In Focus: Peter Huber, Zurich Life Singapore

The CEO of Zurich Life Singapore speaks with Vipanchi about the company’s development in the Lion City. He also believes in bringing “emotions” back into the insurance industry.

By Vipanchi Dinavahi

 
 
You joined Zurich Life Singapore (ZLS) recently. What is in your to-do list as the CEO of a relatively new player in the Singapore market?
 
Let me begin with some background. We established ourselves here in 2006 as an Isle of Man branch. We had a Divided Market Segment licence, which catered to British expats traditionally. We have expanded that and have been a market leader since, and are quite happy with the growing market share as published in Life Insurance Association’s statistics.
 
In 2012, we established a local subsidiary to cater to the broader market here in Singapore. We currently focus on the unit-linked market, which is a savings product. As the No. 3 player, we’ve carved out quite a nice position, considering we’re relatively new in the market.
 
I joined ZLS in Jul 2013. After a bit of internal restructuring, we decided to focus on three areas. Firstly, we want to be a player in the independent distribution market, which is focused on brokers, IFAs and banks. Secondly, we want to have an organisation structure that is fit for purpose, which means we have to constantly assess if we’re doing the right things to streamline the organisation. Last but not least, we need to instil a culture of competitiveness and focus on quality delivery rather than mass. We cannot be the biggest in Singapore—those days are over. We came too late into the market; that’s why we have to define a niche, and within that niche, we want to be the best.
 
From your point of view, what’s the insurance market like in Singapore? What are some of the trends you’ve noticed?
 
Singapore is a relatively small market, but its purchasing power is quite high. From that perspective, Singapore is a very attractive market. If you look at our average premium size, it is very high compared to Malaysia and Indonesia.
 
However, the industry is dominated by regulatory changes. To be fair, it is the regulators’ effort to bring more transparency to the business, and regulations do help close society’s protection gap—and it’s a growing gap.
 
People don’t have enough protection. Let’s take health, for example. When you retire, there might be a widening protection gap, hence the government and the MAS have to ask, “How can you make distribution better? How can you make it available to more people?” That’s the recent trend, and it will carry into next year.
 
You will also see a general convergence around regulations. Early next year, we will see the launch of a web aggregator, which is an MAS aggregator tool where all insurance companies will have to display their products and make it comparable to the public. This initiative empowers the consumer.
 
Do you think the industry is ready to empower the customers?
 
There are two answers to this.
 
We as insurers need to build the element of trust with the customers. Today, if you tell people you are selling insurance, everyone will just walk away—at least that’s the perception, right? I am very much of the belief that we have to bring emotions back to insurance. These days, it has become all about risk management and pushing back the customer, and I think we have to change that. Someone at Unilever recently told me that they even try to make the purchase of a shampoo an emotional experience. That’s why I think it is about how we engage our consumers and empower them.
 
Secondly, we need to give some power back to the consumer. Today, it’s very much a one-way street: the insurer tells you how you can buy, where you can buy and when you can buy. Technology, on the other hand, is empowering the consumer. We see this in other industries as well, and it will start for the insurance industry. Crowdsourcing, for example, is where the consumer gets the power back. And it’s not just companies, either: you can take this all the way to the Arab Spring—a lot of it was fuelled by technology and how it empowered the people.
 
That’s why it is good to buy in to similar things that are applicable to insurance. Technology is an important enabler or change agent for us. I think that’s going to be the norm over the next few years. We are still far away from that, but I truly believe that those who will win are those who embrace technology earliest.
 
Speaking of change and embracing technology, how is ZLS adapting to fast-changing technology and social media?
 
Again, I think it’s up to us as insurance companies to adopt technology and introduce a congruent business model between consumers and distributors.
 
Our job is to focus on independent distribution and us as an insurer. And then there is a wider stakeholder audience, including the public, communities and regulators that you need to consider. Regulators are everywhere, and it’s getting tougher to do business. As a business leader, you need to anticipate these things; you need to have a radar all day and understand how you are going to adjust to it.
 
On this front, we recently launched an award-winning app called Zurich Community, which brings consumers, distributors and us together. In essence, we created our own Facebook. It currently has about 300 customers and some distributors participating. There, we run projects where we share ideas and ask for feedback and engage them in discussions. It has been very successful and received an award, for which we are very proud.
 
This must be a huge step for a company with a long history. Was it easy to balance adopting new technologies and maintaining well-established practices?
 
Well, if you’re a 142-year-old business, it shows a lot about what you stand for. The reason why we have been here for so long is because we have adapted to the times. However, at the core, there are a few things we shouldn’t change.
 
One of them is being conservative and making sure that whatever you do is not risking the company. We have seen so many companies disappear over time, even insurance companies and banks. If you look at the financial crisis, Zurich wasn’t affected at all because we were so conservatively set up, and we understood what it means to run an insurance balance sheet. It’s dangerous if you forget the basics. So adaptation is key—but if you’ve survived so many years, you have shown a level of adaptation while maintaining some of the core values that you have. It becomes even more important in this society that, at the heart, you have some values that don’t change. Your mission can change, and your short-term goals can change, but the purpose of what you are trying to do never changes.
 
My only mission is to run this company so that it keeps going forever. And every manager and employee needs to have the same mindset, because ultimately we are entering into a long-term contract with the consumers and cannot risk our reputation. Zurich has shown that, for 142 years, its success is not due to luck, but rather the sustainability, the values and the way we run a company.
 
What are your views on innovation and productivity?
 
Because our product is in the market for a very long time, we need to innovate. At the same time, we want to think about how we can engage our distributors and how the customer experience is going to look like in the future. We really need to be more like an Internet start-up, try and do small things and see how it goes and keep learning. For this, you need IT infrastructure, the people and systems that are able to deal with the level of fast learning. That’s one of the things we are currently debating.
 
On a personal note, it’s about the passion for innovation and learning. That’s what I am trying to tell people: if you have that, you will win.
 
One other point I think is very important is financial literacy, because financial literacy helps us to learn, grow and think about the steps that will help to drive a sustainable environment. In Singapore, we contribute significantly through our work in the Life Insurance Association.
 
Speaking of literacy, do you mentor young professionals? What advice would you give to fresh graduates? 
 
We have partnered with SMU. Five of their students will be with us this quarter, and I will be giving them some guidance. They are working on the sustainability of not just the insurance industry, but also the financial advisory industry. I am very curious to see what the results would be.
 
For fresh grads I say, don’t stop learning. Personally, I try to learn every day, and I have a curiosity that doesn’t block me from doing that.
 
Also, it’s important to be prepared to work hard. It doesn’t matter how gifted you are; those who work hard will ultimately succeed. If you’re not gifted but still work hard, you can still get somewhere. I think the basis of that is a good work ethic, which is why, in Singapore, you see this growth in such a short time.

 

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