​Growth and diversification: upholding SSQ's values (2002-2011)

 

 

On the eve of the new millennium, the financial sector was going through a period marked by intense activity and fierce competition. Insurers with Canada-wide operations attempted to consolidate their positions on a market highly prized by insurers and other financial institutions, including banks; they also sought to develop foreign markets. For insurers in Quebec, the main goal was to fend off the competition and, in some cases (such as SSQ's), to expand their range of operations into the rest of Canada.

By adopting "SSQ Financial Group" as its name in 2000, the company set out a new vision for its future growth based on a stronger brand image, customer service and synergy between its business lines. When it finally reached $1 billion in annual revenues in 2003, SSQ moved to update its strategic goals with a view to achieving sustained growth and improving the well-being of its members and the communities they lived in.

By deciding to remain a mutual insurer amid a flurry of demutualization and mergers of large insurance companies, SSQ Financial Group staked its future on its unique status in order to conquer new markets. To that end, it made a foray into Canada's English-speaking market, revamped its investment and retirement approach and expanded its clientele to include general insurance consumers.

Group insurance: from Quebec to the rest of Canada

Thanks to its strong presence in Quebec, particularly in the public and parapublic sectors, SSQ was ranked among Canada's top group insurers. Customer relations remained one of its central concerns, which thus helped to secure group loyalty. Indeed, more than 95% of customers placed their ongoing trust in the company, year after year. Managing these plans posed a challenge in the early 2000s due to higher costs for prescription drug insurance, as well as long term disability insurance. SSQ's strategic objective in its original market (i.e., group insurance) continued to be the expansion of its private-sector client base, which accounted for 45% of its one million insureds in 2001.1 English Canada, however, would pose the greatest challenge.

 

The Roland-Giroux building was inaugurated in 2005.

In 1999, SSQ signed up its first groups outside its traditional market.2 However, it was not until February 2002 that the company's sales office in Toronto was inaugurated. The conclusion of an agreement in principle with the board of trustees of the union representing Air Canada's flight attendants (this agreement was signed in early 2001) was the most noteworthy milestone in the company's breakthrough outside Quebec. Pitted against Canada's largest group insurers, SSQ Financial Group successfully promoted its competitive advantages and its solid reputation for customer service.3

As the company's first bridgehead in English Canada, the Toronto office served all groups west of Quebec. By the end of its first year in business, the Toronto office already had nearly 60,000 insureds.4 Partnerships were swiftly established with a small number of third-party administrators (TPAs), which in addition to handling product distribution, oversaw a portion of the administrative duties customarily assigned to the insurer; this unique strategic positioning (fairly common in Quebec) proved to be a winning formula. Buoyed by the encouraging results with the TPAs and private-sector groups, SSQ also made a play for the public-sector group market. Another step in this nationwide strategy was taken in 2008, when Toronto began handling investment and retirement product distribution.

Investment and retirement: a new growth strategy

The new growth strategy in the investment and retirement business line was implemented over a three-to-five-year horizon in the hopes that a critical volume of business would be reached, thereby ensuring a greater contribution to SSQ's profitability. The 2000 annual report included this assessment: "In this area, large markets are opening their doors to us, not only the institutional market but also the group savings market (a natural niche for us) and the personal savings market, which is expected to grow rapidly over the next five years. Annuity products alone represent a huge opportunity for us."5

The key to success lay in the partnerships that SSQ had entered into with market intermediaries, including general agents and financial advisors for the individual market and consulting actuary firms for group plans. SSQ's products, most notably the ASTRA range of mutual funds, built up trust within these distribution networks, as did service quality.

Partnerships also fuelled steady growth in assets under management, which more than doubled from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $3.7 billion in 2007. Basking in the newfound success of its investment and retirement products, SSQ set about conquering the Canadian market by forging solid business relationships with the brokerage network and institutional clients.6 The initial bridgehead was established in Toronto. Before long, SSQ was authorized to offer all types of retirement savings and income plans (individual/group, registered/non-registered) in all Canadian provinces and territories.

SSQ also served as registrar and trustee for two longstanding partners, Fondaction (the CSN's development fund for cooperation and employment, set up in 1996) and the Bâtirente committee (the CSN's group retirement savings plan, created in 1987). In 2011, SécuriFonds, a subsidiary of the FTQ's solidarity fund, joined the list of these partners of choice when it entrusted SSQ with the assets related to its retirement income plans.7

Following the sale of its Valorem subsidiary, SSQ assigned the ASTRA funds to external managers. The 30 funds available in 2001 were overseen by 13 institutional managers with complementary styles. Since it no longer held an interest in an investment management subsidiary, the company regarded itself as impartial and made it a point of honour to keep a close eye on the fund managers. In terms of risk, SSQ constantly aimed to improve the performance of its investment funds and to diversify its product offer.

