Building a Data-Driven Organisation: The CEO’s Prerogative

Mayank Bathwal - CEO,
Aditya Birla Health Insurance

Many businesses have been on a quest to become data-driven for the better part of the last decade, and for good reason. The end-goal might be to gain competitive advantage, build operational efficiencies and effectiveness, or scale up. Alternatively, the aim might be to become more agile, develop the ability to take more informed decisions, such as by identifying and leveraging business opportunities (or risks) sooner. For still others, it may be about driving innovation and value-creation or optimising business execution. However, becoming data-driven is not an easy task. Companies that succeed in this domain have one thing in common: their CEOs are actively engaged in data initiatives, drive digital transformation, encourage employees to embrace advanced analytics, and oversee strong governance processes. A fine example of such a company is Aditya Birla Health Insurance Company (ABHICL), led by its exemplary CFO-turned-CEO, Mayank Bathwal.

ABHICL is a joint venture between the Aditya Birla Group and South African financial services company, MMI Holdings Ltd. (MMI). The company was established with a core business philosophy of empowering its customers to prioritise ‘health first’ by providing easy, digitised access to a holistic health and wellness ecosystem in a personalised, efficient and cost-effective manner. ABHICL has differentiated itself by moving from the traditional ‘buy and forget’ business model to ‘buy and engage.’ This serves an enabler and influencer of customer health, in addition to fulfilling the traditional role of insurance of funding healthcare expenses. Consequently, customer stickiness has increased, yielding improvements in persistency and driving business growth. ABHICL’s top-line grew by ~55% in FY21.

Mr Bathwal joined the Aditya Birla Group in 1994 and has worked across several of the Group’s units and projects, including its fertiliser and copper smelting units, financial services business and power projects. In 1999, he joined Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance Company Limited (ABSLI), the life-insurance JV between the Aditya Birla Group and Canada’s Sun Life. He was part of the project team that set up the venture and oversaw its business strategy and planning function, later taking charge of its Finance operations. In 2006, Mr Bathwal moved to Indonesia to take charge as Chief Financial Officer of Sun Life’s operations in that country, moving back to India a year later as CFO of ABSLI. In 2011, he took additional charge of the Institutional Sales teams, which included the company’s Bancassurance, Corporate Agency and Broking channels. Ending his stint at ABSLI in 2015 as its Deputy Chief Executive Officer, he assumed his current position as CEO of ABHICL.

Reflecting on his 28-year journey working with several Finance leaders, Mr Bathwal has distilled several lessons, and possible pitfalls, in terms of making the transition to the top job. According to him, CFOs aspiring to the role must be able to speak the language of the business. They should also be lifelong learners, have the willingness to move beyond their comfort zone, possess a breadth and depth of thinking, and fully take charge of their careers. As CEO, his top priority is to bring the right kind of people into the organisation, and ensure a culture that promotes diversity. Managing external stakeholders, including regulators, is another big focus area for him. He actively drives policy-advocacy efforts to establish new policies or improve existing ones.

Mr Bathwal spoke candidly about his role in building a data-driven organisation, the impact of the pandemic on his industry, lessons from his CFO-to-CEO journey, and the key tenets of building a future-ready company.

How has the pandemic impacted the services industry in general and ABHICL in particular?

As the pandemic progressed, there was an uptick in demand for health insurance. The awareness, acceptance and value of health insurance increased substantially during this period. We started seeing greater traction for insurance products across our channels. Consequently, our top-line grew by ~55% in FY21, and this year, our growth has been around 35%. However, the bottom-line was under a lot of pressure on account of a spike in claims. For instance, this year we paid around Rs 250 crores on just Covid-related claims.

In the last two years, the awareness, acceptance and value of health insurance have gone up substantially.

Overall, this period has allowed us to re-examine our entire business model. We found areas of improvement, accelerated the deployment of technologies, and improved efficiencies as well as productivity. We saved Rs 50-60 crores through multiple measures.

Going forward, ABHICL is well positioned to leverage the opportunities that are likely to emerge in the future. The shareholder’s faith in the business model continues to be strong.

India’s services industry was put to the test in the last year, especially during the second wave. What challenges emerged as a consequence and how were they overcome?

The pandemic is a once-in-a-century event and no one seems to have been prepared for something like this. For me, as the head of the organisation, the top priority was to take care of our people, because in a services business like ours, it is all about the people. Ultimately, the entire service delivery had to come from our people. Also, businesses like ours have a relatively younger workforce, with both husband and wife likely working. The pandemic only added to their stress. So, our first port of call was to take care of our employees by engaging with them regularly and ensuring their safety and comfort.

During the pandemic, as the CEO, my top priority was to take care of our people because in a services business like ours it is all about people.

To ensure business continuity, we leveraged the existing digital capabilities that we had built over the years. Even before the pandemic, 98% of our sales were paperless. We were already using Zoom for internal training. During the pandemic, we extended the Teams/Zoom platform to interact and connect with customers by educating them, alleviating their concerns and getting feedback. Our agents were trained online to sell to customers virtually.

