David Stewart, Group COO, describes how the company’s digital transformation is unlocking exciting opportunities for trusted professionals...
In uncertain times, the benefit of a strong and enduring financial institution can be invaluable to maintaining the wellbeing of communities. Wesleyan Assurance Society (Wesleyan) is a Birmingham-based company founded in 1841 that, across its long heritage, has survived two world wars, several global depressions, the 2008 financial crisis, and is currently weathering the storm of COVID-19. In all that time, and despite the difficulty, its dedication to “creating brighter financial futures” for trusted professionals, including doctors, dentists, teachers and lawyers, has remained robust, unshaken and secure.
Group Chief Operating Officer David Stewart’s journey with Wesleyan began in April 2019, when he joined as Technology & Transformation Director, rising to his present role five months later. Originally trained as a chemist, Stewart found that his true passion lay in business, “I had my first foray in financial services back in 2008 when I joined what was HBOS, which was taken over by Lloyd's in a matter of weeks.” Rising steadily to a number of executive positions within the company, he relates that, when he first heard about Wesleyan, he was immediately drawn to its culture, history and the opportunities it presented. “I was particularly attracted to the company’s mutual heritage: we're not here to meet short-term shareholder goals; we’re here to deliver value for our members and customers. That's a goal I buy into wholeheartedly.”
Stewart states that he brings three aspects of his career outside of finance (primarily retail and sales) to bear on his role as COO: customer-centricity, colleague focus and commerciality. Although Wesleyan’s consistent capital strength has been key to its enduring success, its willingness to adapt its services to the changing needs of its clients has been equally important: “Our financial consultants meet our customers day-to-day and we also get a lot of insights from professional advisory boards.” This willingness to evolve even permeates the structure of the C-suite: “We’ve had a significant change across executive leadership,” Stewart explains, including a new CEO, COO (Stewart himself), Chief Distribution Officer and, most recently, a new Chief Financial Officer. “We are confident that we are set up for the next phase of Wesleyan’s development.” This refers to the company’s accelerated two-year transformation journey, which aims to “raise the bar” of service delivery for customers.
Diversifying the company’s channel offerings has been an integral part of its tech transformation. Part of this focuses on customer-centric operations: Wesleyan has been pursuing omnichannel capabilities to bring freedom of choice to an increasingly diverse client base. Although it’s often easier to adapt services in theory than practice, due to the increasingly nuanced value of customer-centricity, Stewart states that the company is employing a relatively simple method to ensure its roadmap for innovation is correctly drawn: “Our approach is to first identify what the ‘end state’ or target customer experience is that we want to deliver. What do we need to bring into the organisation, and where can we find efficiencies and smarter ways of doing things, either by developing capabilities in-house, calling on third parties where needed, or introducing automation to certain processes.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is one of Wesleyan’s key partners on developing a new tech strategy, particularly with an increased emphasis on data and analytics. Stewart explains: “PwC has been instrumental to us building our ‘data warehouse’. From that, we’ve started to deliver use cases to the business, such as our customer intelligence dashboards that are now being used by all of our financial consultants to gain better insights into customers’ needs. Importantly, PwC is also supporting us as we develop our ‘cyber maturity’; we're making good progress on our journey to enhance the protection that we can offer.” Additionally, Stewart references Bluechip, Lenovo and Softcat as “key partners who are helping to drive Wesleyan’s digital transformation journey.”
This touches on an important aspect of digital transformation, not just for Wesleyan but generally: if the fundamentals aren’t right, neither will the rest. “We are putting a lot of investment behind our IT resilience and cybersecurity; those are absolutely essential. You can have the most fantastic digital interface you want, but if the infrastructure behind that isn't robust then it's built on quicksand.” Stewart points to Wesleyan’s successful migration of its data centre, which occurred over the Easter weekend in the height of lockdown. For most organisations, data centre migrations are among the most complex technology projects to deliver, and this was no exception for Wesleyan. “The implementation touched every single area of our technology estate, much of which was highly complex and incredibly frail.” Another example of Wesleyan’s approach includes starting to incorporate robotic process automation (RPA) in customer operations. Although the digital transformation of Wesleyan was already firmly underway prior to the lockdown imposed by the pandemic, it is safe to say that the circumstances have shaped its progress. Shifting from an office-centric organisation to a more flexible and remote operating model, Stewart is confident that the revised work paradigms will be both enduring and ultimately beneficial, both to employees and customers. “Providing everyone with laptops has opened Wesleyan’s eyes to the fact that we can still be effective remotely. Quite frankly, the idea of having flexibility between home and the office is hugely attractive, although some employees find working entirely from home difficult.” This latter point is vital, he explains, as another crucial legacy of COVID-19 has been the company’s renewed emphasis on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of its staff.
In addition to the work it does for professionals in a financial capacity, Stewart highlighted that the company is a staunch advocate of equality, inclusion and diversity. Acting as ‘gender network sponsor’ for Wesleyan, he states the definite progress being made to balance representation of women in senior leadership roles:
“I'm very proud to be the gender network sponsor. Since 2018 we’ve increased the number of women in our senior leader population from 18% to 30%. We're still not where we want to be, but we have numerous initiatives that are driving that agenda forward.”
Regarding the company’s efforts to assist communities and individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stewart also highlights its free-to-access, 24/7 healthcare and wellbeing support hub, Wesleyan Wellbeing. “The online service offers a free psychological triage, and access to specialist mental health clinicians for our members. Through the Wesleyan Foundation, we have also gifted over £100k to various charities and organisations in support of key worker mental health needs.”
In September, despite the economic downturn, Wesleyan paid out its highest-ever mutual bonus to members: a £30m dividend to customers invested in its profits fund, with each investor receiving a 1% uplift on the value of their investment. As a testament to its financial strength, the Society has paid out over £67m to members over the past three years in the form of mutual dividends.
Support is something that Wesleyan truly believes in: its reach extends past customers, members and employees and actually touches the fintech community. It achieves this through its ‘The Engine Room’ initiative at Colmore Circus, Birmingham. “The Engine Room is a state-of-the-art fintech hub,” Stewart explains. “It was launched in November 2019 and built up a fantastic head of steam until the events of March slowed things down a bit.” Providing a valuable collaboration space in the heart of the city, the initiative features over 30 workstations, numerous breakout areas and an auditorium. Significantly, it also provides the West Midlands of England with its own fintech cluster, something which had been lacking. “I think it's great that Wesleyan is able to play its part in helping the local economy. One of the barriers to entry for fintech startups is simply having access to a physical environment that is conducive to growth.”
Maintaining the same vision that has seen it prevail in the market for almost 180 years, Wesleyan will continue to partner on projects with companies that demonstrate the same integrity, impact and committed work ethic it exemplifies. Part of its continued vision is an adherence to its individual mission and purpose: creating brighter financial futures for the professions we all trust. “We will remain a segment specialist because it's the right thing for our customers and our business,” Stewart explains. “We are not a mass-market player. Rather, we cater to our customer groups in a very focused and appropriate way.” Wesleyan’s ongoing transformation, combined with a well-crafted product range and award-winning investment funds, appears to form a strategic roadmap geared for success. That success will belong not only to the company and its staff but also to its customers, whose vital work is needed now more than ever. “I said what attracted me to Wesleyan was the opportunity it presented. I’m 18 months into the role now and absolutely still firmly believe in our message.”