‘We grew so big with Ageas because we didn’t have mothers-in-law’

‘We grew so big with Ageas because we didn’t have mothers-in-law’
‘We grew so big with Ageas because we didn’t have mothers-in-law’



October 22, 2020
Today at
03:05

After a career spanning more than thirty years at Ageas and its predecessors Fortis and AG, chairman Jozef De Mey passes the torch on to Bart De Smet. “Our fragmented ownership makes Ageas vulnerable to takeovers, but it gave us the opportunity to chart a clear course.”

We are not yet sure what we find the strangest: that there is such a thing as a hall of fame for insurers, or that Otto von Bismarck is part of it. The 19th-century German chancellor is thrown to the rescue for being the first to make non-life insurance compulsory in his country.

Jozef De Mey, who is leaving today as chairman of Ageas, almost shone next to von Bismarck. A few years ago, the 77-year-old Gentenaar was nominated by colleagues, but without success. Not that De Mey regrets that. “Let’s be honest,” he says with a laugh. ‘How many people do you know who have always dreamed of becoming an insurer? Nobody likes insurance. But it is simply a necessary evil. You need them when something happens. Insurers will always play a role. ‘

Shoes in the air

De Mey has left his mark on the Belgian insurance world for years. Since the early 1990s, he has helped develop AG, the group that later became Fortis, into the largest insurer in the country. He was also the driving force behind the international expansion of the insurance group.

As chairman of Ageas, De Mey has been able to remove most of the debris of the Fortis legacy since 2009 and to develop the group into an insurance giant with a market value of more than 7 billion euros and 45,000 employees in 14 countries. This happened together with Bart De Smet, who took on De Mey as CEO eleven years ago and who is now taking over the chairman’s torch.

Ageas’s chances of success were initially not highly estimated. According to De Mey, the tipping point came when it was avoided in the nick of time that the French BNP Paribas was able to fully acquire the Belgian insurance activities, later AG Insurance, after the fall of Fortis.

“Renegotiating that part of the deal was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says De Mey. ‘We had nothing. I entered the conference room with fingers crossed. We had to get AG Insurance back because we needed that group’s cash flow to grow. The success of this is mainly thanks to Luc Coene. The then governor of the National Bank played an important role in that dossier. ‘



Next year we will be active in China for twenty years. However, the first thing I said when I joined Fortis’s executive committee was: “Forget that country.”

Jozef De Mey

Retiring Chairman of Ageas

Lucky number

While investors are making less and less the link between Ageas and Fortis – especially after a sample settlement of 1.3 billion with duped investors – the group is focusing more emphatically on Asia. Last year, premium income was higher than in Belgium for the first time. This summer, Ageas invested EUR 340 million in the reinsurance subsidiary of Taiping Life, the Chinese partner from the very beginning. De Mey calls this Asian success one of the achievements he is most proud of.

‘Next year we will be active in China for twenty years. However, the first thing I said when I joined Fortis’s executive committee in early 2000 was: “Forget that country.” It would take too long to get a foothold there. We first took a stake in a peer in Malaysia. When the Chinese government decided in 2001 to find a foreign partner for its insurer Taiping Life, we took our chances. When it turned out that we had not made it in a first beauty contest, I flew to Hong Kong to talk to the president of Taiping. He was charmed by the effort I had made. In the end, we struck a $ 88 million deal. Why exactly that amount? Because 8 is a lucky number in China. ‘



I don’t believe the Chinese government will ever allow foreign companies to take control of major players in the financial sector.

Jozef De Mey

Outgoing Chairman of Ageaes

Meanwhile, Ageas swears by the formula to take minority shareholdings in local insurers in Asia. ‘We have already created enormous shareholder value in the past 20 years. I don’t believe the Chinese government will ever allow foreign companies to take control of major players in the financial sector. ‘

Ageas appears to be in the opposite position. Due to the enormously fragmented share ownership, it is regularly seen as a takeover favorite. In September, management rejected a bid from the mysterious BE Group – something De Mey doesn’t want to elaborate on. ‘Everyone is free to make an offer for Ageas. There is a chance that that will happen again. ‘

‘But what can we do about that fragmented share ownership? Ideally, you’ll have a reference shareholder on board to support you, but ideal mothers-in-law are hard to find. And that fragmented share ownership also offers many advantages. It has given us as management the opportunity to do our thing and to set a clear course. If we want to remain independent, we have to continue to deliver strong results. ‘


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