SSQ General Insurance: winning over the general public

SSQ General Insurance accounted for 6.5% of total premiums written in 2012, the same year in which it celebrated its 25th anniversary (a campaign targeting the general public via direct sales dated back to the early 2000s).

Although it continued to focus on its original market (i.e., groups), SSQ General Insurance also set its sights on individuals, banking on name recognition to recruit new customers. A large-scale advertising campaign was launched in early 2002 to promote its product line.8

Traditional marketing tools were enhanced by new information technologies. The website was updated in 2003 to reflect SSQ's highly personalized customer approach and became more business-oriented.9 In 2009, a form for requesting auto insurance quotes was included; in 2011, online quotes made their debut. This latter innovation coincided with the adoption of the name "SSQauto", a simpler trademark that accompanied a redesigned communications platform for the entire group.10

SSQ General Insurance hired people who were willing to take on new challenges. Its workforce nearly tripled from 170 employees in 2000 to 475 in 2010 (this represented 30% of the group's entire workforce). In January 2011, a new customer relations centre was opened in Longueuil in a bid to help the Quebec City facility step up its marketing efforts. In effect, the presence of multiple insurance companies in the greater Quebec City region made it harder to attract bilingual candidates, who were more numerous in the Montreal region.

From 1991 to 2001, the number of "general insurance" policyholders doubled; from 2001 to 2011, it quintupled to 262,002. Under the stewardship of Marie-Josée Blanchette (1998 to 2008) and then Gilles Mourette, the sector enjoyed spectacular growth.11 Indeed, for several years, the general insurance subsidiary's growth rate was significantly higher than that of the industry as a whole.

A new milestone was reached in August 2011 with the acquisition of two Trois-Rivières based companies specializing in the distribution of replacement insurance and credit insurance products.12 This move confirmed SSQauto's interest in a highly prized sector comprising auto dealerships and recreational vehicles, which it had entered the previous year.13

SSQ Realty Inc.: in pursuit of diversification

As manager of the company's real estate portfolio, SSQ Realty Inc. also set itself various diversification-related objectives in the early 2000s. The Parc Samuel-Holland complex, which consisted of five interconnected buildings, was sold in 2003 for $68 million in a major transaction for the Quebec City region.14

At the conclusion of the 2003-2007 strategic planning process, SSQ Realty Inc. stepped up its diversification and began studying a variety of potential projects. After acquiring the Radio-Canada studio site next to SSQ's headquarters, SSQ Realty Inc. began construction on a large office building (known as the Roland Giroux building) in order to meet the group's growing need for space; this decision also brought in additional tenants.15 The new building, owned in partnership with private investors, was inaugurated in 2005.

Around the same time, another milestone was reached when Cité Verte was launched. After pursuing various avenues, Jean Morency, CEO of SSQ Realty, was finally able to push ahead with this ambitious "green neighbourhood" project.

2010 was marked by two major acquisitions: a building on Sheppard Street (renamed SSQ Place) in Toronto's northern suburbs and a property at 3000 Boulevard Laurier in Quebec City. Both were strategically located in the heart of fast-growing districts destined to become major business centres.16 That same year, SSQ completed the sale of the Papineau-Lévesque complex in Montreal.

The growth in SSQ's business went hand in hand with improved performance. After the group was revitalized in 1993, it enjoyed a long series of profitable years, with net margins ranging from 10% to 16%.

Highlights

  Assets under management (millions of $) Shareholders' equity (millions of $) Net profit (millions of $) Number of employees
2001 1,755.5 124.5 13.6 1,007
2006 3,404.6 204.6 25.9 1,266
2011 7,980.4 334.1 33.8 1,627

Source: SSQ Financial Group annual reports

Cité Verte: Quebec City's first green neighbourhood

In 2005, SSQ Realty Inc. acquired the land and buildings used by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Quebec City's Saint-Sacrement district.

 

Cité Verte

The Cité Verte project initially involved recycling the original buildings, which included the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul orphanage (1908), Mercy Hospital (1929) and a pediatric nursing school (1952). These were converted into condominiums, in addition to office and commercial spaces. An area was also set aside for low-income housing, to be built and managed by Quebec City's municipal housing office (OMHQ). New condos and townhouses will eventually be added, boosting the number of housing units to 800. Designed to form an environmentally responsible living area, Cité Verte offers installations that provide collective and efficient management of energy, water and waste disposal. Underground parking, green spaces and a community garden are also provided, along with a community building containing a pool and a gym. Cité Verte was recognized for innovation in sustainable building at the Habitation awards gala in 2012.17

An innovative company

In previous years, SSQ Financial Group had acquired a reputation for being an innovative company. Keeping a close eye on developments in the insurance industry, it constantly sought to improve its products and services.

