About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
According to Maxim Chernin, director of Sberbank Insurance and HSE graduate, you need to be a good psychologist when proposing life insurance to a client. He tells us what it's like to work in the business of 'human life', whether creativity has any place in insurance work and how to inculcate a culture of medical check-ups.
After graduating from HSE your professional life took off. How much of this was thanks to your diploma?
I started working in the insurance industry while still at university, during the first year of my master's degree. On the recommendation of HSE lecturer, Efim Galitsky, I got an internship at a company called ROSNO, which was to last 11 years. One of the market research projects assigned to me at the time was life insurance. I was so enthused by this subject that my final master thesis was devoted to life insurance. It was called 'An analysis of the factors influencing consumer behaviour in the area of life insurance.' I completed my master's and continued to work at ROSNO - so my academic training and the start of my professional career were connected. I was really interested in sport and sports journalism. My first job was on the newspaper 'Soviet Sport', where I worked for a few months. I was also responsible for sports news in the HSE publications 'Vyshka' and 'Eidos'.
There is a particular mind-set where people don't like talking about what might happen tomorrow. They repeat superstitions like, 'If we make plans for tomorrow the worst will happen.'
You deal in life insurance. As I understand it, this is a new sector for the Russian market. Did you base it on a Western model, or come up with something of your own?
There is nothing new about life insurance in Russia:. In Soviet times, in the mid 1980s, life insurance for children was very popular - when a child reached 18 he would receive a sum of money. Then came the years of instability and hyper-inflation, when the idea of long-term accumulation or savings lost all meaning - so by the beginning of the 1990s the market was almost dead, and only began to revive in the 2000s. Moreover, before the 1917 revolution in Russia, life insurance was common practice, and the tradition goes back to the early nineteenth century. We at Sberbank Life Insurance are now trying to revive it so it forms a part of a client's personal financial planning.
Is there anything specific about the insurance industry in Russia as compared to that of the West?
In all countries, the needs of customers are more or less the same. The specifics arise from the differences in the tax system and aspects of market regulation. The basic need – the provision of financial protection for our loved ones in the event of unforeseen circumstances - remains the same. An esteemed mentor, James Heydema, defined the life insurance industry as a business which cares for families. Whatever happens to a family – whether good or bad, the life insurance company will be there to offer support. Should it be an adverse event (either a death or the inability to support the family), the insurance company will pay out. If nothing bad happens - and this occurs in 98% of cases – the money is refunded to the client along with a return on the profit of the invested funds. With car insurance the client receives a pay-out only in the case of an adverse event, whereas with long-term life insurance a pay-out is always made.
The life insurance sector is a mixture of asset management and insurance, so it is regulated separately. Here the requirements are higher and the capital involved is quite different, so there are about 40 life insurance companies on the market, while insurance firms not offering life cover make up about 350.
What is the competition like among these 40 firms?
Life insurance is a very long-term business that yields return only after seven years, so it only suits investors in for the long haul and not speculators who are out to make a quick profit on resale. Among the competitors there are not only banks, but also large holdings, including international ones, for whom insurance is the main line of business. Many international companies in this line have been around for 100-150 years, while in Russia it is more a case of rapid development than competition.
of the working-age population of the RSFSR had long-term life insurance policies on their children.
What is special about working with a product as specific as 'human life'?
This is a huge responsibility – I'm not talking about insurance pay-outs for car repairs but about money to support a family if some adverse event occurs. This business is very socially oriented, and I am proud to be engaged in it. There are families who depend on you. This business is a complex one, as is the product itself. The life insurance sector is considered to be top division and those working in it should be highly qualified - first and foremost I'm talking about the technical specialists – the actuaries, the underwriters, etc.
Apart from the financial aspect, what other fields should the insurer have some knowledge in?In medicine, or anatomy?
First of all, you should be skilled in managing investments, since the insurers are in charge of their clients' money, and secondly, in medicine, because much attention is focused on the medical underwriting - you need to properly assess the client's state of health when the contract is being signed. Being good at maths and having the skills of an actuary are also essential. These are probably the core competencies.
You have to be a real psychologist when offering clients life insurance - emotionally it's difficult, and you have to be much more highly trained than a car insurance broker. During the conversation with the clients you have to raise issues such as health and social responsibility, to talk to them about how important their role is whether as a mother, father, or husband, but because of the peculiarities of our mentality people do not like talking about these matters neither do they wish to discuss the future. There is a particular mind-set where people don't like talking about what might happen tomorrow. They repeat superstitions like, 'If we make plans for tomorrow the worst will happen.' So our mission was clear: All the top management from the company conducted long talks and this is what we came up with: 'We are working to help people overcome their fear of planning for the future and to discourage the idea of living for today only. Thanks to the products we offer, a client's dreams, aspirations and promises made both to himself and his loved ones will be implemented no matter what.'
