From being CEO of her own hot dog company in high school to the driving seat of MUA Insurance Acceptances, and most recently Europ Assistance South Africa (Easa), Christelle Colman has always been an active participant in her 25-year ride to the top.
The flickering of success for Colman started with her selling hot dogs after study breaks from her high school boarding room to help pay for school fees. “It was the first business I started,” she says. “By the age of 25, I was an experienced entrepreneur.”
The family’s financial situation at the time ruled out tertiary education for Colman, who started working for Santam after matriculating, straight from the classroom to the boardroom. “At the same time, I was holding down a number of part-time jobs like babysitting, assisting in a boutique, waitressing, and owning a clothing stall at flea markets. At any given time I had three or four different means of making a living,” recalls Colman. “My primary focus and interest, however, remained insurance and I always put myself forward to take on additional work. One such task was the Lloyd’s thatch insurance binder we managed at Price Forbes.”
Experience with the Lloyd’s binder taught Colman all there is to know about thatch risk insurance which, as success often predates success, ushered the way for an opportunity to start up a specialist business for Hollandia Reinsurance as an underwriting management agency (UMA) for Standard General (which later became Guardian, and then Santam). “It was a case of an insightful man seeing my potential and handing me an opportunity, which I grabbed with everything in my existence,” she explains. “In business, and certainly in the insurance industry, it often boils down to the ability of the individual and their drive and ambition.”
Colman is well aware of the serendipitous opportunities that came her way. “Success for me means being able, as a woman, to run a dynamic business in the South African insurance landscape,” she says. “I am very aware that not many women in business are afforded these opportunities.”
Thatching for the future
When she started the job as the founding MD of Thatch Risk Acceptances at an age when many young people are only finishing their tertiary education, she didn’t even understand what an underwriting agency did.
“I simply made it my business to find out how to achieve success at every step of the way. I always say that starting Thatch Risk Acceptances was my MBA in practice. During this period I studied and learned as much as I could through various business courses at business school,” she maintains. “If my board of directors wanted a strategic plan, I would go to business school to learn about strategy and present the resultant work to the board. It was true outcomes-based studying but in a real life business environment.”
Colman says her problem-solving capabilities steered her through these challenging times. “The insurance industry in South Africa is a very complex business environment, and if you are able to solve intricate problems in a fast and effective manner, you are one step ahead of the pack,” she explains. “Leadership capabilities are essential, and a positive attitude will turn problems into opportunities.”
Twenty-five years in the insurance industry and she still sees her career as a continuous learning experience. “I don’t hesitate to get my hands dirty, and I make it my business to understand the details that shape the bigger picture,” she adds.
The making of and being an acquaintance
Most of her career achievements are due to an absolute focus on building a network of business associates. “I pay great attention to my reputation, and I always attempt to deliver on commitments made,” she says. “My network of people have resulted in me being offered the most amazing opportunities in life. My advice to young career professionals would be to start building a network at an early stage of their careers and to treat that network with the utmost respect. Regard it as an asset that will help them gain access to wonderful opportunities in the future.”
Serving on the Insurance Institute of Cape Good Hope (IICOGH) council for almost a decade, which included two terms as president, afforded Colman the invaluable exposure that formed the foundation of her network of professionals in the South African insurance industry. “Today, I still rely on many of the relationships that I have built during those years,” she explains. “I urge young insurance professionals to get involved in the industry, make a difference by contributing the time and reap the rewards through excellent career opportunities.
“I am a huge Sheryl Sandberg fan and her words of advice that really inspired me are, ‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.’”
In the driver’s seat
Europ Assistance recently asked Colman to take over the reins of their South African operations where she started as CEO of Easa, beginning May 2016.
“My immediate focus is to ensure that the Easa brand promise of ‘You Live, We Care’ is attained at all levels. Easa’s business is to improve the lives of people by providing services that solve often stressful situations,” says Colman. “We deliver these services by leveraging our professionals, our 24/7 contact points, our technology and our global network of certified partners. I am fully aware of the fact that we have not been delivering on some of these service promises, and it will be my absolute priority to get our business back on track, as far as service delivery and product innovation is concerned,” she firmly states.
Europ Assistance is a global business operating in more than 200 countries, a business well versed in operating in a multinational environment. The new Easa executive team will be sure to take the most from its international resources and adapt it to the South African market, explains Colman. “While Easa has a number of innovative products on offer already, there are a wealth of opportunities to explore as far as product and technological innovation are concerned,” she says, but admits that there are challenges ahead. “On an international level, we know the assistance market is expected to grow, but the market conditions are becoming more difficult. This is especially true for South Africa where we are currently experiencing major economic and political challenges.”
Colman adds that although the position and its inherent challenges are new, she finds herself in rather familiar territory reporting to international shareholders, this time based in Paris. MUA, where she previously served as CEO, is a majority-owned subsidiary of Hannover Reinsurance, also an international organisation, through its investment arm, Lireas Holdings.
“In my opinion, it is very much the same structure that I have in place currently at MUA. Hannover Re and Lireas have been the most incredible school of learning any entrepreneur could possibly ask for, and I owe 100 per cent of my ability to move on to my next career challenge to the time I spent learning the ropes in that wonderful organisation,” she says.
Colman describes herself as a networker, an underwriter, a lover of social media, a content generator on insurance matters, and a fierce proponent of equal rights for all human beings. “I measure my own success in the prosperity achieved by those who chose to travel down this road with me. Being able to make a difference in someone else’s life is what ultimately nurtures my entrepreneurial spirit,” she explains.
As CEO of another major company, it seems she’s still boarded on the rocket ship for the next part of the ride – still firmly in the driver’s seat.