In the area of group insurance, SSQ was recognized for the rehabilitation services it offered under its disability insurance coverage, in partnership with specialized companies advising managers and providing plan participants with physical and psychological support. Launched in the fall of 2003, the Health InSight program, focusing on prevention, was designed in-house by SSQ. This led to the conclusion of an agreement with Best Doctors™, a global leader in the areas of medical information and assistance to patients with serious illnesses; this was the first move of its kind in Canada's group insurance sector.18 Above and beyond the goal of prevention, direct intervention with individuals on disability leave sought to facilitate a return to health and to work under optimal conditions. In 2005, SSQ launched another program designed to extend business relationships with its members when they retired: SSQ Privilege, a range of health, long term care and life insurance products geared towards individuals. That way, retirees who no longer had access to a group insurance plan could still obtain coverage. 19

SSQ also gained recognition for its range of investment funds. In 2001, the ASTRA health fund was named Canada's best specialized fund.20 Over the years, this offer was diversified to meet customers' needs. In some cases, needs were anticipated by introducing innovative products. In 2006, a number of new funds were added, including the ASTRA Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch Canadian equity fund, which featured socially responsible management.21 On occasion, fund managers were changed in order to improve performance. Fortune smiled on SSQ when it transferred its Canadian small-cap equity fund to Sceptre Investment Counsel: in 2006, this fund was named "best of the year" in its category.22 Indeed, the high quality of the SSQ ASTRA funds won them a solid reputation in financial circles.

SSQauto was a trailblazer in several respects. In 1994, it became the very first general insurance company to guarantee its premiums for a two-year period.23 In 1999, it was opposed to offering reimbursements for reconditioned airbags that did not meet its quality standards (they were finally banned in 2002).24 The subsidiary's general public-oriented marketing initiatives were supported by effective annual advertising campaigns that often had a profound impact.

Meanwhile, SSQ Realty Inc. exerted its leadership by promoting sustainable development. Demonstrating a concern for building quality, it set out to obtain LEED® certification for all of its new construction projects.

Insurance in the Internet era

Although the advent of microcomputers had a major impact on practices in the areas of insurance and financial services, the rise of the Internet was equally important. As noted earlier, SSQ had been selling general insurance online for some time. Around 2000, the Internet became another work tool for employees.

Launched in the spring of 2000, the ASTR@net secure website gave advisors direct access to their clients' ASTRA fund portfolios.25 This tool was subsequently refined to improve customer service. Another major technological milestone was reached in April 2002 when SSQ's investment and retirement business line joined a major Canadian network, FundSERV.26 Transactions were facilitated by this electronic data exchange, which was geared towards investment fund companies, distributors and intermediaries.

Beginning in 2003, SSQ's group insurance sector acquired a new management tool: the Access | Administrator website was a secure site that enabled plan administrators to submit enrolment applications and make modifications to individual policies. Two years later, over 75% of all plan administrators were using the service.27 Beginning in 2005, insured members could consult their information online thanks to the Access | Plan Members website. In 2009, the Access | Advisors website was rolled out for advisors and actuaries.28

Insureds also benefited from other technological advances. For example, SSQ Financial Group decided to introduce a single payment card for prescription drugs and dental expenses.29 On April 1, 2012, a new and more flexible system was implemented for processing drug, dental and health insurance claims, making it possible to submit a benefit claim online.30 As of writing time, latest technological development was "SSQ Mobile Services", a downloadable application enabling SSQ group insurance members to submit claims using their smartphones—another first of its kind in Canada!

Still, growing use of the Internet did not eliminate the telephone as a communications tool. SSQ continued to offer personalized services designed to put customers quickly in touch with the right department. According to various surveys, the company's customers had one of the highest satisfaction rates in the industry.

Human resources

Many young people were hired by SSQ and its subsidiaries in the early 2000s. In late 2001, the company replenished its managerial ranks following the departure of Pierre Genest, who would eventually return in 2006 as chairman of the board, succeeding Yves Demers.

As it pursued the path of growth, SSQ Financial Group continued to focus on skill development and employee well-being in the workplace. The company had no choice in this regard since competition among insurers for top talent remained intense in the Quebec City region. From 2000 to 2010, the number of people working in the 11 insurance company head offices in Quebec City and nearby Lévis increased by 63%.31

Working conditions

SSQ offered its employees competitive working conditions (e.g., financial compensation, vacation time, parental leave, fringe benefits and pension plans). Employees were represented by four unions and collective agreements were renewed in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

The company was also concerned with quality of life in the workplace. In 2003, the organizational development department of SSQ's human resources launched a large-scale consultation.32 This process sought to gauge employees' satisfaction with various aspects of their work.33 Employees provided feedback on the nature of their duties and on the mechanisms designed to facilitate participation in the company's decision-making process, among other topics (e.g., person-to-person collaboration, relations with supervisors and career/skills development). Carried out by an external firm, this consultation indicated that SSQ's employees felt proud of their company and their work, with 98% of them willing to recommend SSQ as an employer to their friends. However, this process also shed light on various areas in need of improvement.

