Zurich Insurance Group AG, Switzerland’s largest insurer, is shrinking office space at a key unit and will ask staff to share desks to help reverse a drop in earnings.
The steps are needed to help the firm lower the combined ratio, or losses and operating expenses as a proportion of premiums, by 2 to 3 percentage points by the end of 2016, said Mike Kerner, who heads the general insurance unit. The ratio, a key performance indicator, was 97.3 percent last year.
“We aim to have fewer desks than we have people,” Kerner, 49, said in an interview in Zurich. “People sit in meetings quite a lot, they travel quite a lot, they’re on holiday, they’re on sick leave. You don’t need a desk per person. You need a flexible working environment.”
In February, Zurich Chief Financial Officer George Quinn said Kerner’s unit had “much still to do” to turn around its businesses and needed a “continued focus on expenses.”
Zurich Insurance is among firms experiencing pressure on its margins as the European Central Bank embarks on a bond- buying spree that’s slashing returns from investment in debt. The company saw fourth-quarter profit slide 20 percent to $858 million, also partly as a result of a $247 million loss on the sale of its Russian business. It has put other underperforming businesses under review.
Costs as a proportion of premium income in general insurance, which includes property and casualty, increased to 30.5 percent last year from 29.7 percent in 2013. That was more than the 28.3 percent reported by the property and casualty insurance unit of Allianz SE, Europe’s biggest insurer.
Kerner said the expenses were higher than peers partly due to its different product mix.
“We are also continuing to work on other turnaround businesses like the Middle East and South Africa,” he said. “Even though they are not very big, getting these to break-even will have a big positive effect.”
Kerner, who joined Zurich in 1992, has held posts including global head of group reinsurance and chief underwriting officer for the general insurance unit.