Sylvain Coutu is a highly accomplished executive with extensive experience in the agriculture insurance industry. As the Head of Agriculture Insurance at AXA Climate, an entity of the global insurance giant AXA, he leads the development and implementation of innovative risk management solutions that assist farmers and other agricultural businesses in adapting to the challenges of climate change.
Dr. Coutu’s expertise and knowledge are a result of his extensive background in senior leadership positions across the globe, providing him with a deep understanding of the complex risks that the agriculture sector faces. In a recent interview, we had the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss how he is driving change within the agricultural insurance industry.
Below are the highlights of the interview.
Q) Can we have a brief background on your professional journey? What was your journey like to get where you are?
Sylvain) The common denominator of all the different steps of my academic and professional career is “passion and challenge.” Passion is the fuel; challenge is the compass. I always moved from project to project with little consideration of financial or geographic considerations. I need this intellectual excitation to keep performing, and it is the lack of challenge that makes me move.
I don’t think the journey was that easy, as challenging the status quo can be quite energy demanding. You have to keep believing in your idea even if that can put you into difficult situations. I am not staying you should be stubborn; but be pragmatic, be fact base, look outside the box and don’t accept thing just because they are put in front of you. The important, is to be honest with yourself and stay align with who you are.
Q) What were the initial setbacks that you faced?
Sylvain) One of my first mistakes was to naïvely think that you could do agriculture insurance without understanding agriculture deeply. I probably thought I was smarter with my satellites and big data (shame). However, agriculture is not only about data but also about people and cultures. It takes time to understand these things. One of my first pieces of advice to new joiners into this business is to make strong links with probably the only people who know well about agriculture: professional farmers.
Q) How do you motivate creativity and innovation while maintaining a healthy work environment?
Sylvain) I never compromise on work-life balance and social aspects. I did a couple of times in the past, hoping that I would save time, but it never worked in the long run, as I lost motivation and efficiency. I keep time to do some sports, meet my friends, and pick up my daughter at school regularly. In the office, I try to remain available to my colleagues first. Actually, I can tell you that most – if not all – of the best ideas come outside of office hours and during informal discussions.
Q) Leadership isn’t easy in this kind of dizzying environment. What has your approach been?
Sylvain) Tough to answer; the best would be to ask my colleagues. I see myself more as a team sports captain than as a boss. We have very talented people on the team, better than me in several aspects of their jobs, so I am not here to tell them what to do. I am more of a discussion partner, sharing my experiences and network and helping them make the right decision for the company but also for themselves. In the end, we are in the same boat, and the best way to move together is to trust each-others. I must say that at AXA Climate, we put in place a collective bonus equal for all and based on the performance of the group, not on individuals. That gives priority to the interests of a larger ecosystem and aligns well with what I try to implement and my convictions.
I also try to remain quite transparent and direct in my communication. I believe that everyone around me knows what I think and where I am heading, and I expect them to tell me very directly if they disagree. I avoid corporate nonsense; it is a waste of time for all and affects the leaders’ credibility, to my opinion.
Q) What are the major challenges of the industry? How are you tackling them?
Sylvain) Ok, let’s restrict my industry to Agriculture Insurance. I would say that the major challenge is that it is, by culture, a very risk-averse industry. So moving slowly. Also, it has not operated its digital transition yet. I believe solving the second could help the first, as digitalization would bring significant transparency to the market on risk assessment, data acquisition, distribution channels, and loss adjustment. Actually, digitalization will also be necessary if we want the industry to take on new challenges, such as protecting farmers operating a transition to regenerative agriculture or private investors into forests generating carbon credits.
The approach at AXA Climate when it comes to new product launch is to go and see what happen (smile). It seems bold, but we do it under control, taking small risks and learning by doing. We are very operational, not a think tank. Nothing replaces the live field experience. So far, we have a committed Board Members Team at AXA Climate that is giving us the resources we need to move on to these sustainability-driven projects. I keep saying to the team that it might not be like that forever, so let’s do our best today with the support that we have.
Q) As a source of inspiration for many, what would your advice be for entrepreneurs planning to enter the business world?
Sylvain) If you want to enter an industry, whatever it might be, ensure you have someone from this industry (a board member, a friend) on your side. I have seen too many companies willing to convince me to work with their new technology, but they misunderstood how agriculture insurance works, so nothing came out of the discussion, despite the very good product and people I had in front of me.
I would also add: do not re-invent the wheel. I have a bit of experience with academic research, and it is also full of talented people producing great work that you could leverage. Talk to these people to ensure you stay on top of the league.
Q) What milestones and achievements are you most proud of?
Sylvain) I see all the different changes (roles, companies, domains) as milestones that I am proud of because change is never easy. It means that you are honest to yourself and admit that you need to get out of your comfort zone if you still want to grow. Nevertheless, I would like to mention my collaboration with NASA Harvest, where I act as Chair of Agriculture Finance. This role maintains my link to several academic partners in the USA or Switzerland and helps me understand the most critical challenges of satellite applications to agriculture in general.
On a more collective side, at AXA Climate, we recently launched a product to cover the risk of yield reduction when producing pesticide-free wheat. It is a small policy but a big milestone, in my opinion, as the risk we are covering is not weather based and encourages farmers to change to more sustainable farming practices. It is the first insurance policy of this kind that I am aware of.
Q) What are you looking to accomplish in the next 5 years from a personal as well as professional point of view?
Sylvain) From a professional standpoint, I really hope that AXA Climate can become THE reference when it comes to innovative risk-transfer solutions dedicated to supporting the agriculture transition and vulnerable ecosystems. We are still early stages, with a longer list of failures than successes. But we also are big believers, and that’s the essential part of keeping us on a good track (smile). In five years from now, we should have several products up and running, focusing more on the scaling side of the challenge.
On a personal side, I would like to continuously improve my understanding of the agriculture/finance/technology nexus. This is an infinite and fascinating world, clearly. It will require maintaining a presence at the interface of the industry, public institutions, and academia. At least, that’s how I see it, trying to leverage the best of all worlds and bring people together to face a common challenge.