Piraeus and ING partnership hinges on bank assurance

Piraeus Bank and Dutch partner ING bank last week carried out two top administrative changes each, which, although not directly connected, are bound to affect relations between the partners and their banking and insurance sectors. About a year after the removal of Giorgos Karalis as managing director, the ING group again replaced his successor, John Heller, with Cok den Boer, and appointed S. Ratsiatou to the post of general sales manager in Greece. The change did not surprise the insurance market, which, accustomed to the frequent changes in the group, interpreted the new appointments as part of efforts to find the golden mean in effective management. But at the same time, the placement of Triandafyllos Lysimachou – until recently managing director of Agrotiki Insurance – as head of the general directorate of insurance products, has created some turbulence in the market, bringing again to the fore speculation about the relations between Piraeus Bank and ING – linked last year through the exchange of share blocks and collaboration in the sectors of bank assurance, asset management and group insurance. The appointment of an experienced manager – rather than insurer – such as Lysimachou, is interpreted as part of an effort to make a success of the bank assurance segment of the group. The question is whether attainment of such a target is part of a joint Piraeus-ING effort. Market pundits tend to take the opposite view because even though promotion of bank assurance is a common target, the effort seems to be meeting obstacles that have not allowed the results of the cooperation to become apparent. And so, just a year after its inception, the ING-Piraeus joint venture has shown limited results in respect to the original targets set by the two partners. Differing cultures and mentalities between the insurance and banking segments seem to be one aspect of the problem – which occurs more often than not in similar ventures and which this one does not seem to have surpassed. ING’s internal problems, which, admittedly, are no exception in the lean times for the insurance industry these days, have come in addition to the difficulties of the partnership. Nationale Nederlanden (N-N) Life’s – now incorporated into ING – fall in profits in 2002 to 272,730 euros from 2.6 million euros in 2001 and N-N General Insurance’s decline to 678,330 euros from 3.1 million euros in 2001 were the result of stagnation in the market which is a source of concern to both ING and Piraeus Bank, which holds 20 percent stakes in each insurance company. This concern is fueled by the quality of the life portfolio which has been burdened by the high costs of old hospital care programs – amounting to 70 percent of the total. Indeed, the entry of Dutch managers into the group was seen as part of a serious effort to streamline the portfolio. This, in several cases, took the questionable form of mass conversion of existing policies and pressures on clients to consent, accompanied by excessive commissions to salesmen. A similar tactic was followed in the classic assurance programs, which were converted into unit linked – to the evident detriment of holders. Such problems do not seem yet to have been overcome and there is speculation that the promotion of bank assurance by ING conceals the prospect of a «velvet» withdrawal from the life sector proper. In any case, the success of the joint venture seems to hinge on bank assurance itself.