Dr. Jürg Wittwer
Dr. Jürg Wittwer has been CEO of Touring Club Suisse (TCS), Switzerland’s leading mobility club with 1.5 members and 1,700 employees, since 2016. He has previously headed up travel insurance companies in Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and the US and was CEO of Mondial Assistance in Switzerland (previously ELVIA travel insurance) for many years as well as member of the Executive Committee of Allianz Suisse with leadership responsibility for all distribution channels. Jürg Wittwer graduated from the University of St. Gallen with a doctorate in Business Administration.
As we emerge from the acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis, our journey towards a new normal begins. EY asked various thought leaders and decision makers to take stock and share their insights into what’s next. Dr. Jürg Wittwer, CEO of TCS, shares his personal experience with crises and explains how TCS has been taking responsibility for its members and for Switzerland over the last few months.
When did you first sense that COVID-19 was going to impact TCS?
My colleagues in the Executive Committee say that I pointed out at a meeting in January that we would also end up dealing with this virus. I have worked in travel insurance for many years. In that line of business, the experiences of 2005 to 2010 stay with you; bird flu, swine flu and MERS had pandemic potential even back then, but were contained because they’re less infectious.
Would you say COVID-19 is a black swan in the meaning of Nassim Nicholas Taleb?
On the one hand yes, at least in terms of the ramifications. Before COVID-19, the word “pandemic” was an abstract, medical term. It’s only now that we can appreciate how drastically the virus has changed our everyday lives – and yet we’re just at the beginning because the virus is still gathering pace as it spreads around the world. On the other hand, it is a catastrophe we knew would come. We’d already had SARS. We’d had Ebola. Bill Gates has been warning for more than ten years that a pandemic is inevitable. All the scientists and epidemiologists knew that a pandemic would come sooner or later. I think it’s more that people didn’t want to acknowledge this black swan. So I wasn’t surprised by the outbreak, maybe a bit by the timing.
What has been particularly challenging for you at TCS?
We were least prepared for moving all our people out of the office. TCS is an emergency organization and we operate our call centers around the clock. We have emergency plans to cover this. But none of the scenarios provided for the eventuality of sending almost 90 percent of our people to work from home within a very short space of time. Our Business Continuity Management was based above all on duplication of systems and back-up centers. It means that if one location is interrupted, we switch to the next one. This concept works well in the event of fire or earthquakes. But in a pandemic the chance is relatively high that employees will get sick at two locations and that operations have to be suspended due to quarantine. To safeguard our operations, immediate decentralization was the only sensible measure. It was a highly logistical and expensive undertaking. We had to up our server capacity, purchase additional licenses, and then it nearly all fell through at the very end due to small details. For example, it was very difficult to get hold of all the additional headsets we needed at such short notice. A working group is currently developing new guidelines for remote working. Because I’m certain that we won’t see a rapid end to coronavirus. We have to prepare to live with this reality for another 18, 24, 36 months.
We were least prepared for moving almost all of our people out of the office.
What have you been doing in recent months to stay strong personally?
On the emotional side, coronavirus hasn’t been the worst crisis I’ve experienced in all my years working in the emergency business. During the acute phases, the tsunami, World Trade Center attacks or bombings in Sharm-el-Sheik, Mumbai and Dahab were more overwhelming, and more direct. The special thing about this coronavirus crisis is perhaps that it’s continued for such a long time and that’s exhausting. My motto in a crisis is: surround yourself by employees you can trust, go home in the evening, switch off, get enough sleep. The next morning go and take over from the employees that worked all night. It makes you realize that you, as the boss, are not as indispensable in a crisis as you always thought.
How would you describe the current situation in the office?
The lockdown led to a strange everyday office situation. At TCS we have units that we can’t ask to work from home. For instance, our patrols were out every day and in contact with strangers. Our claims department also had to physically be in the office in some cases. I also came into the office in a show of solidarity. It was quite eerie to walk through the empty rooms and directly experience what it means when the economy comes to a standstill overnight. My diary was suddenly empty as meetings were canceled. I sat in my office chair and didn’t know what to do at times and then when the Federal Council announced new measures at one of their press conferences, I’d suddenly have to make lots of decisions again in quick succession. It was almost like being in the military: wait, rush, wait, rush. Today, I think, you get used to the new reality. The majority of our people are back in the workplace. The whole virtual meeting setup is also working well. And we’re relatively close to normality again in Switzerland at the moment.