Ultimately, our purpose was to put all our stakeholders at ease, including our employees, customers and intermediaries. Interactions with regulators also increased substantially during this period.

Going forward, what opportunities are either available to you, or do you anticipate will arise? Has the overall organisational strategy been realigned or goals reset?

India’s health insurance industry offers tremendous opportunities. Out of a total population of 1.3 billion, only about 450 million people are covered by health insurance in some form. Of this, 100 million are covered through corporate insurance, about 60 million through retail health insurance, and the balance via government schemes. So, the level of health protection is very low in India. The pandemic has accentuated the need for health insurance, which itself is a great opportunity. Further, Mediclaim covers only hospitalisation expenses. In reality, the bulk of health expenses (around 60%) is outpatient (incurred outside of hospitals) that are not covered.

As an organisation, we see a big opportunity in terms of the scope of the business. Traditionally, health insurance has been about funding a health crisis. It operates like a financing industry that funds consumers’ hospitalisation expenses. In essence, it is a sell-and-forget industry and is purely transactional. This is one of the reasons why a lot of young people do not buy health insurance: because they do not see themselves in hospitals.

Now, the narrative is gradually shifting towards ‘health first.’ We are focussed on talking the language of health as against insurance. Essentially, we do not talk the language of fear, but that of good health. There is a huge opportunity to reorient the business as an extension of the health industry and position ourselves as a reliable health partner to consumers. In fact, five years ago the company was established on the premise of ‘buy and engage’ as against ‘sell and forget.’ Today, we are working with a whole range of health partners across the health value-chain, including teleconsultants, specialists, mental health counsellors, etc. Infact this courage of ours to challenge the core paradigm of the traditional model helped us to build the fastest growing health insurance franchise ever in the history of the industry.

We do not talk the language of fear but that of good health.

There is also an opportunity for the insurance industry to collaborate. For instance, Swasth, an independent body, brought all of the ecosystem partners on to a common platform to create an alliance of hospitals, NGOs, insurers, health tech and others. All of us have worked together to build multiple capabilities, including, recently, the ‘common standards for health claims platform,’ which could form the basis for an industry-first common claims platform in the future. I am excited about the way forward. What Covid has taught us is to look beyond incremental opportunities and think about reimagining the business you are in.

Insuretech firms are rapidly seizing opportunities in the Indian insurance sector.  How is ABHICL dealing with competition from Fintech firms that operate at the intersection of insurance and technology? What are ABHICL’s plans on the technology front?

Our approach is to accept these new-age companies and acknowledge that many more will come. Today, with capital available in abundance, it is all about ideas. We operate with a mindset of partnership as against control. So, if there is a great idea, we do not mind partnering with start-ups. For instance, we have tied up with multiple companies which helped us make our claims process more efficient. Fundamentally, companies need to shift their mindset

We operate with a mindset of partnership as against control.

from ‘competition’ to ‘collaboration.’ Formally, we run a programme (Bizlab) at the group level to work with 10-15 insuretech and fintech firms on various ideas. Illustratively, we partnered with Ola to provide ride insurance to consumers. i3 systems, an AI and automation solution provider, helped us standardise our data for calculating health scores for our customers while Heaps, an AI-driven healthtech start-up, helped us reduce the readmission risks of a discharged patient by about 30-40%.

It is difficult to predict the future in the face of such radical disruption and competition, but what would you say companies in the insurance sector need to do to ensure success and continued growth in the ‘new normal?’

In general, given the opportunities in the health insurance industry, there is certainly room for competition. Every innovation is opening up a whitespace for everyone. However, to ensure success in the industry, the company needs to have a consumer-first approach. For instance, we incentivise healthy behaviours through our app, which tracks activity levels and rewards consumers through discounts and cashback. This helps us open up the market for young consumers.

The other crucial element for success is a focus on talent. In today’s era, it is a war for talent. If you do not deal with your talent effectively, you are not going to succeed. Fortunately, the Aditya Birla group offers a lot of opportunities in that regard. I started my career in the fertiliser industry and today I am leading an insurance business. The opportunities to learn and grow are immense.

Building digital capabilities requires a greater focus on the softer aspects including a shift in the mindset and revamping the organisational culture.

Lastly, to stay ahead of the curve, it is important to build strong digital capabilities. In most organisations, digital is a separate vertical. However, in our case, digital is a horizontal that cuts across the broader organisation. This ensures that a greater part of the organisation is digitally ready, without which digital transformation cannot be successful. Technology is no longer a support function but an enabler. Today, consumers are used to an Amazon/Uber experience and companies should be geared towards a lateral fusion by incorporating capabilities from other industries. For instance, our Head of Digital came from Zomato, not from the financial services industry, and our Head of Marketing came from the retail industry. This has helped infuse fresh and out-of-the-box thinking. Ultimately, building digital capabilities, although easier said than done, requires a greater focus on the softer aspects, including a shift in mindset and revamping the organisational culture.

