Interview: Mark Wilson and Jamie Hay of Abacai

Mark Wilson and Jamie Hay Abacai

Abacai co-chairman and CEO Mark Wilson and fellow founder Jamie Hay caught up with Jonathan Swift to discuss how AI can help redefine customer experience and why claims are key to their success.

CV

Mark Wilson

February 2021 to present

Co-founder, CEO and co-chairman, Abacai

March 2018 to present

Non-executive director, Blackrock

2013 to 2108

Group CEO, Aviva

2009 to 2011

CEO and president, AIA

2007 to 2009

COO and president, AIA

2003 to 2006

CEO, China, Axa

2001 to 2003

CEO, South East Asia, Axa

1999 to 2001

Chief executive manager, sales and marketing, China, Axa

1987 to 1999

Various roles across New Zealand and Australia, National Mutual

 

CV

Jamie Hay

January 2021 to Present 

Co-founder, Abacai Technologies

September 2020 to June 2021

Group chief financial officer, The Floow

March 2017 to  September 2020

Head of EMEA insurtech, Goldman Sachs International

June 2014 to September 2020

IRR executive director, UK Insurance, Goldman Sachs International

June 2013 to June 2014

Associate, Financial Institutions Group, Goldman Sachs International

August 2009 to June 2013

Associate, Financial Institutions Group, UBS

When it comes to disrupting an insurance market, starting with a sector its founders agree is probably the ‘most competitive in the world’ – UK motor - might not be the most sensible place to start.

But Abacai co-chairman and CEO Mark Wilson and Abacai Technologies managing director of finance, strategy and M&A Jamie Hay are bullish that their artificial intelligence-led personal lines insurtech start-up could be about to have the same impact as Direct Line did when it cut out the middleman [brokers] in 1985.

Having the financial weight of private equity house Sun Capital behind it – alongside heavyweight strategic partners including Munich Re and CVC Credit will no doubt help.

But there is the also the not-so small matter of the Financial Conduct Authority’s review into pricing, which seeks to end the dual pricing that penalises loyal customers.

“The advent of Abacai or a company like it is inevitable,” comments Wilson. “We started [this journey] before that [the FCA pricing review] because the current model was entirely unsustainable. I know that, the industry knows that and the customers know that, which is why they shop around.”

Indeed Wilson’s interest in the subject pre-dates Abacai to when he was Aviva group CEO.

“I had been in discussions with the FCA about this for years. All [the regulator’s pricing review] does is make [Abacai’s] timing fortuitous. It’s undoubtedly helpful that as we will be launching the market will be going through its biggest upheaval in last 20 years.” 

Wilson and Hay’s relationship also dates back to the former’s days at Aviva when the pair worked on the Friends Life deal in 2017. Indeed Wilson unsuccessfully tried to poach Hay from Goldman Sachs after the acquisition was sealed but was rebuffed.

But they kept in contact after Wilson left Aviva in 2018, a period where Wilson spearheaded a private-equity backed approach for the Saga.

That move was ultimately unsuccessful, but his appetite to do a deal was unsated which led him to an introduction to Sun Capital and its partner and founder Edward Spencer-Churchill [Abacai’s other co-chairman] who had overseen the buyout of Complete Cover Group in January 2020, owners of not only a sizable non-standard motor broker but an insurer Mulsanne too.

“We wanted to be a full service show and we needed an underwriter,” Wilson reflects. “And so I met Ed through a banker, and immediately we just got on. And the way Ed would tell the story is that after a couple of hours, we were finishing each other’s sentences because we are totally aligned strategically.”

Abacai today sits as a holding company over Abacai Distribution, including broker Complete Cover; Abacai Capital, including insurtech underwriting specialist Mulsanne; short term insurtech Day Insure, acquired in March; and Abacai Technologies, which is focused on building a mass market solution underpinned by AI. This last brand is the basis of most of the conversation today.

“In all our different evolutions, we have always tried to do the same thing,” comments Hay. “Which is, and this sounds very grandiose, but it’s not really, take an industry that delivers basically no customer satisfaction, and deliver a bit. 

“The route to do that is through the use of digital processes. We thought about different concepts around that: Can you do that in an existing company? Can you change an existing company to do that? We came to a conclusion that there is a lot of benefit from starting a new one. 

