Mumbai: I had met Dev Karvat fleetingly at travel events organised by Global Panorama Showcase (GPS) and have been chasing him for this meeting for quite some time. But as CEO – Emerging Markets of TrawellTag Cover-More, a Zurich Company, Dev Karvat is a busy man.
When we sit down in his office, next to his alma mater K C College, he is the same – disarmingly charming, deeply passionate about what he does and sporting his trademark boyish smile.
At 37, the demanding role sits lightly on his shoulders. In the last 18 years since he started the insurance business, the enterprise has grown by leaps and bounds, thanks to his ability to identify white spaces, take calculated risks and capture market share by investing in relationships.
Dev’s family, hailing from Gujarat and settled in Mumbai, has been in the insurance business for 60 years now. “There was never a push from my family to choose this career. In fact, after completing my B.Com. degree, I studied how to cut raw diamonds like many Gujaratis do but soon realised my calling was in insurance,” reminisces Dev.
As a naughty school kid, Dev was packed off to a boarding school in Panchgani. His uncle was running a farm there and doing things very differently. For example, he was the first person in India to grow American strawberries. “I saw that bug in him to think and act differently,” says Dev. “The results always gave him recognition and a premium for his offerings.”
It was during his college years that Dev stumbled into insurance. He happened to go to a travel agency along with a friend to get him a visa. That is when he learned that for a visa one needs to have insurance. In 1997, insurance was still another two years from privatisation. It would normally take two days of red tape to issue a policy but they needed it urgently. Dev went to United India Insurance. The young boy’s charm and tenacity worked. In four hours, he got the policy issued. Rony Mehta of Travel Heights was impressed he became Dev’s first client, so to speak.
“Rony called it a miracle and asked if I could do this for him more often?” recollects Dev. Work started coming his way. He renegotiated the service charge multiple times but his client always agreed. That is when he saw how critical a service he was offering and that, like Travel Heights, there could be thousands of travel businesses needing his help. The tipping point came when Dev’s father secured him an introduction to the head of a forex service provider. “The meeting happened in his car. I told him you have 10 offices and hundreds of clients. Please allow me to cross sell travel insurance and we can share the profit and that instead of two days, I can get it out sooner.”
He ended the conversation with an impulsive suggestion: “I can put a computer system in your office itself to print the policy!” It worked. A simple MoU was signed. Dev was 19 years, fresh out of college and in organised business.
Suddenly life changed. Dev was flying to different cities where the forex firm operated and recruiting people. “It taught me how to scale up an idea. I was with them from 1999 to 2004. During this time, they grew to 25 locations.”
Dev was working with National Insurance Company where he suggested creating an online platform to issue policy and collect premium. They could enhance volume and revenue, and he wouldn’t have to visit them daily. To his luck, the young manager there agreed. Business boomed but there was a rude shock in store. In 2004-2005, the forex company got sold. Overnight, Dev’s business was gone.
“I had two choices: Go back to dad or start from scratch. I spoke to my team. We had about 10 senior members. Everyone said let’s open our first office tomorrow in Mumbai. Their confidence gave me strength.” And so, Karvat Travel Services Pvt. Ltd. was born. Between 2005 and 2009, Dev and team put up 75 offices with no debt, relying on savings and internal accruals from the fledgling business. It grew to employ 500 professionals.
Ninety per cent travellers do not claim insurance. So there was no stickiness in the business. They could go to anyone the next time. Dev was thinking how to add value to the relationship which is otherwise quite transactional. “We decided to customise the product for travellers,” says Dev. “Luggage, medical and assistance happen to be major concerns. We decided to address these to be different.”
By partnering with a UK-based company for the first time in India, luggage e-tracking was offered as an add-on benefit to customers. That led to the brand TrawellTag. “Soon we started an assistance business. As many people started travelling alone, concierge service / assistance was critical for them. We added many innovative products and offered it as a bundle.”
Since Karvat Travel is not an insurance company as per IRDA of India, no distributor can sell TrawellTag products. It is a B2B model working closely with airlines, OTAs, travel agents and DMCs.