With the sector booming and the company in good shape, what are some of the key strategic initiatives or big bets that are either underway or planned?

We are excited about the future and are focused on becoming India’s first data-driven health insurance company. This will continue to be an area where we will take big bets.

We are focused on becoming India’s first data-driven health insurance company.

We would continue to solve complex problems through collaborations and partnerships with insuretech and healthtech firms. We are constantly aligned with the needs of consumers. We have an innovation hub that continuously looks at what is changing in the external environment so that we are not losing sight of what is going to happen.

As the CEO of ABHICL, what are your top priorities and business concerns? Overall, what is the long-term vision?

Our approach to setting up the insurance business is different from others. We are committed to building a ‘health first’ insurance company that goes beyond funding health crises to become a health partner to our customers. This clarity of purpose helps define the priorities and drives our conviction around objectives. My key priority is to bring in the right kind of people into the organisation. Secondly, being a young organisation, the other key area of focus is to ensure that we have the right culture that promotes diversity within the organisation. I believe that people who come from varied backgrounds not only bring work experiences but also life experiences

People who come from varied backgrounds not only bring work experiences but also life experiences that bring in different perspectives and richness of ideas.

 that bring in different perspectives and richness of ideas. Managing external stakeholders, including regulators, is another big focus area for me. I actively drive policy advocacy efforts with the regulator to establish new policies or improve existing ones. Digital health as a category is still in a nascent stage and there is a lot of scope for growth. A lot of my time also goes into building an ecosystem of partnerships to deliver the differential model that we have adopted.

In the long run, as an organisation, we would like to play a huge role in influencing Indians towards living a fulfilling life and making health a top priority.

Your journey from the CFO to the CEO position would be filled with lots of learning and lessons. How has your career evolved at ABHICL? What lessons have your learnt along the way? What are your recommendations for CFOs aspiring to the top job?

Yes, there are a lot of lessons that I’ve learned along the way. My recommendations to fellow CFOs aspiring for the top job are:

  • Speak the language of the business:In my early years at ABG, I was assisting a very senior business leader, which gave me a very close view of how the then head of the organisation managed different roles. So, when I became the CFO in the life insurance business, I had insights into the drivers of the business. Essentially, there are two broad routes to the CFO position – controller and FP&A. Those who grow from the FP&A route typically have a much broader business sense, and their approach to being a CFO is highly business-oriented. I was fortunate to have started my career with good exposure to the business, value drivers and interdependencies. Having a clear business perspective is crucial to being a successful CFO. Therefore, Finance leaders must spend more time with external stakeholders and interact with customers. This will lend CFOs the needed edge to vie for the CEO position.
  • CFOs aspiring for the top job should be able to speak the language of the business, be lifelong learners, willing to move out of their comfort zone, have breadth and depth of thinking and take charge of their career.

  • Be a lifelong learner: There is so much change around us that if you are not a lifelong learner, you may not be relevant tomorrow. The pace of change is much faster today as compared to 5-10 years ago. So, one should have a mindset to learn something new every day and keep improving skills.
  • Get out of your comfort zone: When I was the CFO, I was given the additional responsibility of heading institutional sales. I was managing more than 50% of sales. Even though I had concerns about handling sales also, having never done a revenue role, the CEO was highly supportive. We cannot realise where our strengths lie unless we try multiple things outside our stream. So, Finance leaders must be willing to take risks and get out of their comfort zone.
  • Balance big picture and detail-oriented thinking:The ability to create a vision must be balanced with the ability to focus on finer details. To be successful, CFOs must have a dual-track approach of big-picture and detail-oriented thinking.
  • Take charge of your career: Taking initiatives and trying out new things will help you figure out your strengths and become a CFO that is business-savvy, operations-focused as well as strategic.

Personally, how are you coped with the disruption over the last 2 years? What keeps you operating at an optimum level?      

The last two years have been challenging personally. I had my moments of weakness and stress. To deal with issues, I figured that one of the most crucial things is having more and more connections with people. Particularly, in the first six months of the Covid phase, I did a lot of interaction both at the personal and the professional level. Talking to people helped alleviate doubts, issues and concerns. I saw so many people going through stressful situations and mental issues. The fact that we are there for each other was reassuring. We started a company-wide initiative, ‘I am Possible’ to help everyone get through the difficult time.

Building meaningful connections, focusing on health and keeping a positive frame of mind are keys to operating at an optimum level.

I started focusing on healthier habits by doing Yoga online. The period also brought in an element of spirituality and I took out time for Vipassana. Being an avid reader, I read a lot of autobiographies of great personalities and did an online course on happiness to be in a positive state of mind. The lockdown phase also increased the quality of time spent with family.