In 2004, SSQ's organizational development branch continued this process by meeting with employees to share the survey findings, review the company's strengths and discuss ways to further enhance employee satisfaction.34 In 2005, a number of solutions were devised, such as HealthWise (a staff health and wellness program), in addition to an integration and development program for managers, online training and a skills profile initiative.35Health-Wise, introduced in 2006, was designed to fight absenteeism by promoting wellness and prevention through the adoption of better lifestyles, psychological techniques and work/life balance. This initiative was officially recognized when SSQ was awarded for its innovative vision of wellness in the workplace.36

Recruitment and training

SSQ's workforce reached 1,000 employees in 2001 and 1,500 in 2009, with women accounting for two-thirds. From 1999 to 2003, the staff turnover rate was less than 4.5%; in 2003, the average length of service was 11.34 years.37 These statistics attest to the company's ability to retain staff and hire younger employees following its "new beginning" in 1992. In 2006, the turnover rate was only 2.5%, much lower than the 6.3% average for the financial services sector.38 This trend held steady over the years.

Training remained a top priority for SSQ. Employees were given free access to LOMA's specialized insurance courses, while scholarships were provided for work-related training. Employees attended workshops, seminars and courses on work-related topics. Additional tools were also made available, including a performance management portal, a skills framework and online training capsules for self-directed learning.39

The main challenge facing insurers, particularly in the Quebec City region, remained the shortage of qualified labour. This situation led to the creation of the insurance and financial services development centre (CDASF) in 2007, which sought to foster young people's interest in insurance careers. The CDASF represents 11 insurance companies headquartered in Quebec City and Lévis.

According to various surveys, the company's customers have one of the highest satisfaction rates in the industry.

Senior management

A pair of powerful senior officers oversaw SSQ's post-2001 operations and remained focused on growth. They surrounded themselves with a group of experienced collaborators who shared their vision. And SSQ's former CEO came back in 2006 in a new capacity.

Pierre Genest: making a comeback

When Yves Demers retired in 2006, SSQ lost a dedicated individual who had been instrumental to its success. Known for his diplomatic skills and deep-seated belief in mutualist values, Demers also had a long record of community service. He was succeeded by Pierre Genest, who returned to SSQ after heading the FTQ's solidarity fund for six years.

As SSQ prepared to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Pierre Genest took great pride in the company's achievements, although the challenges facing SSQ still loomed large. A number of high-profile issues were addressed after 2006, including governance rules, compliance policies and risk management. As the head of SSQ Mutual Management, Genest also ensured that mutualist values were upheld in dealings with members, customers, partners and employees.

Richard Bell: providing continuity

Richard Bell's mandate on SSQ's management team began under very trying circumstances, including the stock market slide, significantly lower interest rates and the dramatic events surrounding 9/11 in the U.S. The insurance and financial industries bore the brunt of this turmoil. But the optimism of SSQ's senior management never wavered as the company's solid foundations proved their worth.

 

Richard Bell
CEO
(January 2002-September 2008)

Richard Bell's appointment to SSQ Financial Group's management team was intended to provide continuity. After having left his mark in the group insurance sector, where he spearheaded the diversification process and paved the way for the company's Canada-wide expansion, he was the ideal person to carry out SSQ's development plans. The challenges he had faced as head of group insurance (the company's most crucial business line) were nothing less than daunting.40 The ability to sell directly to parity committees meant that sales teams had to be persuaded to work with brokers to reach smaller groups. And if it wanted to break into Canada's English-language market, the company had to modify its approach and take on a group of competitors with rock-solid reputations. Still, the virtual moratorium on hiring provincial government workers, SSQ's high market share in Quebec and the increasing presence of Quebec-based companies in other parts of Canada justified these strategic choices.

During the seven years he headed SSQ Financial Group, Richard Bell upheld the company's core values while focusing on accessibility, not only within the organization but also in business relations with customers. Bell shared the perspective of SSQ shareholders, for whom job creation was much less important than year-end dividends. An annual average of 50 to 60 positions were created during his tenure as CEO. To make room for these new recruits, SSQ's Boulevard Laurier headquarters were expanded, an achievement in which he took great pride.

Richard Bell was well aware of the importance of job satisfaction. This was why he favoured the swift resolution of disputes. Despite the difficulties insurers faced in recruiting young people, he was fond of loudly proclaiming that "insurance is a fine profession!"41 By way of justification, he explained that insurance companies have to step in when people are facing a real need (i.e., when dealing with loss, illness, accidents, retirement or death). In addition, actuarial reserves invested in the economy help to fund a wide array of socially useful projects. Bell also rallied SSQ's employees around the company's strategic goals.

