Powering the industry through a diverse, multicultural engine

Sun Life Asia president on the insurer’s legacy in the region and its future amidst global economic conditions

Powering the industry through a diverse, multicultural engine

Insurance News

By Kenneth Araullo

It has not been a full two years since Ingrid Johnson (pictured above) was appointed president for Sun Life Asia. Even shorter is the time she spent at the insurer’s hub in Hong Kong, having just arrived in mid-January 2022. However, in that short span, and after seeing the results of the group across its markets, Johnson was just happy that Hong Kong and China were open again.

“What I'm pleased to see now is not just that all of the countries are emerging, but also just how resilient society is,” Johnson said in conversation with Insurance Business Asia. “You know, having faced multiple quarantines – I myself have done seven or eight. … It gets to a point where we don't want to anymore, so I'm just so pleased. Hopefully we learned from some valuable takeaways from the pandemic, but also recognized the importance of protecting our lives and actually saving for a rainy day, because that's really the business that we're in.”

Johnson, who previously spent most of her career in South Africa and the UK, now finds herself in Asia, a vastly different region that offers very different things to the industry. For her, these standouts include the younger population, an untapped market brimming with potential.

“The very exciting thing about Asia is the high growth rate and young population,” she said. “In just the Philippines, the average age of the population is 25. So, if you think of the emergence of the youth and how they're growing in terms of their needs in life, health and wealth, it's just a natural momentum and energy that we see in all the different markets. What we value is the uniqueness in all the different markets.”

It's something that stood out the most to her from her decades-long tenure in another continent. However, it also made her realize that there were still some similarities to be seen, especially in multiculturalism and the uniqueness of different cultures.

“Often people will look at Africa as one homogenous group, and yet there's richness and diversity in Africa. The same goes for Asia; it is a very rich diversity. The more we can actually differentiate ourselves to serve the different needs of the different clients and society, the more impactful we can be. So generally, there's growth opportunities in Asia that is more difficult in mature markets,” Johnson said.

Serving a budding market and a century-old sector

This year also coincided with the 10th year of Sun Life’s unit in Malaysia, a burgeoning unit that has been hailed by group CEO Kevin Strain as one that will continue to prosper in the years to come. Johnson attributed Sun Life Malaysia’s success in the innovation it offered as well as a deep understanding of its vibrant culture, especially around takaful products.

“What's been exciting is if we just look over the 10 years that we've been in Malaysia, it's been extraordinary,” she said. “We’ve been the fastest growing life insurer, we’ve got the leading positions in banca-takaful (bancassurance-takaful), and we’ve won many awards for the innovative products that we've offered. We've also doubled our number of clients and we've had five times the number of sales.”

In this first decade, Johnson said that they understood and recognized the Malaysian government’s imperative to better serve its citizens through insurance. For Sun Life Malaysia, this meant being mindful of the B40 sector, which consisted of the poorest in the country, including the ways of better protecting themselves through legacy and retirement planning.

“For us in Malaysia, it's thinking about business owners, the parents in the household, how they think through the different needs, and then cater our products around those particular needs. This involves balancing the importance of both assurance and takaful. Those for me are two very important markets that we will serve to deliver for both,” Johnson said.

In another vastly different market, one that can already be called an institution because of its age, Johnson said that continuing to meet the needs of the people will still be the key. Sun Life Philippines is more than 125 years old and has long been the country’s top life insurer. It’s a distinction that Johnson does not take lightly, especially given the landscape in the country.

“We are number one in the Philippines for 12 years in a row. It’s a very competitive landscape. We know that there is very formidable competition always, and so we're very proud of that leadership position that we hold and recognize how much it takes to reach the lives of many millions of clients that we serve in Manila, the Philippines – these 5 million clients,” she said.

While she is proud of the insurer’s achievements, even Johnson admits that there is room for more growth. The addressable market still has unmet needs, even with its 20,000-strong agent force in the country.

