Extreme weather events, COVID-19 'pushed us to step up our game' – Desjardins president

President reflects on holding on to a core purpose as the industry adapts to change

Extreme weather events, COVID-19 'pushed us to step up our game' – Desjardins president

Insurance News

By Gia Snape

Increasingly catastrophic weather events and a global pandemic have served as major impetus for Desjardins General Insurance Group (Desjardins) to rethink its approach to insurance and “step up its game.”

Valerie Lavoie (pictured), Desjardins president and chief operating officer, named the two types of events as the ones that stuck the most in her mind over her nearly three-decade career in insurance.
“Those kinds of events really pushed Desjardins to step up our game and continue to improve how we support our members and clients,” she said.

Responding to customers’ needs

Lavoie named the Quebec ice storm in 1998 and the Fort McMurray flooding disaster in 2020 as among the events that have had an impact on the organization.

“We brought in innovation on claims management at the time [after the Quebec ice storm], and, after all the flood disasters, we always have a team on field to be there soon after the catastrophe to help clients,” she reflected.

“I think these events give us a sense of purpose. There are always small claims, but big catastrophes or events are memorable because they have allowed us to quickly adapt to support our members and clients.

“The pandemic was a difficult and confusing time, but it showed us the great agility of our employees, and transformed the way we do business. Responding to these events is a way to show we care about our customers.”

Desjardins, one of the largest insurance companies in Canada, continues to step up its game in the face of growing risks for its members, according to Lavoie.

Last year, she highlighted the insurer’s “omnichannel” approach and stressed that the industry needed to accelerate its digital transformation to adapt to changing consumer expectations.

“An omnichannel experience means people can do business with us the way they want, be it through digital, over the phone when they want to reach an agent directly, or face to face,” she told Insurance Business. “We’re working to overhaul our core system to make sure that we enter this new omnichannel world.”

Desjardins has also increased its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts within its organization in recent years, adapting to changes in the Canadian workforce. It was awarded the Insurance Business 5-Star DE&I award this year.

“We’ve updated our hiring practices to ensure equal opportunity and promote inclusive leadership,” said Lavoie. “We have strived to create an environment that enables women in the organization to develop their leadership skills and propel themselves into leadership roles.”

Drawn into a dynamic industry

Lavoie revealed that her journey to insurance had, like others in the field, not been planned.

She completed a bachelor’s degree in biology, but found she was also drawn to applied maths. She took up another bachelor’s degree, this time in actuarial science.

She entered Desjardins through its actuarial department in 1994 and has stayed at the insurer since.

“Insurance was very dynamic as an industry, and it’s what attracted me the most at that time,” Lavoie said. “I grew into the organization. I was very proud and felt really close to the values of Desjardins. Even after spending 29 years in this company, I feel the same pride and the same enthusiasm to come to work every morning.”

Lavoie said she “did almost everything in insurance” while at Desjardins - moving into the support team for operations, then handling customer experience and sales as a vice president for several years.

“I was responsible for all the things that involve taking care of members and clients in the direct distribution side across Canada, including insurance agents, billing teams, support teams, and digital services,” she said.

Lavoie was named president and COO at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic. But to this day, working closely with Desjardins’ members and clients remains close to her heart.

“That’s what I really enjoy the most about my job,” she said. “To be close to the members and clients, to understand their needs, and work towards their best interests.”

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