After dedicating 21 years of his life to SSQ, Bell retired in 2008. Pierre Genest paid him this tribute: "Richard Bell left his mark on SSQ through his integrity, his intelligence, his ability to channel the team's strengths into joint projects, his energy and his sophisticated communication skills."42

A new challenge for René Hamel

René Hamel succeeded Richard Bell as CEO. The SSQ veteran already had a lengthy record of achievement, having built the general insurance subsidiary with Pierre Genest. After carrying out a study aimed at revitalizing the investment and retirement sector, he was tasked with implementing the conclusions. From 1994 to 2001, he took on what he described as a "magnificent challenge" while upholding the company's values.43 From 2001 to 2008, he headed the group insurance sector. Like Richard Bell before him, René Hamel took up the reins amid turmoil (the asset-backed commercial paper crisis had set off a wave of turbulence in the global economy).

 

René Hamel
CEO
(September 2008-present)

As the popularity of life insurance waned, long-established companies such as Sun Life, Manulife and Great-West were turning increasingly to group insurance. However, the demutualization of certain companies and the ensuing mergers set the stage for a breakthrough into the English Canadian market. For one thing, many groups accustomed to working with mutual insurers wanted to continue doing business with a mutual insurance company. For another, post-merger layoffs provided access to a pool of experienced resources keen to join a dynamic company.44 After making a high-profile entry into the Toronto market, SSQ completed a major sale in 2002 via AGM Group, a Winnipeg-based consulting firm for small businesses, when it won a contract for nearly 11,000 SIRIUS benefit plan members residing in every province of Canada.45 This was wonderful news—and there was more to come!

René Hamel pinned his hopes on the Canadian market. Of course SSQ had to adapt to cultural differences as it began doing business in English, but shared values provided common ground for the company's teams. After opening with a handful of employees in 2001, the Toronto office had a team of 125 people in place by 2012. Hamel thought the company's entry into the Canada-wide group insurance market would be beneficial for its other business lines as well. As he took on the competition, he also set his sights on SSQ's original business model as a mutual insurer with access to venture capital.

Senior management changes: 2008-2011

René Hamel's appointment paved the way for additional senior management changes. Johanne Goulet became senior vice-president of group insurance after performing similar duties in the investment and retirement sector and serving as a group insurance manager. Marie-Josée Blanchette was named senior vice-president of investments; after joining SSQ Realty Inc., she held a succession of senior management positions, including a 10-year term as CEO of SSQ General Insurance (Gilles Mourette, then senior vice-president of technology, replaced her in 2008). Bernard Tanguay, an actuary hired by SSQ Life in 1996, was appointed senior vice-president of investment and retirement. Tanguay had previously held various group insurance positions at SSQ, including vice-president, actuarial. In 2012, he took the helm of SSQ Insurance following the acquisition of AXA Life Insurance. Hired in 1988 with a degree in information systems management, Michel Loranger succeeded Gilles Mourette as senior vice-president of technology. Serge Boiteau, an actuary and senior vice-president of corporate actuarial and investments, was given additional responsibilities in the area of compliance.46

In 2009, Marie Lamontagne left her position as vice-president of marketing and business development at SSQ General Insurance (which she had held since 2001) to oversee the general public launch of SSQ's general insurance subsidiary; she joined the management team as senior vice-president of communications and e-business. Patrick Cyr was subsequently named senior vice-president of finance and real estate.

Additional changes were made in 2011-2112 in connection with the transfer of corporate services of three subsidiaries of the Group to the parent company in the run-up to various acquisitions. As a result, the mandates of six corporate divisions were expanded to cover all SSQ Financial Group companies. This new structure was designed to provide the business lines with more effective support.

Board of directors

In recent years, SSQ had carried out a major update of its operating structures and rules with a view to maintaining sound governance practices. It also focused on training board members and sharing information with them on the company and the insurance sector.

Pillars of the company

In 2006, three pillars of the company retired.47 Serge Dagenais, the former liaison with the provincial health and social services ministry (MSSS), resigned after 11 years of service; he had also chaired the ethics committee. Jean-Marie Gagnon, a professor in Laval University's Faculty of Administrative Sciences, retired after 18 years in a series of functions, including company treasurer (appointed in 1999). Marcel Pepin, who represented the CSN's pension funds, left the board after 13 years, including nine years as vice-chairman of the board. Those who continued to serve on SSQ's board included Michel Nadeau, who worked at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) from 1984 to 2001 and who brought his expertise to the investment committee beginning in 1990.

As soon as the company expanded outside Quebec, Andrew J. MacDougall joined the board of SSQ Financial Group. President of the Toronto-based firm Spencer Stuart, specializing in CEO recruitment, MacDougall was a graduate of Laval University, from which he obtained an MBA in finance.

Sound governance

Governance has been a hot topic for a number of years. SSQ's board adopted a very stringent code of ethics. Board members and senior officers are required to sign a written undertaking that they will abide by the code's provisions; this undertaking must be renewed each year. The fact that the chairman of the board and CEO functions are separate and that board members' compensation is not based on financial results also serves to ensure sound governance. In 2005, the board carried out a self-evaluation exercise with a view to improving governance.48 This process led to the creation of a discussion period for the board members, with no senior company officers present. This was designed to foster an exchange of views with complete independence.

