The decision to send one’s business into negative revenue is not generally taken lightly. But as the pandemic grounded travellers’ plans, two Australian CEOs of a global travel insurance provider with some 15 million customers worldwide considered it a no-brainer.

Group CEO of Cover-More Cara Morton GAICD and Asia-Pacific CEO Judith Crompton MAICD prioritised long-term customer relationships as the company issued full refunds on around 250,000 policies, even though it was under no obligation to do so.

“This obviously had a massive impact on us financially, because we weren’t selling any insurance and we were providing refunds on the insurance that we’d sold the year before,” says Morton. “But we felt that was the best decision to make for the travellers who were cancelling through no fault of their own.”

Although the decision itself was made quickly, the task was logistically challenging and impacted on distribution partners, many of whom were also struggling. “A lot of our daily discussions were around how we were going to manage this. Our systems just weren’t set up to rapidly process such a huge volume of refunds,” says Crompton. “Meanwhile, Cara was having crucial conversations with [parent company] Zurich Insurance Group about why this was important.”

The pandemic necessitated significant cost-cutting and led to Cover-More making one-third of its global staff redundant. “It was very sad having to let people go, but we knew we had to if we were to sustain Cover-More through the pandemic,” explains Crompton. At the same time, the company was also helping stranded customers return home and installing technological solutions so employees could work from home.

Although the travel industry has been hammered more than most by COVID-19, Morton and Crompton remain optimistic about its future. “A lot of people are asking, ‘Is travel ever going to come back?’ But it’s not like film for Kodak,” says Morton. “Although it’s fundamentally changed, it is still going to come back in a very big way.”

Photo: Getty Images.

Wealth of experience

Cover-More also needed to change, and Morton and Crompton brought very different backgrounds to bear on the challenges.

Morton originally studied mineral processing engineering but soon realised it wasn’t for her. She moved to consulting giant Accenture, where she spent more than 20 years in a range of leadership roles across the banking, insurance, mining, consumer goods and government sectors. She then moved to QBE Insurance before joining Cover-More in 2018. Morton was appointed to the group CEO role in November 2020.

Crompton, on the other hand, has had a long career in the travel industry. She started in a UK travel agency at the age of 16 and has worked in agencies, as well as for Qantas, Etihad Airways and Virgin Australia, where she served as chief commercial officer.

A priority for the pair was developing partnerships and working with like-minded brands and companies to get the world travelling again, safely and risk-free. Significant digital and business transformation underpinned the group’s survival plan. Says Morton, “We needed to take that opportunity to really think about what the future was going to look like.”

Morton and Crompton met as peers in 2018, when Morton was Cover-More’s chief operating officer and Crompton was CEO of the Europe, Middle East and Africa division.

“Our skills complemented each other almost without a gap,” says Morton. “Judith came with all the deep travel knowledge… whereas I came with operations experience and a background in business transformation. Judith can present a commercial case in a way that tells you it’s something she really wants to do and there are often times when she understands a lot more about a particular issue than me.”

Crompton, meanwhile, credits Morton with the capacity to be “incredibly decisive”. “She has such a strong ability to cut through noise, to see an outcome very clearly and to get from A to B to C very quickly,” says Crompton.

When Morton was promoted to the interim CEO role in June 2020, the peers shifted to a direct reporting relationship. However, in terms of negotiating new boundaries, the transition has proved seamless due to their differing territory and high levels of mutual respect.

Morton says Crompton “has her back” and “is the first person to support me” when difficult decisions need to be implemented. “She knows that if I’m asking her to do something challenging, I’ve thought through and already negotiated with Zurich about the possible outcomes.”

Product innovation

Cover-More decided to launch a disruptive new product called Freely, which will provide intrepid travellers with “on-the-go” insurance and assistance. It is designed to overcome the limitations of traditional travel insurance, which “is not particularly granular” when it comes to assessing travellers’ engagement in time-limited but riskier-than-usual activities such as skiing or a range of extreme sports.

“One of the biggest problems Australians face when travelling overseas — say, to Indonesia or Thailand — is falling off a moped or motorbike when they’re not covered,” explains Morton. “The technology we’re using will be able to tell whether you’re on a bus, in a car, on a moped or on a bike, and it will know what type of insurance you’ve taken out. It can say, ‘We can tell you’re riding a moped in Bali, but you don’t currently have insurance for that. Do you want to buy it for this rate per day and put in the dates that you’ll be using it?’”

Another product already on the market is a corporate assistance offering that provides “follow-the-sun” access to security advisers, medical advisers and case managers.

A third is an app aimed at leisure travellers that will, in addition to their insurance, provide security alerts, COVID-19 notifications and city-based information, plus an emergency button.

Board matters

Morton sits on Cover-More’s Australian board alongside chair Louis Carroll, who has been involved with the company for more than three decades. She reports to Jack Howell, who heads Zurich entity Global Business Platforms and also has a place on the board. Global Business Platforms in turn reports to Zurich Insurance CEO Mario Greco.

Another board member is Ericson Chan, who started with Zurich Insurance in October 2020, in a role designed to speed digital transformation and develop technology solutions for the new ventures.

“The main relationship I have with the board is in strategy and getting them to support, from a global strategy perspective, innovations relating to areas such as technology,” says Morton.