With her infectious sense of cautious ambition, Cristina Casingena is on course to steer LifeStar Insurance into its next chapter. The CEO dives into the challenges and rewards of her first four years at the helm, the need to demystify the insurance industry for the benefit of all customers, and the challenges – including the risk of a recession – and opportunities that await in 2023.

Cristina Casingena’s appointment as CEO of LifeStar Insurance plc came at a critical point for the company, which was undergoing a complete transformation following six decades in business, while paving the way for its future. It is abundantly clear that Cristina, who has a decorated career in financial services, does not shy away from a challenge.

Taking the helm in 2018, she explains that one of the biggest and most pressing challenges she had to tackle upon taking on her new role was rebuilding the team. “Finding skilled and competent professionals to join us was my first priority, and it was absolutely crucial to do so not only to establish the company’s strategy, but to implement it. Four years on, we have a very different team to the one I found when I joined – and really, what is a company if not for the people who work there? Building the team has been one of the most rewarding parts of my role so far.”

Cristina’s recruitment efforts took place in tandem with the company’s restructuring. “Managing both of these significant changes was very challenging but, in the end, finalising the restructuring that culminated with the rebranding of the company was an incredible achievement, and we did it in less than four years,” says the CEO. “Even though the company was already in the market under different names for almost six decades, we feel that LifeStar Insurance progressed into a new era – with a new strategy, a new team and a new name.”

2022 was a strong year of business for the life insurance company, which saw the fruit of its hard work start to pay off.

“In 2022, we recorded an increase of over 250 per cent on the premium income for our retirement product compared to 2021. This was an important achievement for us and, while we expected to see a good performance in this area, we weren’t expecting this level of growth,” says Cristina.

All our unit-linked business registered important and steady growth in 2022, and this took place during an extremely volatile year for the financial market. The life insurance business is highly dependent on investment income, and maintaining our assets at the right level at such an unstable time was challenging. However, it also created opportunities for investment, and some of our clients took the chance to do so at a lower price, which is one of the reasons why unit-linked business has been successful in 2022.”

The past 12 months also saw the continuation of major projects implemented in 2021, one of which was the company’s digitalisation process, driven by COVID-19 and the spike in demand for online services, as well as the company’s goal for sustainable products and processes.

“Our digitalisation strategy has practically eliminated a long and cumbersome paper trail for the front office, and made the onboarding process faster and easier for our clients and for our sales team. We also made significant cost savings on printed materials,” she explains. “As a result, the company can now boast of more efficient, cost-effective and sustainable processes which are also the foundation for further enhancements planned in the future.”

In the same year, another bold step was taken to secure the company’s long-term future. LifeStar Holding plc listed its subsidiary, LifeStar Insurance, on the Malta Stock Exchange. This move, the CEO explains, was an important strategy for the company, which will require investments and financial support to grow. By going public, the company has also increased its visibility and made it more known to the market.

“I believe there is a need to explain the technicalities of the insurance business, which not many people know about. Insurance is widely regarded as a necessary evil but, actually, it is an important financial tool for each and every one of us,” says Cristina. “We are all getting older and our priorities change during our lifetime, but insurance can help us in the face of such change. It can also be used as a valuable tool for companies as an employee benefit, which may support their efforts to attract and retain their top talent.”

Taking a broader look at Malta’s insurance market, Cristina believes this too is experiencing a transformation, particularly following COVID-19 and the many changes it forced upon the industry. “The pandemic has changed the way we do business. But, with that said, I believe more needs to be done by the industry to find a better way to communicate with customers, using less technical jargon and promoting our products in an engaging way.”

She admits this is no easy feat – insurance is technical in nature, and, moreover, it forces us to address subjects, such as our own mortality, which most prefer to avoid. “The discourse around life insurance is seen as negative, so it is up to us to convey the message positively, because really and truly, everybody’s most important assets are their health and their life – and this should encourage us to see insurance, especially life insurance, differently. It is up to the insurance providers to communicate this.”

On a personal note, Cristina admits her role is also changing as her priorities as CEO begin to shift. Back in 2018, she was immersed in LifeStar’s operational transformation, but today, she feels ready to take a step back to focus more on the company’s strategy and opportunities for growth, both locally and internationally.

“Leadership means empowering people and giving them the space to grow. The time has come for me to hand over more control to my team, allow them to take decisions and make their mistakes too, because everybody needs this experience to grow,” she asserts. “Giving up control is not easy, but it is necessary. I sometimes have to remind myself that I work in a team, and the only way to achieve our goals is together. We cannot work alone.”

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, Cristina shares her outlook for 2023, and highlights that the biggest worry on many business leaders’ minds is also her own – the risk of a recession. “Nobody knows when this will happen, it could be this year or in 2024. But certainly, it will translate into a lower available income for our clients, and life insurance tends to be low on their priority list,” the CEO explains.

To this end, she reasserts the need for insurance companies to be creative and effective in their communication with clients, “to convince them that their health and lives are their most important assets. Also, inflation is rising, which poses problems for existing customers as, when they have an immediate need for cash, the first resource is their life insurance. We need to be in touch with the customers and find different ways to help them deal with the financial challenges of the time.”

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2023 – the sister brand to MaltaCEOs.mt and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders

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