Executive interview

Leading with purpose

Our President and CEO Rob Wesseling, and our Chairperson of the Board John Harvie, discuss issues and trends in the world around us, the headwinds and tailwinds we faced in 2023, and why our vision is critical in a world of rapid transformation.

Photo of Robert Wesseling

Robert Wesseling
President and Chief Executive Officer, The Co‑operators Group Limited

Photo of John Harvie

John Harvie
Chairperson, Board of Directors, The Co‑operators Group Limited

What issues or trends are top of mind as you consider the year in review?

Rob Wesseling: Three are most profound for me. The first is climate resilience. As climate change becomes more pervasive, our business models need to evolve in kind. In addition to protecting against risk, we need to get into the resilience business. That means helping our clients and communities plan for the future and ensure our homes, businesses and communities are set up to mitigate and absorb the impacts of climate change.

Second is the rapid advancement of data collection and generative artificial intelligence (AI), which took a monumental leap forward in 2023. As a purpose-based business that thinks decades and even further ahead, we need to understand how to use these tools in ways that align with our principles, are transparent, and benefit our members, clients and communities.

Finally, I’m increasingly conscious of rising divisions in our society. I believe the co‑operative system and Co‑operators can play a significant role in demonstrating that working toward a common purpose, while embracing difference, is possible and necessary. As a co‑operative, we are built to collaborate. This aspect of our identity is far more valuable now than ever.


How does our co‑operative governance enable us to navigate the issues we face?

John Harvie: We’re governed by 46 member organizations. Few companies enjoy such a wide regional and sectoral diversity that includes so many elements of the social, cultural and political spectrums. With this wide range of philosophies and perspectives at our governance tables, we can represent the interests of millions of Canadians.

These diverse perspectives enable us to explore how potential solutions might impact the well-being and resilience of the communities we serve. Importantly, we never made — and with good governance, never will make — decisions to maximize profit for a small group of shareholders. We’re oriented to the needs of present and future generations of Canadians. I think this makes all the difference in how and why we show up to do the work.


How would you describe our 2023 performance?

RW: In 2023, we experienced financial challenges and volatility, with higher claims volume and inflation negatively impacting our P&C underwriting performance. Importantly, our capital position remains strong, and we ended the year with net income before tax of $310.6 million. In year one of our four-year strategic plan, we’re building good momentum on a number of fronts.

We made significant progress in how we serve clients through our Guided Omni Strategy — where we provide clients with an experience that best suits their needs based on their profile and preferences. We served more Canadians than ever with our wealth management and investment solutions and are now managing over $2.7 billion in retail wealth assets through our range of mutual funds and other investment products. In addition, we successfully grew our commercial insurance business with tailored offerings to meet the needs of small, medium and large businesses across the country.

We continue to catalyze sustainability through our investing efforts, with 48.4% of our total portfolio now invested in climate transition or impact investments. And, with community resilience in mind, we’re working to seed the world’s first private capital investment solution for climate adapted infrastructure through our resilience investing initiative, which aims to fund innovative climate resilience projects across Canada.

JH: The board has been closely engaged in overseeing the business plan and in creating our 2023 to 2026 corporate plan. Through our efforts, we’ve kept a keen eye to our financial performance in times of volatility and uncertainty, to ensure we can live up to our purpose long into the future. We have further embedded sustainability and climate resilience into our governance tables and committees and have continued to advance board education through topics such as inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA), climate change, biodiversity and nature, social impact, financial resilience for all Canadians, and much more.


What were our greatest challenges in 2023?

JH: Our challenges are opportunities to grow. We continue to develop and strengthen the relationships with our member organizations and delegates, which is critical to the success of our co‑operative. Now post-pandemic, we’re cultivating a strong governance culture with in-person meetings, while continuing to hold many meetings virtually, enabling greater frequency and flexibility.

We have further to go to embed IDEA into our governance and are focused on maintaining a strong board with well-rounded perspectives, expertise, skills and values. Democratic succession planning is crucial to this work. To this end, we introduced a Democratic Succession sub-committee, which will become effective in 2024. It’s important to also address emerging and increasing climate, technological and financial risks, and shifting regulations, and competitive pressures. These things have redefined the world around us. Our governance must evolve in kind.

RW: From a business perspective, I’d highlight the alarming rise of auto theft in Canada, and the rise of climate-related impacts for our communities, clients and our business. It’s imperative that we take steps to ensure our products, investments and partnerships are positioned to mitigate increasing and evolving risks and to build long-term resilience.

We also have significant room to progress toward diversity and inclusion, and to continue moving forward on our journey toward reconciliation. We are not where we need to be yet. We have done very well in terms of increasing the representation of women in leadership positions, but we aren’t yet reflecting cultural diversity in leadership.


What inspires you as you look to the future?

RW: I go back to our vision, to be a catalyst for a resilient and sustainable society. I can point to so many ways that we are bringing this vision to life and operating on the leading edge of the sustainable, resilient and net-zero emissions future. As an insurer, an investor, an employer and a co‑operative partner, we stay oriented to this vision. It enables us to hold tension between different points of view and work toward creative solutions. I do think our co‑operative is a microcosm for what is possible to achieve societally — asking ourselves both how this solution will benefit us today, and how it will improve the resilience of generations long into the future.

JH: I am so heartened by the progress we continue to make in pursuit of our purpose, vision and values as a co‑operative, and in our ability to adapt and evolve to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our members, our clients and our communities. Because of the strong relationships we’ve built with the people we serve, we’re able to develop the kind of creative and collaborative solutions that are needed to tackle urgent and complex challenges. The co‑operative spirit behind our work, I believe, is our greatest strength, and demonstrates that financial resilience is cultivated, grown, and sustained in our communities.