STAYING STABLE

Lebanon 2016 | FINANCE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to George Matossian, General Manager & Vice President of Al Mashrek, on major challenges, the changing needs of insurance companies, and the outlook for the future.

George Matossian
BIOGRAPHY
George Matossian is the Vice President and General Manager of Al Mashrek. He has previously held the positions of Manager, IT Manager, and Reinsurance Officer with Al Mashrek. Matossian was a member of the organizing committee of the GAIF Conference Beirut in 2004, 2010, and 2016. He received an A.A. degree in 2000 from Pierce College in California.

What is your evaluation of the insurance industry in Lebanon?

The insurance sector has been growing effectively in the past few years, and at a larger pace than most industries in Lebanon. It is undeniable that growth has slowed down in comparison to the numbers it presented a few years ago, but this responds to instability and political stagnation rather than deficiencies in the sector itself. If we look at the numbers, they are positive. They look promising, and we cannot deny that Lebanese insurance companies have found their way to remain resilient no matter how dark the panorama is. Industry-wise, we have seen a steep decrease in the marine insurance segment due to the Syrian conflict that hindered the former export activity to Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and other markets. With the evaporation of this trading route and the position of Lebanon as a hub, insurance companies have lost an important part of their business in the local market.

What have been the major challenges Al Mashrek has faced, and how have you come up with innovative solutions to counter them?

We have pushed hard over the past four years to increase the percentage of collection of our premiums and to lower the deficit of collection to maintain a good client portfolio. Some of our clients have been with us for years, and paying their premiums has become increasingly tougher; therefore, we have shifted to adapt to these needs. All the international compliance regulations, such as Basel III, that have been recently applied have also taken their toll on how the sector operates, pushing banks to minimize their shares in their own insurance companies, pushing them to have a more aggressive approach to the market. The fact that we are not connected to any banking institution leaves us in a more vulnerable position to counter these effects; hence, we came up with those solutions.

How has the policy of mandatory insurance from the banking sector shifted the needs of regular insurance companies?

An increasing trend in the Lebanese insurance market is the ability of banks to incorporate mandatory insurance policies into their loans, which has indirectly affected all players in the insurance sector. Due to the monetary situation, many businesses are shifting from traditional insurance to bank insurance, which is why the top-10 insurance companies are dominated by bank insurers. We have been challenging this situation for the past few years, and were able to maintain a fair level of the market share. We use our cash reserves to stay alive in this stagnant market. The challenge now is how much longer can we sustain this trend and remain competitive.

Have you incorporated any technological applications to your product portfolio?

As a businessman with a background in technology, I can tell it is still too early to invest in technological applications for the insurance industry in Lebanon. The bulk of customers purchasing premiums in Lebanon come from the heads of family, who tend to be older and usually not involved in technological applications and novelties. Also, the implementation of mobile applications and technological advances requires a fair level of internet speed at an affordable cost, which we do not have in Lebanon for the time being. The percentage of potential customers to cater through technological applications remains too low for us to have a big incursion in this segment.

What do you see for the future of Al Mashrek in the next couple of years?

My prospect is that in two years we will remain as stable. We witness a small growth in our business through the operations we have in Lebanon and Egypt. I do not think we will perform any expansion to other markets for the time being, and we already have enough branches to cater to the Lebanese market.