In 2006, the management committee, which was tasked with overseeing the company's smooth operations in accordance with existing policies, programs and budgets, began to review the roles and responsibilities of the board and its various committees. The board chairman and the CEO both serve on the management committee.

As Pierre Genest noted, the regulatory authorities and the board had growing expectations with regard to SSQ's senior officers. He offered this assessment of the board: "In keeping with their proactive governance role, SSQ's directors must have the required skills and qualifications to carry out their duties, which are set out in the clear description of their roles and responsibilities provided to them."49 Above and beyond governance rules, SSQ's business decisions also had to be in keeping with mutualist values.

Out of a concern for transparency, both the audit and ethics committees were made up of external directors. The investment committee included two senior officers and two independent directors.50 In 2010, the former management committee became the executive and HR committee; the risk management function was assigned to the audit committee. All committees reported on their activities at board meetings. Directors were also given periodic updates on the strategic planning process. In addition, they received training on specific topics designed to help them carry out their duties more effectively.

Mutualism: an original business model

Even though a number of insurers opted to demutualize, SSQ proved that mutualism was compatible with sustainable development by placing people and social progress at the very heart of the company's initiatives. However, SSQ was forced to review certain processes to keep pace with the growth of its business.

A new form of mutualist participation

Since they elected a majority of SSQ's board members, members exerted a real influence over the company's goals and development.

Beginning in 1978, regional meetings were organized so that insured members could take part in mutualist life in the period between the annual general meetings. This formula was ideal for ensuring the representation of public-sector groups. However, it proved less than ideal for private-sector group insurance clients, as well as the investment and retirement sector clients and individuals who lived outside Quebec.51 A committee tasked with reviewing mutualist participation was created to address these issues. It submitted its findings to the annual general meeting in 2005.

Beginning in 2006, delegates were selected based on clientele size (e.g., groups with more than 700 members, smaller groups or individual members holding annuity or investment contracts). Larger groups could designate a certain number of delegates in proportion to their relative size.52 Smaller groups were also given proportional representation based on the overall number of members, using a scale outlined in the regulations. In contrast, groups authorized to designate one delegate were selected in a random draw, as were individual members.53 This new democratic structure was adopted at the extraordinary general meeting held on April 7, 2006. This was the final item of business for chairman Yves Demers prior to his retirement after 28 years on SSQ's board.

The annual meeting in 2007 was the first to be attended by delegates from Ontario and Manitoba, as well as by delegates representing individual members. The number of delegates rose from 116 in 2007 to 180 in 2012. Annual general meetings were held in Quebec City on a Saturday in April. On the day before the official proceedings, a seminar on an aspect of insurance management was held.

"Values in the right place"

Mutualist values have always shaped SSQ's strategy. The 2003-2007 strategic plan, which focused on organic and sustained growth objectives, emphasized the primary importance of people. The 2008-2012 plan featured a reaffirmation of the company's core values: mutualism, accessibility, expertise, social commitment, integrity and respect. The interests of members and customers continued to take precedence over yearend profit margins.

Internally, mutualist values were promoted through "mutualist life" courses, which were offered on a larger scale after 2005 to reach more employees. This was a question of educating a generation with scant knowledge of the company's mutualist culture. A partnership was also concluded with the Université de Sherbrooke's research and education institute for cooperatives and mutuals (IREPCM) to administer the courses, which presented cooperation and mutualism as an alternative to the dominant capitalist model.

 

SSQ financed the construction of a Metrobus shelter in front of its headquarters. Inaugurated in 2006, it is a testament to SSQ's support of public transit.

The committee tasked with promoting mutualist interests, made up of managers and other employees, organized activities centred around solidarity and sustainable development. This concern has taken on growing importance since 2007. Employees launched a series of small-scale initiatives, including replacing polystyrene containers with coffee mugs, selling fair trade coffee in vending machines and delivering locally produced organic fruits and vegetables to various company work sites.54 Meanwhile, SSQ financed the construction of a heated Metrobus shelter in front of its Quebec City headquarters and took other steps to promote public transit.55

Intercooperation

Externally, SSQ's mutualist values were promoted via organizations such as SOCODEVI, as well as by the provincial council for cooperation and mutualism (CQCM) and the foundation for cooperative and mutualist education (FECM). Yves Demers played a key role on the boards of these institutions. He chaired SOCODEVI from 2001 to 2006 and managed to convince his CQCM colleagues (the organization was previously known as the Cooperation Council) to change its name to provide a more accurate reflection of its reality.56 The 39 Quebec-based mutual insurers were also represented within the movement. As a founding member, SSQ showed an abiding interest in FECM, which became part of CQCM in 2007. SSQ remained a member of the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF), a discussion forum for mutual insurers, until 2011.

