When Jan Wicke changed jobs, he received a very special gift. The employees gave the former Board Member of industrial insurer HDI Deutschland a booklet they had produced especially for him. The cover shows the 52-year-old wearing a yellow and black football strip in the act of scoring a goal. Inside, the pages contain pieces of advice and good wishes. The title of the special edition proclaims in large yellow letters: “The game goes on”.
The booklet is not only a very personal gift for the self-avowed fan of football team Borussia Dortmund. It is also a beacon for the future. This is because the game for the insurance executive in Hannover really is going into the next round – albeit in a higher league.
Since 1 September, the tall manager with rimless spectacles has been the new Chief Financial Officer of the Talanx insurance group, to which HDI belongs. Wicke has been on the Talanx Board of Management since 2014 and was previously responsible for Retail Germany, which required extensive restructuring. The change came about because longstanding Talanx CFO Immo Querner stepped down from the role after more than 14 years.
However, the timing for handing over the baton is not at all simple. “Taking up the position of Chief Financial Officer in the midst of the coronavirus crisis certainly commits me to working against the clock,” commented Wicke. Like many other German insurers, the Talanx Group, including Hannover Re and Neue Leben alongside HDI, is having to battle with the severe consequences of the coronavirus crisis.
Against this background, the insurer from Hannover remains unwilling to issue a new profit forecast for 2020. In addition to further economic damage if there is a second wave of the virus and a rising number of deaths, for example in the USA, significant financial burdens could be forthcoming as a result of the new hurricane season getting under way, warned the management. Then there is the dire situation of low interest rates. Wicke is therefore taking up the position of CFO at a difficult time, leaving him virtually no time at all to work his way into the job.
Important hurdle overcome
But the fair-haired manager with the youthful smile knows full well what he is letting himself in for. He knows his way around the German side of the business at the Talanx Group and he was responsible for the core brand HDI. After all, he recently had to restructure the ailing retail business in Germany – including a reduction in the headcount. Under his leadership, this went comparatively smoothly.
The coronavirus prevented full completion of the efficiency programme launched in 2015 before he moved to the CFO position. But an important hurdle has already been surmounted with modernisation of IT in the Property / Casualty Division.
“Wicke is open and empathetic, but he can also be tough when he has to push something through,” is how a former colleague of the manager described him. He himself sees his future role “as a CFO with an affinity for strategy – with figures on the one hand and strategic aspects on the other,” as he put it.
During his first few weeks at the financial helm as Chief Financial Officer, Wicke initially talked to a lot of people. “At the moment, I’m carrying out an analysis of the status quo,” said Wicke. Ultimately, figures are always written by people. “That’s why I’m holding some intensive discussions with my new staff members so that I can gain an impression of how to interpret the figures.” He went on to say that naturally there were differences in the financial data depending on whether high buffers were incorporated in the calculations or not. “I need to know about this, otherwise I’m unable to interpret the figures correctly.”
Doctoral thesis on individual asset management
Born in Essen but growing up in Cologne, Wicke is a seasoned veteran in financial affairs. He already gained the necessary financial expertise as Chief Financial Officer and Chief Risk Officer on the Management Board of Wüstenrot & Württembergische. As part of his role there, he prepared the company for the new Solvency II regulatory requirements before he moved to Hannover in 2014.
In actual fact, after he completed his degree in economics at Bamberg University, he wanted to remain in the university system. But then he succeeded in combining a doctoral thesis on “Individual Asset Management for Private Customers” with a position in Securities Asset Management at DZ Bank. In 1997, he changed sector and was hired by insurer DBV-Winterthur Versicherung, as it was then, where he went on to become Deputy Chairman. In 2007, he joined the Management Board of Wüstenrot & Württembergische, where he was appointed as Chief Financial Officer.
Wicke is not planning any major changes in his new role at Talanx. “I will continue to track the baseline in the Finance Department,” indicated the manager, who likes reading crime thrillers for relaxation. The new Chief Financial Officer continued by saying he believed it was important to develop people’s careers. “I’m a team player.”
However, Wicke is intent on moving forward at pace in his new role. Before he had even officially taken up his new position, he introduced himself at a teleconference with analysts and journalists when the figures were presented. There’s little doubt that Wicke is looking to lead from the front as the new CFO.
But he’s likely to develop rather a different style to that of his predecessor Querner, who liked to weave anecdotes and intellectual asides into his presentations. “Like Immo Querner, I’m inquisitive, but as a personality I may well be more tilted towards the operational side. Someone who has an intimate knowledge of the business and also occasionally adopts an academic standpoint,” commented Wicke about himself.
Perhaps there will be a more sober approach at presentations of the quarterly figures in future. However, investors will undoubtedly be benchmarking Wicke less on punchlines and more on the figures.