“In growing the advisors, we then need to make sure they're successful,” she said. “So, the investment we're making in digital to be able to make it easier for the clients and advisors to reach and conclude insurance and then partner with them in their journey. The Philippines has done a great job – they call it Philippines Next, which is around the next frontier of touching more lives through a very client-centred approach.”

Advisors and digitalization addressed, Johnson said that addressing affordability is next. In these trying times, the question comes down to capturing and connecting with clients – how clients can find Sun Life, and how Sun Life can educate them on what they need.

“There’s the affordability, and often insurance risks being too expensive. The job we need to do for the different types of clients and complexity or simplicity, is to tailor our products and our service model to make it more accessible. That’s a really big job to do. In essence, it’s to keep what we do brilliantly and then make sure we expand our reach with the help of digital across the very expansive country of the Philippines. That's what I'd love to see,” she said.

Singapore and Hong Kong – equally important ‘children’

As a global company with a huge presence in Asia, it should not come as a surprise that Sun Life holds very integral businesses in both the Lion City and the Fragrant Harbour. That said, there have been many talks around a potential rivalry between the two over which is the premier insurance hub in the region, a matter that even Sun Life Singapore was careful in treading. Johnson had a somewhat similar stance, albeit using an analogy that makes it easier to understand.

“I’m smiling, because it’s like if you have two children and you’re being asked if you love one more than the other,” Johnson remarked. “For me, it's less about the comparison or who's the winner and the loser. For me, what’s important is that they both have a role to play.”

Those roles, she said, revolved around what Sun Life is trying to achieve, and comes down to different clients’ needs as they nestle upon either of the two most important areas of commerce in the world.

“Hong Kong has served us extremely well as a regional hub, which we've been here for many years,” she said. “We've got a fantastic business that's been here 131 years – a high-net-worth business. We've seen a lot of flows that are coming into Hong Kong, because there's a need for people in terms of creating wealth or retirement planning that's relevant in Hong Kong.”

Equally, Singapore is also important for different needs altogether, Johnson said, and keeping relevancy wherever they are will always be the core of the matter.

“In fact, you know, we also have a presence in India, we've got a presence in the Philippines, where we have some more regionally focused roles. As you know, wealth moves globally, which is why business in Bermuda is equally important. This is about being where our clients need us and then being able to serve them in an effective way,” she said.

Tempered AI and powering the growth engine

Just like many others before her, Johnson also believed that AI could make a big difference in the industry, and that it will have a role to play in the future of Sun Life Asia. However, she also said that they will go about things a little differently.

“What we are doing goes more in the sense that we need to do it in a way that isn't part of our broader network, because number one for us is protecting – from a cyber perspective – our client data, the privacy of the data, and the resiliency and robustness of our technology. So, these emergent technologies certainly have the opportunity to be used, and that's things that we're exploring,” she said.

Another aspect of the AI matter is the human element, Johnson said, as the technology lacked the means to be reasonable – something that the insurance industry should have.

“What's very clear is we still need to bring the human interpretation because it's not necessarily 100% correct, and it can't feel emotion. Those are elements that we are mindful that it can't do,” she said.

In the end, Sun Life Asia will power on, Johnson said, and it will remain a key component in further expanding the reach of insurance across the world. One of the company’s key strategic pillars is to recognize the region as a growth engine, a driver that harnesses a growing population with different values and needs.

“We’ve been very clear about our medium-term objectives as Sun Life, what we would like to see is an underlying net income growing 15% per annum. That’s a very healthy growth,” she said. “Where that’s going to come from is a society that notwithstanding headwinds of inflation, higher interest rates, just more demands on the wallet – is a society that will recognize the value and importance of insurance and the role that insurance and health protection has to play, and therefore the role that we can play.

“So, we run a portfolio of distinct businesses in Asia. These businesses will face different challenges at different times. That's natural, but the likelihood of them all facing challenges at the same time, hopefully not. Therein lies the opportunity. We've got that diversification benefit of deepening our positioning in every one of those markets, strengthening, making sure we are leading every market – that combination will then drive growth.”

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