UNO + 1 Interview of Antonio Huertas by Jose Antonio Llorente
Q. Some experts consider that the pandemic we have suffered and are suffering has tested the leaders of the organizations and there is even talk of the emergence of a new leadership. What do you think?
A. The pandemic has tested us all. Each from our respective responsibilities, has had to change our chip overnight and adapt to a new and unexpected situation. As they say in Silicon Valley, companies have had to build the plane as we fly. The new leadership has not emerged with the pandemic, but it’s true that trends that were already underway have accelerated, such as horizontal decision-making or the transition from a more process-oriented approach to one that is result-oriented.
An extra effort has also had to be made in both inward and outward communication to explain everything that we were doing. As the Financial Times ad says, “Crises make reputations.” That’s something I fully agree with.
I myself have just set up a small recording studio in my house to connect me and to record the videos that we have then published in a variety of channels, including my weekly appearance on the social media, where I left an upbeat message every Friday during the pandemic. Fortunately, I can now make this every fortnight because the urgency of the situation has eased, even if there is still a pandemic. To give you another example, every 15 or 20 days we have answered questions asked by employees from anywhere in the world, in a scheme called Ask MAPFRE.
Q. What has your personal experience heading MAPFRE been like? How have you faced the crisis as manager? What lessons have you learned?
A. We had three clear priorities: protect employees and customers; protect the business; and help society. Pandemics were included as a case in the Crisis and Business Continuity Management Manual, and although we had never had to apply it in real life until now, it was projected in the Solvency II stress scenarios we are tested on periodically by the supervisor, and we passed them.
With this priority, in barely one day we had 30,000 employees, over 90%, working from home around the world. This was unthinkable until now. And we have been capable of maintaining the service without interruptions. We have in these days received messages from many employees and clients, thanking us for the care we have all taken for protection and to protect us; and the great sensitivity we have deployed over these weeks to provide help to those who have needed it. Our company’s reputation is now our best calling card, because the other part of trust, the quality of the service we provide, was already one of our most appreciated attributes; and we have demonstrated that we can maintain it even in these very difficult times.
Q. What actions that you have implemented to deal with the crisis do you feel most proud of?
A. It’s difficult to feel proud as a human being of something with hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world, because what I would really have liked is that we wouldn’t have had to suffer this terrible pandemic that is costing us so dear in terms of human lives and the economic recession in most countries. But as head of MAPFRE I do feel proud of each and every one of the MAPFRE employees and professionals, who have expressed their commitment to the company, to our customers and to our values and who have proved their worth despite the difficulties we’ve had to face. In particular, of all those who have also overcome their own fears, those who have been close to customers dealing with an urgent claim, despite the fact that the customers themselves could be contagious, as has happened in many cases. Of course, this work of repairing a pipe or an electrical failure when there are sick people in the house has been carried out taking all the necessary prevention measures.
MAPFRE is a company with a commitment. We are sensitive to social issues and this is evident in everything we do. It has led us to mobilize more than 200 million euros with a variety of extremely important measures aimed at helping customers, suppliers, SMEs and the self-employed, to overcome a long confinement and resume activity now it is possible. In addition, the MAPFRE Foundation has organized in barely a couple of weeks the biggest social campaign in its history, in its 45 years in operation. The Foundation is donating more than 35 million euros so that people in over 30 countries can have access to medical and sanitary materials, for protection measures at work, to protect social inclusion and to boost research on the hoped-for vaccine against this virus. As an example of this, I’d like to highlight that there are 150 top-level researchers working for CSIC on twelve lines of research thanks to the 5 million donated by the MAPFRE Foundation.
Also worth highlighting, I believe, because it is an example of innovation of public-private partnership for a social commitment goal, is the MAPFRE Sanitary Commitment fund, with which we have used 50 million euros to finance improvements in healthcare in Madrid to combat Covid-19. Measures of this kind mark the way forward to the future so that we can all progress in reconstructing the economy.
Q. It appears that the brands that are emerging stronger from this crisis are those that have taken a step forward and strengthened their commitment to society. In fact, do you consider that the crisis has boosted the brand or corporate activism? What do you think?