“There are some hindrances too, but the benefits outweigh them. And when we had that conversation the opportunity becomes very real, very quickly, and at that point we sat down and said, this is something that we can do.”

“It’s all about pace,” adds Wilson. “It’s about being able to move quickly with a relentless, obsessive focus on customers. Our competitors all want to do the right thing. But most are hindered by legacy, systems, bureaucracy, expense or the experience of the past. We’re not hindered by any of those things [with Abacai Technologies]. Yet, we have a business [in CCG and Abacai Capital] that’s got enough scale with £200m plus of premium that can make an impact. 

“When we were looking for an existing business [to build Abacai around] we wanted an underwriter as it’s hard building these things. I’d say every insurtech wants to be an underwriter, but they realise it takes them 10 or 15 years.”

Supporting digital

Wilson was a noted supporter of digital at his time at Aviva, from overseeing the recruitment of its first chief digital officer Andrew Brem, the establishment of innovation hubs, starting with its first Digital Garage in Shoreditch, London, and product innovations such as Ask It Never.

Quizzed directly what the difference is between what he was able to do at Aviva then and what he can do now at Abacai, Wilson responds: “I left Aviva at the right time. It was the right time for me and it was the right time for Aviva. I’d been there five and a half years. That was definitely long enough in that sort of role.

“It is a fine company, a fine brand and does a lot of good things. And I would also add that the strategy [new group CEO] Amanda [Blanc] is executing now is the right strategy. 

“So I won’t talk about Abacai versus Aviva. But we have advantages over a lot of others in the market. So we’re first of all a technology-led company with a next generation platform. When you build a platform from the ground up, using the latest tech, you get an advantage in terms of speed, pace, flexibility, innovation, customer experience – all of those things. 

“You can be more focused. Your development cycles are much quicker in terms of innovating. What we have is something smaller, faster, leaner and with a lower cost ratio. If I’m honest, I underestimated just how valuable that was.”

Greater control

To this end Abacai plans to insource and retain the intellectual property for most of its technology development using the working name ‘Cai’ [or Customer AI] for the platform. This also means Abacai has greater control over the customer experience, one of the bed rocks on which the insurtech will succeed or fail. Especially, as Hay notes, the traditional 12 month buy and then renew insurance cycle is not conducive to building longstanding and deep relationships with policyholders.

“That’s partly predicated on technology. But it’s also partly predicated on the value you deliver,” he continues. “That’s where we’re trying to differentiate ourselves. If we can speak to you inbetween taking out the policy and renewing it, by saying for example, ‘based on your driving behaviour, we can save you money or make you safer’. That is something that most in the market don’t offer today.”

Hay concedes that while some telematics insurers, for example, have tried to increase touch points, not least by gamifying insurance, he is not convinced this has necessarily improved the bond between customer and insurer longer term.

“If you’re given some Amazon vouchers, there’s some utility in that but not a huge amount,” he comments. “Whereas if we can say, we’ll sort out your MOT for you. Or we know that based on your driving behaviour you’re left rear disc break will fail, and needs to be serviced. To me that’s actually valuable. So it’s about finding ways to interact with a customer that they find valuable, which is not always just about giving them vouchers.”

Asked if some customers might get ‘spooked’ by Abacai’s vocal and public use of AI, Hay comments: “The way that we will use it is always to the benefit of the customer; it is to help broaden the potential application of our products or make them better suited to the individual. 

“So it’s delivered in a way that shouldn’t make them fearful. The second point is around the tone of voice we use when we speak to the customer, which again, is a totally alien concept when you consider most insurers don’t contact them at all. 

“If we do it right, there shouldn’t be any fear. Quite the opposite actually, because they can see that our technology delivers them benefits; doesn’t use their data unless they’re comfortable with it; and helps them understand their own driving behaviour or specific circumstances in a better way. That’s a journey that not many people have been on. But if we take the customer with us they will actually become much more comfortable with the use of AI.”

Wilson on…

…opportunities for acquisitions: There’s a big organic thing to go after first but we’ll be active in the [M&A] space, as we’ve shown with the Dayinsure deal. I’ve always thought it’s dangerous to say, ‘we’re going to do X amount of deals’ because it becomes all about the acquisitions. It actually about strategy meets price. If one doesn’t meet the other it doesn’t work. We’ll be opportunistic. We will participate at the right time, in the right spaces.

