Setting up a new microfinance division at her family’s Lebanon-based insurance business, Commercial Insurance, gave third-generation Coralie Zaccar a golden opportunity to combine her financial background with her passion for social entrepreneurship, making sure even the poorest in society have a safety net.
Growing up, I had a love/hate relationship with the family business. I used to ask about how insurance worked, and clients and employees I knew individually. I always participated in the annual team building sessions along with my siblings. However, I could never understand how my father could stay so committed to the business, despite the very tough situations our country went through such as wars, clashes, strikes and bomb attacks among others. While many businesses closed and many families left Lebanon, my family had taken the decision to stay and keep operating to continue to serve our clients and pay wages duly. Sure we were scared, but today, I admire my father’s courage and his faith in our country.
I finished my bachelor in business administration with an emphasis on finance in 2007, and then joined the management consulting firm Booz & Co. I worked in both its financial services and public sector practices for two years. I firmly believed I had to prove myself outside the family business, build my experience and, more importantly, learn from my mistakes outside the family firm. The objective was really to learn discipline, how to fit in an existing system, respect rules and regulations, understand the extent of executive decisions and responsibilities – instead of joining a family business and taking uninformed irrational executive decisions which might impact both family relations and the business. Working at Booz & Co was a great experience as we were given a lot of responsibility early on.
I have always been an active volunteer with the disadvantaged. At the age of 14, I joined Anta Akhi, a voluntary organisation that takes care of disabled people. In 2006, a couple of friends and I founded the youth division of the Lebanese Association of the Order of Malta, an international volunteer organisation. We focused on creating a platform for young Lebanese and international volunteers to join in our activities with disabled people, the elderly and disadvantaged kids. I always dreamt about an ideal world where I could combine business and social work.
Microinsurance is an insurance catering for the needs of segments of the population on lower incomes. It is an inclusive insurance offering people with little or no insurance or [social security] exposure to the possibility of protecting themselves against the specific risks they face. Commercial Insurance was very interested in microinsurance because Lebanon and the Middle East North Africa [MENA] region have a very low insurance penetration rate. According to a study by the World Bank, around 50% of the Lebanese population has no access to any kind of safety net, neither to insurance nor social schemes, since about 20% work in the informal sector and about 30% are self-employed in low productivity activities.
In 2009, we conducted a market research and feasibility study with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the microinsurance division of the International Labor Organisation. It was the perfect opportunity to combine my consulting skills, social entrepreneurship dreams and the family business all at once.
The study aimed to understand how lower income individuals cope with risks. We learnt that as soon as they have a financial or health problem, they first sell their economic assets, remove their children from school or revert to loan sharks – thus, they regress back into poverty. Although most of the individuals were aware of insurance and convinced it was one of the best coping mechanisms to face risks and preserve their assets, they thought a suit and tie was needed just to set foot in an insurance company. They also said they didn’t trust insurance companies, and didn’t know how to file a claim.
We work with microfinance institutions and non-government organisations such as Caritas and World Vision, as well as UN agencies, mutuals and affinity and community groups. With each different organisation we design new insurance products to cater for the different needs of their members – always keeping in mind the administration has to be simple with simple and brief terms and conditions. We plan to use our acquired know-how to expand in the MENA region and have already started extending our microinsurance services in Iraq.
I remain forever grateful to have had the opportunity to learn what a family business is all about. I was always taught employees are part of our family and our most important asset. People identify our name with the family business and vice versa, so we have to work hard to preserve our renown; honesty always pays off and we should focus on the long-term; and finally, that we have a responsibility towards our community and the environment.
The best thing about working in family business is benefiting from the existing infrastructure and reputation. You still have to work hard and prove you are credible, yet doors do open up faster at times. In addition, sharing a long-term vision and working towards one goal creates special bonds in the family. The hardest thing is making sure you build your knowledge as fast as possible, as well as your management and leadership skills because external parties always compare you with the previous generation and expect you to be at least as good.
A SELF-ASSURED FAMILY BUSINESS
The first insurance man in the Zaccar family was Roger Zaccar, Coralie’s grandfather. He started his career in the Egyptian agency of a French insurance company, before he and some business partners founded their own Alexandria-based firm, the Egyptian Insurance Company, in 1945.
Roger lost the company, which had agencies in Sudan, Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria, in 1962 when Gamel Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s then president, nationalised all banks and insurance companies. In the same year, he decided to move his family to Lebanon, where he founded Commercial Insurance, which is currently headed by Coralie’s father, Max Zaccar.
Coralie began setting up the company’s first microinsurance division in 2009. Microinsurance aims to protect the poorest in society by offering insurance coverage in exchange for very low but regular premium payments.
Coralie, who is an Insead MBA graduate, is the third of four children; her elder brother, also called Roger, is a member of Commercial Insurance’s board, while her sister Diane is a fine art consultant. Her youngest brother, Raphael, is still completing his studies.