Promoting cooperation and mutualism among young people was another SSQ strategy for many years. Every summer beginning in 2003, the company supported a youth services coop (CJSSQ) made up of 13-to-15-year-olds recruited from among employees' family members. This initiative was intended to provide hands-on cooperative experience. In addition, a youth member position was created in 2008 on the committee tasked with promoting mutualist interests.

Community involvement

SSQ's lengthy record of community involvement features contributions to various associations working for the wellness of the community. Beneficiaries of the company's support include Jean Vanier's L'Arche Foundation, hospital foundations, Maison Michel Sarrazin (providing palliative care), Portage-Québec (assisting individuals with drug addiction issues), etc. SSQ also supports youth organizations such as Éducaide (providing scholarships to keep teenagers in school) and the Montreal Inc. Foundation (assisting business start-ups). At Yves Demers' request, SSQ placed special emphasis on arts and culture, two fields often overlooked by institutional donors. For a number of years, the company was a financial partner of the Quebec City-based chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy and TOHU, the Montreal-based circus arts centre. SSQ agrees to various sponsorship requests each year.

As a longstanding partner, SSQ provides support to Centraide/United Way in various ways, including corporate donations, employee donations, involvement in fundraising campaigns and participation on the organization's board. Yves Demers, Pierre Genest, Richard Bell and René Hamel have all been involved as co-chairs of Centraide/United Way campaigns. SSQ believes deeply in the organization's fight against social exclusion and poverty in its local communities.

When its endowment reached $1 million in 2008, the SSQ Foundation decided to partner with Quebec's CFER network. These business and recycling centres serve as both businesses and schools and offer needs-based training to young people who never completed their first year of secondary studies. SSQ also supports a service centre for youths with addiction issues (Le Grand Chemin), as well as the Quebec City community lending fund (FEQ), which provides access to credit to individuals excluded from traditional financing networks.57

The enthusiastic participation of SSQ's employees in Centraide/United Way's fundraising campaigns prompted the company to create a financial support program in 2004 for volunteers. SSQ's new policy is designed to encourage participation in community projects.58 Various initiatives have stemmed from this policy: according to 2008 figures, some 200 SSQ employees volunteer nearly 10,000 hours each year. 59 However, SSQ's Quebec City Marathon and Health 5K (founded in 2006), in which 500 employees and their family members take part every year, are the most visible expressions of support for a cause about which the company's staff care deeply.

 

SSQ Quebec City Marathon

SSQ Quebec City Marathon

In addition to being a major event on the local sports calendar, SSQ's Quebec City Marathon draws large numbers of tourists to the region. Over 10,000 people take part every year as a personal challenge or to support a worthy cause. For SSQ, the race, which follows a picturesque route along the St. Lawrence River extending from the city of Lévis to Quebec City's Old Port, is not just a charitable event; it is also a way to show the company's rock-solid commitment to promoting health.

SSQ's Quebec City Marathon and the Health 5K event encourage people to take part in sports activities and adopt healthy lifestyle habits. As they fly the company colours, the participants express their allegiance to SSQ while helping a non-profit organization to fulfil its mission. The funds raised by the runners and SSQ's management team are donated to various beneficiaries, including the Quebec Autism Foundation, the Cité Joie summer camp for individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities, the Quebec City chapter of the provincial dysphasia association (AQD), Leucan, the Lauberivière Foundation and the Laura Lemerveil organization. Tens of thousands of dollars are raised each year.

Economic benefits: responsible investments

In addition to the above-mentioned contributions, many benefits stem from the local presence of a company such as SSQ. Major economic support is provided by way of employee salaries and major real estate investments over the years, as well as through investment in stocks and bonds.

All of these investments are monitored closely. In 2006, the investment committee adopted a socially responsible investment policy, which sets benchmarks for investments involving general funds.60 In addition, SSQ was the first Canadian insurer to sign the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment, which were unveiled at the New York Stock Exchange in 2006. The company's investment portfolio is reviewed twice a year by an external firm.61 This same level of vigilance enabled the company to divest itself of its asset-backed commercial paper units in time. As a result, it was one of the few financial institutions to avoid this major crisis in 2007.62

In the first decade of the new millennium, SSQ Financial Group experienced strong growth, earning it an enviable position among Canadian insurers. While maintaining its leadership role in Quebec's group insurance sector, SSQ also developed its other business lines and expanded its range of activity. Yet despite its diversified operations and expansion outside Quebec, SSQ stayed true to its mutualist values—an abiding source of strength for the company.