…whether Abacai is already an insurtech unicorn [with a value of $1bn or over]? I’m not going to make any public statement on [Abacai’s] valuation, just say that we are very happy with the way it’s going right now. Ask me that next year. Because valuations are all very interesting but they mean little until you monetise it. But it’s not that hard to raise money at high levels right now and so I’m always cautious of our valuation and everyone else’s.

…the speed of change: It’s going to take about five to 10 years. There’s no clear leader in insurtech around the world yet. There’s none really, not at scale, but that’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years. So even all the names that you and I know in the US. None of them are at scale yet. And I believe you can get to scale quicker here [in the UK], because of the distribution.

Delivering certainty

In terms of the insurance journey, Hay notes one of the “biggest advantages” Abacai could potentially gain over rivals relates to claims, and it’s use of electronic first notification of loss.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is deliver certainty to the customer more quickly,” he explains. “So at that ‘moment of truth’ offering resolution or certainty when they notify us about a claim. Being able to tell them: ‘You’re covered, your repair will cost £1500 and there is a garage two miles away that can do this next Tuesday. And by the way, there is a car coming to you so you can take the kids to school tomorrow morning’. That’s an experiential improvement on what other people can deliver.” 

Since its launch Abacai has filled out is management team with a number of hires including James Ockenden as chief actuary; Jonathan Hill as vice-president of pricing, Matt Fothergill as deputy CEO of Abacai Capital, Pierre du Toit as chief AI officer, Chris Payne as chief technology officer and Will Faulkner as chief product officer.

The sextet came from a wide range of insurers, Sabre, Covea, Direct Line, Vitality, Aviva and Aviva respectively and underline the lengths that Abacai has gone to recruit. Indeed Wilson comments that out of the 50 offers it has made, only three people have turned them down.

So with the technology development well underway and its senior team on board, when exactly can we expect to see Abacai’s consumer launch?

“You can assume the first part of next year,” Wilson responds. “I don’t really want to do it before then even though we probably can. In the first part we’re going to start quite slowly because of the testing around pricing. Then we’ll scale and we haven’t decided when that is yet. But you can assume it will be the first part of next year.”

Wilson adds that it is unlikely to use the parent brand Abacai for this consumer launch given that it is using Abacia Capital for the business to business underwriting division, and Hay reveals aggregators will be very much part of its distribution plan: “It feels like they offer another partnership opportunity. Today you have to answer 75 questions, which takes three to five minutes, and then [the aggregator] delivers you a price. With Abacai, we only really need five for motor and we don’t need any for home. So we think we can work with the aggregators to improve the customer experience by making it quicker and more competitive in terms of the price delivery. It fits with our thesis of partnering.

“We are under no illusion that the key reason customers buy insurance is price driven. So our model will be priced competitively. Then we will load in the exponential improvements that we’re talking about. So it should work even if the customer doesn’t value - or get excited about – those experiential aspects.”

Carrying on this theme of partnerships, Wilson asserts: “It’s been quite fascinating how many inbounds we’ve had from some of the big players saying ‘how about we work with you on X or Y?’. I must confess it’s not what I expected. I thought they’d see us as a challenger, and I guess in some ways we are. But we are also probably a better partner too.”

Partnerships

Talking of partnerships, another by-product of the unsuccessful Saga deal is the involvement of Munich Re which was also part of Wilson’s consortium. So will Abacai look to this reinsurers and others for capacity, or will it simply use the inhouse Abacai Capital business?

“The partnership that we have with Munich Re covers integration with the Digital Partners business, underwriting and technical risk pricing development, and reinsurance capacity provision,” Hay responds. “So yes, it does cover reinsurance. In this respect, we will use a combination quota share and coinsurance arrangements as we grow, with Munich Re, Scor and others. But the actual primary risk underwriting will be through Abacai Capital.”

Which begs the final question of what success will look like for Abacai?

“To me, success will be if we have forced our competition to innovate for the benefit of the customer,” Hay asserts. “So, experientially if we introduce these claims enhancements that we’re talking about and they become much more common we’ve improved the whole industry’s experiential proposition. Given how competitive the market it is quite a likely outcome. To us that’ll be a success”

 “It would be great having customers recognise us as having redefined the sector,” Wilson agrees. “Obviously, there’s commercial aspects as well, that’s part of success, of course. But if we start with how the customer views us and giving them a good experience, the rest will take care of itself.” 

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