A. In our case, what the pandemic has done is to crystallize a commitment that is part of MAPFRE’s make-up; because we were already a social company. We did not conceive this business exclusively with the goal of financial profit. Companies are part of the social fabric, and we must contribute to the welfare of the societies where we are active. That is how we see it and believe it. But I’m not saying that because it’s fashionable, or because the Business Roundtable of the most influential CEOs in the United States said so a couple of summers ago, but because it’s in MAPFRE’s DNA: we included corporate social responsibility in our bylaws for the first time in July 1965.
What’s more -and I’m telling you this as food for thought – consumers increasingly know how to differentiate between companies that carry out social marketing from those that are really committed.
Q. We’ve been talking for some time about digital transformation without it becoming established in our society. Do you believe that the crisis has proved to be the definitive accelerator for its implementation, given how telework, online transactions etc. have functioned?
A. There has been a lot of thought recently about the future of work, new technologies, robotization, artificial intelligence, etc. I’m convinced that this crisis will in a few years accelerate technological realities that we thought were not yet mature for mass implementation, and that experience has shown us that they are readier than we thought. But let’s be frank. What we have experienced with hundreds of thousands of people working from home, while looking after their children, in precarious conditions, in many cases with a rather artificial productivity… all this says much about those who have tried it, but it’s not the remote work we were searching for and that we needed to make progress as a society. It has been an urgent solution to an emergency situation, but it hasn’t been the best solution.
What’s been missing has been something that’s more essential: the human component. If the chain of labor relations is simplified as far as possible thanks to technology, we neutralize the value of the chain and eliminate non-material aspects that are transcendent and make the difference between companies. And that’s where telework doesn’t function. To generate social value, we have to generate social value in the company. This is achieved by humanizing the company more, not making the home more entrepreneurial.
We are entering a period in our society when we have to redefine the model we want. Some people talk about a new social contract in which we distribute all the aspects around us with the priority we want. The dilemma cannot therefore revolve around the concept of telework as has been forced on us in this pandemic, but on whether or not we want to reflect more profoundly on our social model and take advantage of everything technology makes possible for people, including its capacity to create value for the whole through individual contributions in the area of work.
Q. Coming now to what we call the new normal, what will be the keys that must be taken into account by managers in this period?
A. The best lesson for us is undoubtedly that we must put the real priorities into their true place, starting with a focus on people and the environment. Our actions will continue to be inspired in the same three principles that have guided us from day one: protect people, employees, collaborators and customers; protect the business and maintain the service to our customers, who know MAPFRE will never fail them; and help all the societies where we are present to overcome this terrible pandemic and its associated secondary effects.
Here I would like to mention expressly Latin America, a key region for understanding MAPFRE as it now is. We have been working there, in most of its countries, for decades, and investing in its economic and social development. In Europe we may think that that the pandemic has passed. That’s not true, but every day we are living the reality of the virus in Latin America, which in these weeks has been experiencing great pain the loss of human lives, on many occasions because they lack sufficient resources to care for all those who are infected. That is why most of the 35 million euros from the MAPFRE Foundation are going there, converted into medical material in most cases to protect healthcare personnel and to improve the probability of curing those infected.
MAPFRE is Latin America, and Latin American societies expect Spanish people and their companies to be particularly close now they need us most. I’ve said it in other channels and I’ll repeat it here at this interview: We are MAPFRE and Latin America is also our reality. We’re going to continue to be there to help the emergence from the health crisis and to help in the recovery of economic activity.
Q. There is talk of a new normal in which greater importance is given to issues related to wellbeing, safety, confidence, care for the elderly… All this is closely related to the insurance sector. What changes do you believe that the sector must adopt to adapt to this new context?
A. Really, if this crisis has demonstrated anything it is that health is what is really important. The insurance sector is already playing a key role in this task. The partnership of the private sector with public health over these months has been exemplary. So I’ll say again, this form of public-private partnership is perhaps the path that we have to explore increasingly as a solution for the country in the long term. And I’m not only thinking about health, but also of a healthy model for the future of a modern society in which efforts are shared between all those who can contribute the solution. Let’s consider the serious problem of pensions. All countries have difficulties in dealing with it because the basic problem is common: the happy increase in longevity. That is why all entrust the future income of their elderly to two or three sources: public, generated through savings over the working life; and for those who can, a third pension generated with people’s individual savings. In Spain, we have a very serious problem of sustainability of the model with respect to its current amounts.