Next chapter : Acquisitions and strategic repositioning (2012-2014)


  1. SSQ Financial Group, 2001 Annual Report, p. 12.
  2. SSQ Life, 1999 Annual Report, p. 6.
  3. SSQ Financial Group, 2000 Annual Report, p. 18.
  4. SSQ Financial Group, 2002 Annual Report, p. 11.
  5. SSQ Financial Group, 2000 Annual Report, p. 19.
  6. SSQ Financial Group, 2007 Annual Report, p. 10.
  7. SSQ Financial Group, 2010 Annual Report, p. 15.
  8. SSQ Financial Group, 2001 Annual Report, p. 15.
  9. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 12.
  10. SSQ Financial Group, Annual Report 2011, p. 4.
  11. Rose-Line Brasset, interview with Gilles Mourette, January 11, 2013.
  12. SSQ Financial Group, 2011 Annual Report, p. 13.
  13. SSQ Financial Group, 2010 Annual Report, p. 16.
  14. SSQ Financial Group, 2002 Annual Report, p. 13.
  15. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 12.
  16. SSQ Financial Group, 2010 Annual Report, p. 17.
  17. La Cité Verte, (page consulted on June 11, 2013). Rénald Fortier, "L'écoquartier La Cité Verte – Le projet", Voirvert. Le portail du bâtiment durable au Québec, (page consulted on June 11, 2013) [French only].
  18. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 9.
  19. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 10 and SSQ Financial Group, 2005 Annual Report, p. 6.
  20. SSQ Financial Group, 2001 Annual Report, p. 13.
  21. SSQ Financial Group, 2006 Annual Report, p. 9.
  22. Ibid.
  23. SSQ Life, 1994 Annual Report, p. 20.
  24. SSQ Financial Group, 2001 Annual Report, p. 14.
  25. SSQ Financial Group, 2000 Annual Report, p. 19.
  26. SSQ Financial Group, 2001 Annual Report, pp. 13-14.
  27. SSQ Financial Group, 2005 Annual Report, p. 6.
  28. Ibid. and SSQ Financial Group, 2009 Annual Report, p. 10.
  29. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 9.
  30. SSQ Financial Group, 2012 Annual Report, p. 14.
  31. Stéphanie Grammond, "Les remparts de Québec, capitale de l'assurance", La Presse Affaires, March 15, 2010, p. 18.
  32. Rose-Line Brasset, interview with Maurice Savoie, November 7, 2012.
  33. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 47.
  34. SSQ Financial Group, 2004 Annual Report, p. 9.
  35. SSQ Financial Group, 2005 Annual Report, p. 5.
  36. "SSQ Groupe financier récipiendaire du prix Altius Or 2009, catégorie grande entreprise", SSQ Financial Group, Reflets SSQ (internal newsletter), June 2009, p. 9. "Canada Awards for Excellence: SSQ, Life Insurance Company Inc. recognized for health and wellness", SSQ Financial Group, 2002 Annual Report, p. 14.
  37. SSQ Financial Group, 2003 Annual Report, p. 47.
  38. SSQ Financial Group, 2006 Annual Report, p. 6.
  39. SSQ Financial Group, 2009 Annual Report, p. 20.
  40. Rose-Line Brasset, interview with Richard Bell, October 17, 2012.
  41. Ibid.
  42. SSQ Financial Group, 2008 Annual Report, p. 3.
  43. Rose-Line Brasset, interview with René Hamel, November 26, 2012.
  44. Ibid.
  45. FI Finance et investissement, Christine Deslandes, "Richard Bell", February 1, 2003, (page consulted on July 5, 2013)
  46. In 2011, he was appointed senior vice-president, corporate services, with various added responsibilities such as market watch, acquisition dossiers and legal services.
  47. SSQ Financial Group, 2006 Annual Report, p. 4.
  48. SSQ Financial Group, 2005 Annual Report, p. 39.
  49. SSQ Financial Group, 2007 Annual Report, p. 3.
  50. Ibid., p. 38.
  51. SSQ, Mutual Management, 2004 Annual Report, p. 5.
  52. SSQ, Mutual Management, 2005 Annual Report, p. 3.
  53. SSQ, Mutual Management, 2005 Annual Report, p. 4.
  54. SSQ Mutual Management, 2007 Annual Report, p. 3, 2008 Annual Report, p. 3.
  55. SSQ Financial Group, 2008 Annual Report, p. 26.
  56. Rose-Line Brasset, interview with Yves Demers, October 2, 2012.
  57. SSQ Financial Group, 2008 Annual Report, p. 24.
  58. SSQ Financial Group, 2004 Annual Report, p. 51.
  59. SSQ Financial Group, 2008 Annual Report, p. 14.
  60. SSQ Financial Group, 2006 Annual Report, p. 24.
  61. SSQ Financial Group, 2011 Annual Report, p. 21.
  62. CNW Telbec, press release, August 23, 2007, "Marché du papier commercial adossé à des actifs – SSQ Groupe financier rassure ses clients", (page consulted on August 18, 2014) [French only]. SSQ Financial Group, 2007 Annual Report, p. 10.