In 2010, Dev started talking to Cover-More, Australia’s largest insurance player. TrawellTag had built excellent products, a distribution network and relationships. But moving to the next level and competing with global players coming to India needed a partner who had been there and done that. EY was appointed to scout for a strategic partner.
Cover-More was looking to enter India and found TrawellTag to be the perfect partner. In 2012, the union was solemnised with Cover-More as a minority shareholder. Dev tells me it was the happiest day of his life and perfect validation of their path-breaking work in India. “They were 20 years ahead of us,” he says. “They told us to treat them as a supermarket. Come and tell us what you want and we will give it to you. They gave us autonomy. We borrowed their style of marketing and some tech too. We picked up medical assistance as a service from them.”
According to Dev, TrawellTag never had experience working with airlines or OTAs but Cover-More did and they learned from them. Today TrawellTag works with Yatra and GoIbibo; Indigo Airlines and GoAir as the exclusive insurance and assistance provider. “Our conversion rate has grown 10x with OTAs and the airlines we are associated with. That is enough to build our business with other OTAs and airlines,” says a confident Dev.
The travel insurance business in India is about $100 million. It is much smaller when compared to auto insurance at $10 billion and health insurance at $5 billion. Life insurance is the biggest. So for many players, travel insurance is a low-hanging fruit. Not for Dev.
After Cover-More came in, TrawellTag started optimising its business better. They are now only at 45 locations with offices but on the ground in 75 cities. The head count has marginally reduced. Process controls have been centralised using tech. “Cover-More taught us how to run a large business with lesser fixed cost every month. We grew the business 4x in the last four years,” confirms Dev.
In 2017, global financial services behemoth Zurich was looking at expanding its travel insurance business and for a landing in India. Cover-More fit the bill. The travel insurance business of Zurich was merged with Cover-More making it a $1.5 billion enterprise. Zurich wants to be the largest travel insurance player in the world and Dev is excited. As the new head of Emerging Markets for TrawellTag Cover-More, a Zurich company, he has his plate full – India being one of the biggest growth markets in his purview.
International passenger growth in India has been 5 to 6 per cent every year as per IATA statistics. Penetration of travel assistance & insurance in India is about 20 per cent. Widening this basket through education and travel agent engagement programme is critical and Dev has kick-started initiatives in 15 cities. “As penetration touches 50 per cent in India, travel agents will see travel insurance as one of top three revenue earners,” he says.
When Cover-More was performing due diligence on TrawellTag, they were shocked to see its rate of employee attrition – one per cent. Dev’s belief in decentralised decision-making and empowerment that sees all professionals as entrepreneurs than employees have retained people over the years. “I like to get involved in HR and PR,” says Dev. “By PR, I mean relationships with stakeholders, especially clients. HR is important as I am particular about our ‘high josh’ culture. If we get PR and HR right, business will happen,” he says.
Spouse Bhavi was involved in the business till 2007 when they had their first child, son Hrimaan and later, son Veer. “Now she gets involved part-time yet remains a key influencer,” admits Dev.
“We are a nuclear family – Bhavi and I share our responsibilities. I get the boys ready for school by 7:30 am, then go walking, running or to the gym while she does yoga. I train three times a week. We both have breakfast and I am in office by 9:30.” Dev bonds with his kids over cricket. A game is a must over the weekend. Bhavi has also warmed up to the game so now it’s a family passion. “Last weekend, Hrimaan and I opened batting at a friendly match. That was special.” Apart from movies and food, another passion has always been holidaying with family. Dev is in love with Italy. “I love pizzas and the country. I have travelled all over their countryside with family and stayed in the villages, especially the Tuscany side.”
Every six months or a year the team challenges itself. Innovation groups of young professionals are constituted to brainstorm on TrawellTag 2.0 and 3.0. We are the largest travel assistance & insurance provider in India with a significant lead over number 2 and 3 players. We are competing against ourselves but we cannot remain complacent,” concludes Dev.