We are happy to share the second part of the interview with Oleksii Muzychko, CEO of UNIVERSALNA Insurance Company. Illia Pinchuk spoke with Oleksii about the challenges of running the insurance company during wartime in Ukraine.
Oleksii started his career as a lawyer at “Lviv Airlines” and succeeded in the insurance sector working at UNIQA for many years. Today, Oleksii manages UNIVERSALNA and strives to lead the company to successful insurance businesses driven by digital technologies. Read more below.
Q: Oleksii, please tell us about your career growth and how you got the CEO position.
A: In 1996, I graduated from the Franko University of Lviv. I was a lawyer, and one of my first places of work was the state-owned enterprise “Lviv Airlines.” There I worked in a legal contract department.
It happened that a tragedy occurred – the Lviv board crashed near Thessaloniki. Lawsuits began between two airlines “Aerosvit” and “Lviv Airlines.” On the side of “Lviv Airlines,” the insurance company “Credo Classic” also insured the board. During the trial, I was offered a lawyer job in an insurance company. After that, I went to Kyiv and worked as a lawyer in an insurance company.
In 1999, the insurance business just started developing in Ukraine. First private insurance companies appeared. “Credo Classic” was one of them. There I began my career: in addition to legal, I was also responsible for settling losses. I was also responsible for underwriting, reinsurance, and large corporate clients. As a result, I became a Vice President. In the early 2000s, when there was an active investment from the western side in the Ukrainian financial market, the Austrian group UNIQA acquired a majority share of “Credo Classic.” So, we have become known as UNIQA, where I ended my career as the First Deputy Chairman of the Board.
In 2008, I met Mr. Vitaliy Antonov, the main shareholder of “Galnaftogaz Group,” “OKKO Group of Companies,” the most branded network of gas stations in Ukraine. One of his companies was “Universalna Insurance Company.” He invited me to lead this company and agreed.
At that time, all insurance companies were divided into either those that had already been purchased by foreign brands or those with Ukrainian shareholders. We had a unique situation because we had a majority shareholder Vitaliy Antonov and some Western investment funds, such as “Horizon Capital” and Natalia Jaresko, who was the Minister of Finance of our country after the Maidan.
In 2010, we conducted due diligence with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which acquired a significant share in our company. We had the largest shareholder with the most considerable stake, Vitaly Antonov, but no one had a majority. This gave a serious impetus to the development of our corporate governance. I think we had one of the best practices in the market because of such shareholders. All this has prepared our company for many challenges we had.
In 2019, we got the best shareholder we could imagine — the Canadian group “Fairfax.” They entered the market almost simultaneously, acquiring controlling stakes in the company “AXA” and “Universalna.” Our ownership structure – 100% of the “ARX” and “Universalna” is owned by Ukrainian holding, 70% is owned by “Fairfax,” and 30% by the EBRD. So, we stayed with the EBRD. This was the first history of cooperation between “Fairfax” holding and the EBRD on European territory.
Q: Oleksii, you have a unique experience managing an insurance company, especially given the war in Ukraine. How do you cope with running the company today?
A: Our shareholders help us, and I think they are the best because of how they behaved after the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine. We were told that the safety of our employees was the priority number one. The financial result is secondary. We have unlimited financial and organizational support. For example, a group of “Tactivate” professionals was hired to develop mass evacuation plans and extract workers from areas close to combat where living with blackouts is very difficult. Our employees and their families are welcome abroad. They live free of charge in apartments and houses rented by our shareholders. Great support is provided to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Our employees serving in the Armed Forces receive full support from us. Therefore, we are delighted to have such a shareholder.
Q: I remember the story about the main shareholder of “Fairfax,” Prem Watsa, who called you and asked to find a person who fed Ukrainians in the center of Kyiv, right?
A: Yes, he watched a video on YouTube with a Ukrainian restaurateur of Hindu origin (the restaurant “Bombay”) who cooked free food for residents of Kyiv. His first reaction was to contact that restaurateur and ask if any support is needed from our shareholders in scaling up this practice and distributing it to most of Kyiv or Ukraine. This is an example of our shareholder’s reaction.
Q: Oleksii, Ukraine is going through difficult times, the war, air raids, and blackouts. It is becoming challenging to interact with customers and provide high-quality services. How do you cope?
A: We have been working online for a long time. And we have been ready to cooperate with our customers in this format. COVID has only reinforced this. And when the war began, our company never stopped working. We had the first payments on the risks that occurred during the hostilities in the second week. Someday, we will all celebrate and raise toasts for this practical work, and our IT has coped.
The second factor is our database. We brought everything we could online, backed up in the cloud and servers. We placed them in different locations, that is, did risk diversification.
More than 40% of our employees relocated within Ukraine or abroad. In Ukraine, we tried our best to support people; our shareholders helped us abroad. I believe we worked effectively because the company showed good financial results and growth.
Q: What is the most challenging?
A: Blackouts are probably the most challenging thing we’re going through right now. How do we act here? First, the support of our shareholders. “Tactivate” helped find generators, batteries, and Starlink, which is extremely difficult to get in Ukraine now. We are currently preparing some standard solutions: generators, inverters, and batteries that work for a long time for workers. And the very Starlink that makes it possible to get the Internet. And also diversify Internet providers. Many nuances are associated with whether you have an office in an office center or a residential building.
We understand that in winter, mass outages are possible even for days. So, we must be prepared to help our workers who can evacuate on their own to relatives or have the opportunity to move to the private sector. And we must help them ensure they can function there. Or allow them to evacuate abroad or to those parts of Ukraine, the West, where fewer blackouts exist. The main issue is the safety of our employees and their families. Unfortunately, no one knows how the situation will develop further. I see the greatest threat to business in these blackouts and the destruction of energy infrastructure.
Q: Let’s hope our air defense will repel all future attacks. That’s why we stick together. Thank you, Oleksii.
A: I want to add that we must believe in victory. And first of all, take care of our employees, customers, and partners. I’m happy that all my friends and partners acted in the best possible way. Our employees are just gold. I am very grateful to them and to our shareholders. How you behave in difficult times will determine your fate many years after the victory. Therefore, I wish everyone to care for employees and their families, customers, and partners. Believe in victory.
Q: Glory to Ukraine.
A: Glory to heroes.
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