Digital high on the agenda for Platinum winner Acorn Life

Though requiring fundamental change in the business, the strategy for the future is honed by the awards experience

Keith Butler, chief executive, Acorn Life. PIcture: Mike Shaughnessy

Acorn Life is very familiar with Ireland’s Best Managed Companies. The Galway-based life insurance company has been a winner in the programme every year for the last six years and continues that streak this year.

Looking back on its first application six years ago, chief executive Keith Butler said that he has seen some important changes in the company.

“Deloitte do a pretty thorough analysis of your business plan, your strategic documentation, and then benchmark it against peers to find any gaps they see. The first year we did it, they picked up on a couple of things that we thought were quite insightful, which helped us focus a bit more on those areas.”

Chief among those was the need to enhance its HR functions and to ramp up technology investments in an ever-digitising world.

Big-picture thinking

“Covid in particular changed a lot of businesses and changed our business fundamentally. Even in my role, I used to travel all over the country in the car, thinking I was quite productive,” he said. “Remote working and virtual meetings have fundamentally changed our business.”

Butler said that, like many businesses, Acorn Life was preoccupied with managing its way through the Covid crisis. With that largely in the rearview mirror, Acorn Life is getting back to developing its big-picture thinking for the future.

To that end, and with lessons from Ireland’s Best Managed Companies onboard, the financial services company has devised a five-year plan, dubbed “Distribution 21”, to re-delegate functions around the company, optimise and streamline its operations and invest in digital.

Looking ahead

“That’s very much a forward-looking strategy to enhance the way we do business. It incorporates things like the remote working, more on the client side in terms of the digital platforms and also enhancing our products,” Butler said.

“We’ve done a lot of work on products in the last couple of years in terms of adding new products to our offering and also within the existing products, adding a lot more features to those products.”

Fundamental change

A significant undertaking for the business is the planned restructuring of some of its functions.

“Within Acorn, we have a group company and we have a couple of subsidiary companies. One is the life insurance company. The life insurance company is the company that manufacturers life and pension products; and then we have Acorn insurance, it’s a multi-agency intermediary distributor, so they would offer other companies’ home and motor products, for example,” Butler explained.

“We’re actually in the process of moving distribution for the life and pensions company into the insurance company, so in the future we’ll have one company primarily focused on manufacturing products and then we’ll have a separate company, Acorn insurance, which will focus exclusively on distributing the products.”

It’s a “fundamental change” to the business, he said, but a vital one to optimise the way it operates.

Technology investments

Butler is conscious of the need for the life insurance industry to invest more in technology to keep up with customers’ appetite for digital service. Digital has been on the agenda for Acorn Life for several years and was also identified as a key area for the company by the Ireland’s Best Managed Companies programme.

“The life insurance industry probably hasn’t been as proactive on the digitalisation of its business compared to even the banking apps that are out there,” he said.

“The customer of the future wants to do a lot of things on their phones, on their laptops; they don’t necessarily want to engage with people for basic services. They want to do their own research and they want to do it online quite quickly. I think that life insurance has more to offer on that front.”

Digital challenges

Life insurance has its own inherent challenges in meeting those types of digital strategies.

A full financial review for a prospective customer can be quite complex and the traditional way of doing so is often in face-to-face meetings with lots of paper. Moving that to the digital sphere will be a challenge.

To date, Acorn Life has deployed an electronic point-of-sale system so customers now can fill in application forms without the need for paper.

“It’s a journey and there’s a lot more to be done around that space, but we’re quite proud of what we’ve done so far.”

Honing the mission

Ireland’s Best Managed Companies has played a role in honing that mission.

“We knew that we had work to do on HR and we knew we needed to invest in technology, and when we actually saw it presented to us in terms of the Deloitte findings, that focuses the mind, with a compelling report back to the management. It also helped the conversation with other stakeholders to move that agenda along quite nicely.”