My diary was suddenly empty in places as meetings were canceled, then I had to make lots of decisions in quick succession. It was almost like being in the military: wait, rush, wait, rush.
What does the new normal look like for TCS?
It varies a lot. For our camping business, the new normal means that campsites are 100% booked out. They were closed due to lockdown until 6 June and had to be ramped up from nothing to full capacity without much notice. Our camping teams will be working extremely hard for the next three or four months. Our travel insurance and cancellation department received as many claims within a few weeks as they normally do in a whole year. We’re now in the process of doubling the department’s capacity, in addition our existing employees have to train new employees to deal with extreme situations like the one we’ve experienced due to the coronavirus pandemic. And then there’s the patrols, who serve our customers day in, day out. For them not much has changed in the new normal except perhaps the hygiene measures.
What responsibility has TCS taken on during the crisis?
TCS is a non-profit association and responsibility is something we take very seriously. The Farner brand reputation study 2020 has just come out and puts TCS in fifth place out of 150 organizations. Responsibility doesn’t just mean being responsible toward our members, but also Switzerland – we’re an original Swiss organization. Taking responsibility is in the TCS DNA. During the corona crisis phase, the ETI travel insurance switchboard received around 20,000 additional calls. That’s an increase of more than 350% compared to the prior-year period. We were only able to cope with this historical demand by increasing the ETI switchboard personnel substantially. We brought around 2,000 Swiss people back to Switzerland from abroad, working with the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs in some cases. There were also a handful of medical repatriations due to COVID-19 infections. We also planned and very rapidly implemented various support projects during the crisis, and kept the public and our 1.5 million members up to date with important coronavirus information. We quickly introduced a free and priority breakdown service for medical staff, launched the job placement platform corosol.ch together with partners in the mobility sector, made TCS available for free to support neighborhood help schemes and massively extended the medical information on TCS-mymed.ch in connection with coronavirus. The crisis was a stress test. TCS, with our 1,700 people working across a range of divisions, stood up to it well. We saw: our foundations are stable, we’re agile and flexible, and even after coronavirus, we can look positively to the future.
What did you do for your members?
For us, it was clear from the beginning that we wanted to stand by our members in this crisis. After all, that is the purpose of our organization. You can see it particularly clearly in the payments our ETI travel insurance is making. Our clear aim is to pay the claims. I think the discussions ongoing in the insurance market at the moment are terrible – is an epidemic a pandemic, is a pandemic an epidemic. Of course you need to think about the future and decide whether and how a pandemic is an insurable risk. But anyone who said before that it is covered should now honor that. We at TCS are doing so.
What can companies do to cope with the high level of uncertainty right now?
The global economy, global trading routes and global supply chains aren’t going to catch their balance that quickly. At this stage, we can’t quite picture what that means. It’s highly likely that we will slip into a sharp recession. In that case it will certainly be important for companies to be well capitalized and to have costs under control. Building on that, they should adapt to the new circumstances and try to make the most of the few opportunities that do come in a recession. Ultimately, it’s flexibility – on the market and in cost structures – that enable companies to win.
What three recommendations would you make to our readers?
First of all, make sure that you have a healthy capital structure; second, that you have costs under control; third, that you act responsibly and with a long-term view. The last point is particularly relevant for companies that are shareholder driven. During the 2008 financial crisis, people expected the same profits as in boom times. As a result, the economy was like a snake that bites its own tail and gets into even more danger. But in a crisis it’s all the more important to strike a balance between short-term profit maximization and sustainable economic recovery. Large-scale job losses and cautious investors are rarely healthy for the economy. One last fourth point: stay optimistic. We’ve had economic crises at various points over the last few decades. They are part of the economy’s normal cycle. After every crisis, things improve again. Sometimes, it just takes a bit of patience.
But in a crisis, it’s all the more important to strike a balance between short-term profit maximization and sustainable economic recovery.