, do you think it is right to still insure coal-fired power plants?
Sustainability is extremely important. We are therefore going more into green investments. We also no longer insure new coal-fired power plants. On the other hand, we are active in countries whose energy production is heavily dependent on coal, such as Poland or the Czech Republic. We don't have large stocks of coal insurance in these countries. But we need transitional regulations there that do not yet exist. I see our task in accompanying this process.

»We insurers will at some point have to pay for the damage caused by climate change. We have to deal with that more «
Elisabeth Stadler,
Head of the Vienna Insurance Group

Where do you see a need for action at European level?
We need a united Europe. We have to act in concert and have a common strategy: Then we would be much more powerful. Climate change is affecting insurers comparatively hard. At some point we will have to pay for the damage. We have to deal with that more. But we will not be able to regulate this without politics.

Insurers are also hit hard by digitalization. They have around 50 companies in 25 countries. Hasn't chaos been programmed into the IT systems?
In the past, like most insurers, we tried to set up a common IT system for all countries and all lines of business. And we failed like everyone else. Now we are setting up common processes and IT systems for subsidiaries in countries that are legally and linguistically similar. That's working.

Do you fear the big Internet companies as tomorrow's competitors?
We are not alone in the world. But I don't think that internet companies are displacing us. Rather, they will try to position themselves between us and the customer. This applies to both contract initiation and service processing. I cannot imagine that they are really trying to take over the entire insurance business with all its rules and regulatory hurdles.

It almost sounds like bureaucracy and regulation are a protective wall.
In a way it is. But one must not forget that there are also distortions of competition in America, for example, because the rules there are not as strict as they are here. And if there were a little less regulation, I wouldn't be uncomfortable either. The regulation costs us a lot of resources that have to be financed. We will not be able to bear all this additional effort ourselves in the future. This means that customers will also have to share in the costs.

By capping the commissions, as is being discussed in Germany?
It goes without saying that sales staff should be paid for their work. In recent years, however, investment income has fallen. So insurers had less income. Customers have also received lower profit sharing, only the commissions for the agents have remained relatively stable. Two out of three participants have losses, while the situation for the third partner is unchanged. Seen in this way, caps are logical considerations. We are closely following the debate in Germany - usually something similar comes to Austria sooner or later.

The Riester pension has not yet come to Austria.
Our current retirees, as pensioners are called in Austria, are in a very, very comfortable position. In our country, private and company pensions are by no means as important as they are in Germany or Switzerland. But sooner or later that will have to change because Austria will no longer be able to afford the state subsidies that are put into the pension system in the future.

Why is private old-age provision not making good progress in Austria?
It's similar to climate change: the problems still seem too far away. Perhaps an Austrian Gerhard Schröder is missing here.

What will the insurer of tomorrow look like?
If I only knew that exactly ...

Do you have labs to find out?
Yes, several. And the countries in Eastern Europe are ahead of Western Europe in this regard. We operate a large hub in Poland, where many colleagues are working on new solutions even without direct insurance coverage. We have planned further labs in the Czech Republic, and in Vienna we founded our first in-house start-up, "viesure".

Don't you really have to start your search in Silicon Valley?
I visited startups in New York. It is certainly enriching to be in Silicon Valley too. But we in Austria also have a lot of new ideas.

How big is VIG's IT budget?
We spend around 100 million euros a year on IT investments. Half of this goes into digitization measures. We are currently running more than 150 digitization projects at the same time. With an annual profit of around 500 million euros for the VIG Group, that is a lot of money that we are investing in securing our future viability.

Are you actually a James Bond fan?
Fan not necessarily. But I like to watch the 007 films every now and then. Why?

There's a discussion about whether the next Bond should be female ...
I would rather see a man here.

Interview: Jörn Paterak, Thomas Wendel

* In an interview, Elisabeth Stadler referred to several studies:
Study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics
Study by the investment company Quantopian
Nordea Bank study of female CEOs