Concentrating more than 95% of the effort to pay future pensions in solely public hands will mean that our pensioners in future years will have their purchasing power severely limited, unless there are changes. That is why combining public and private saving is essential, and in this insurance is key to guarantee people’s economic future.
Q. Very difficult moments are undoubtedly ahead of us, with uncertainty regarding a possible resurgence, the serious economic crisis… What do you believe will happen in the coming months? Are you optimistic with respect to the form of recovery?
A. We are facing a crisis of unknown proportions, and there is no doubt that difficult times are ahead. I am particularly concerned about jobs, because they are the essence of development. A subsidy deals with an urgent need, but stable and quality jobs provide a basis for constructing the future. And with respect to jobs – and I’ve said it more than once – I’m concerned about a generation that is doubly punished by the current crisis and by that of 2008: the millennials. The previous crisis expelled them abruptly from the labor market, and for 10 years they have been suffering from the consequences of the crisis in terms of greater difficulties to return to the labor market, an extremely high level of precariousness due to the temporary nature of our labor model, and lower wages with respect to previous generations.
Now they have again been the first to leave the market, precisely when they should be preparing themselves in companies and institutions to take over leadership from the previous generation. The best trained will have more opportunities once more, but those who are not sufficiently qualified will suffer a great deal if we do not develop special plans to help them.
Q. On a more personal note, how have you dealt with confinement? What positive things have you drawn from this experience, if there are any?
A. We have all had to reinvent ourselves and establish new professional and personal routines. It’s been a different experience in all senses, but psychologically exhausting when it was forced on us, as was the case. From the professional point of view the experience has been better for those who were already reasonably prepared. I’ve always been fairly autonomous in my management for many years, using platforms that allow me to work on the move, when traveling, or distributing my activity in different MAPFRE buildings, even from home; and during this period I’ve been able to maintain activity without any setbacks. And beyond work, I’ve maintained contact with the family, I’ve been able to continue to play sport at home and I’ve recovered some hobbies that I’d abandoned to a certain extent, such as cooking.
Q. In the pandemic, we’ve seen that MAPFRE has earmarked 5 million euros to support the different projects underway to understand the behavior of the virus and speed up the development of a vaccine. Has there been any progress with respect to the research?
A. Recently the daily El País published a report on the progress being made by the CSIC teams to achieve a vaccine, such as that led by Mariano Esteban. It’s not an easy task, but I trust that progress may be made, not only because a vaccine will without doubt be a great success in global terms, but because the logistics of a vaccination at global scale will also represent a major potential for conflicts. Protecting all the population of the planet against Covid-19 would mean doubling the production of vaccines, or even tripling it if more than one dose was required. That’s why it’s important we don’t neglect national research and MAPFRE is very proud of supporting it. It is fair to recall now that CSIC played a key role in how the epidemic generated by SARS developed.
Q. In a recent interview you urged a break with “mental confinement” and an escape from psychological imprisonment. How would you describe the side-effects of this period?
A. Physical confinement leads to mental confinement and this has to be broken, because we have to get out to know what’s happening in society, among our customers. We can’t be locked up in our homes, even though technologically it’s possible to lead an almost normal life. Human beings are gregarious and they have progressed and prospered over history when they have formed communities and helped each other mutually.
Also, I see a contradiction here: Spanish people are very sociable by nature and this condition has led us to launch ourselves en masse (and at times imprudently) into the streets and leisure areas, to share with others, losing respect for the virus. However, often we are reluctant to return to our workplace, for fear, or at times for reasons of comfort. Total protection doesn’t exist and will never exist. There will continue to be outbreaks, which may be dealt with by a less collapsed health service, as happens every year with the flu virus itself. Returning in person to our personal places of work was not only necessary, because a large part of economic activity requires people to deal with people, but it is also the most supportive thing that those of us who have had the luck to keep our jobs can do at this time. There will be no new customers, or innovation, or the economy of proximity, if we do not return in person to companies. By helping our companies, and the ancillary companies around them, to recover muscle and capacity, we will also be driving the emergence from the crisis for all. And all this is compatible with greater flexibility in the work environment and mobility.