The main promise we give to our client is this: tomorrow is going to happen. On the one hand, it is a positive message, and on the other there is the suggestion of a certain level of responsibility - for maybe you won't be here tomorrow, but left behind will be those people whose fate is determined by the decisions you make today. I am very against the idea of forcing this product on a client – but there are certain things that a client needs to think about, and we can help with this.
Your line of business is connected to medical care, which in our country is not at the highest level. How does this affect your work with clients?
Russians in 2013 took out a life insurance policy. This is 10 % more than the previous year.
(Source: The Association of Life Insurers)
I am not an expert on health issues in Russia, so I am in no position to criticize or praise our level of medical care. As a company we insure people against certain events – this may be death, or disability, or being diagnosed with a critical illness. This can happen in any country irrespective of the level of medicine, because, as humans, we are vulnerable. For example, we will soon be launching a product that will focus on insurance in the event of a diagnosis of cancer. This means that if a person has, for the first time, received a diagnosis of a serious illness, he will receive payment for the treatment and the means to support his family during his treatment. We can also provide an additional feature such as the option of seeking a second medical opinion – so, if a person has been given a diagnosis of cancer, we can refer him with all his medical records to a good European clinic for confirmation of the diagnosis. If the diagnosis cannot be confirmed, we will send the client to a third clinic.
Where we are behind, in my opinion, is at the diagnostic stage. People tend to be referred to specialists when the disease has already developed. We do not yet have a culture of medical check-ups. By means of our products and new developments, we want to enable clients to undergo regular medical check-ups. So, if a person enters into a contract for a large insurance policy, but a serious illness is noted in the questionnaire, then we will send him for a medical examination at the expense of the company before the contract is signed- it is important for us to have the results, but at the same time we are getting a client used to the idea of regular check-ups. If this system were better developed, we would have fewer problems with mortality and serious diseases.
Last year we played against first-year students who were born the same year that we held the first championship, so we hurriedly changed the name to "Rusty Nails".
As the head of a large company in the rather conservative field of insurance, do you have any opportunity for self-expression or creativity?
Methods of expression are always available. Some say that it all depends on the person, others say that it depends on the circumstances. I obviously belong to the first category - yes, our industry is more conservative than the banking industry, but the elements of innovation and creativity which we have been applying are already yielding results and show that even in our industry you can think outside the box, and come up with a new product. The principle of innovation has become part of the company's core values. This does not mean that every employee has to be super-creative but does at least work at overcoming inefficiency and stagnation and is open to change. As the director I often introduce changes within the company, and for me it is important to fill it with people who are not resistant to change. So when we recruit people, we look to see how flexible a person is to changes.
You are currently conducting some research. Is it similar to the research that you were involved in at university?
In the field of insurance research does, of course, play an important role - we study the consumer, the clients, and conduct focus groups. My academic development, unfortunately, has taken a back seat for the moment, but in the near future I hope to close this gap. I am just wondering what I should choose – a postgraduate, an executive MBA or a DBA.
I understand that you have not entirely abandoned sport, and are somehow able to do this in your spare time?
Yes I do find the time, but unfortunately nowhere near as often as I would like.I still play in the HSE graduates team, which is one of the oldest teams in the HSE championship. In 1996, I was one of the three people who created this championship and our team is still there, although it has changed its name. It used to be "Juventus HSE" because we loved the Italian team and even wore striped shirts. But last year we played against first-year students who were born in the year when we held the first championship, so we hurriedly changed our name to "Rusty Nails ". I also always try to take part in other football tournaments with players from other insurance companies and financial institutions.
Last year, the life insurers' team won the first ever All-Russian Insurers Football Cup – there were a load of teams, but we got through to the final and pulled off a victory with the help of a penalty. Sometimes, I regret that I didn't become a professional, but I recently went to see a play and there was a really pertinent phrase in it: "I always dreamed of becoming a player for the Russian national team, and I imagined how I would score the last-minute goal, and do you know when I realized that this would not happen? When Zidane retired from football - he's younger than I am."
Now in addition to football do you feel a connection with your alma mater? Are you involved somehow in the life of the university?
I try to participate in some events if I find out about them, whether it's a graduates' reunion or something else. Very few graduates from my year attend these events, but nevertheless, I keep in contact with them and help out with the Association of Graduates. It so happens that many former HSE students work in insurance, or would like to work in insurance, due to the fact that there is now a Department of Risks and Insurance at the Faculty of Economics. The HSE has been a good source of recruitment – quite a few of my staff are HSE graduates and students and it helps that the campus is located across the street from our office. Working with HSE alumni is like the life insurance market: the potential is huge, the territory is unsoiled and there is room for great deeds, but we are still at the very first stage of development.