In Focus: Danielle Warner, Founder & CEO, Expat Insurance

An active member of the Singaporean entrepreneur community, Danielle Warner has been highly successful in driving her startup business to growth and success; recently she led her team to win the 2016 Insurance Broker of the Year award at Asian Banking and Finance Magazine, and Expat Insurance has been acquired by MSH International. We talked about her passion for protecting employees through insurance, and her belief in excellent service standards.

Interview by Lucy Haydon, Editor, Orient Magazine


How did you get started in insurance?


Anyone in the insurance industry will tell you that no one chooses it. Insurance really is in my blood. Literally everyone in my family including my mother, my aunts, my cousins and even my husband have been involved in insurance. On summer school holidays I was brought into the office and began doing various internships to learn the industry. I started in the file room at AIG, was promoted to the mail room and as I was getting ready to graduate I began to take the opportunity to meet the more senior staff in their offices. I met a gentleman who won a big promotion from New Jersey to the New York headquarters and reached out to him for my first proper job. He helped my resume be seen by the right people, and I started at AIG New York soon after.


I worked in marketing initially and moved away from the technical underwriting side towards product development, broker relationship management, client relationships and learning from some of the best people in the industry at the time. This was in (former AIG Chairman and CEO) Hank Greenberg’s days. When people ask me in what period I was at AIG, I say actually I’m a Greenberg girl! My husband (then boyfriend) had also been working at AIG since out of college and when he was given the opportunity to move out to Singapore with the company about 11 years ago, I followed.


How do you find the difference between the US and Asian insurance industries?


New York and London markets are incredibly competitive. Here in Asia, culturally people have a less insurance buying mentality. It is changing, but 11 years ago when we arrived it was really only the expatriates who were focused on having insurance for their businesses and employees. They could not understand why there was nothing in place here when they spend so much on it in the US or Europe in their company budgets. There are traditionally fewer providers and a less crowded competitive market in Singapore but in the last 7 years since we started Expat Insurance this has changed substantially. The product ranges available and the competition has become much broader. When you have a lot of MNC businesses using mobility to exponentially grow business within Asia, employee benefits become a really poignant part of attracting, engaging and retaining your talent. The challenge is when you have companies with headquarters in other countries that are dictating what employee benefits should look like in Asia without really understanding what is expected or available here. It takes education and collaboration between the different locations to achieve the desired results.


Congratulations on the award and the recent acquisition. It has been a busy year for you so far! What advice would you give to our SME members who are keen to replicate your levels of success?


Selecting a niche that you really want to target and focus on is absolutely critical. That would be my best advice to any company. Understand who your client is, their needs and their problems and create dynamic, innovative, engaging solutions that help them and speak to their needs directly. I attend many networking events in the entrepreneur community in Singapore and people will ask me “How do you grow your business…?” “Last time I talked to you, you had 25 people and now you have 35! What’s your secret?” The answer is choosing the right business model and understanding your clients.


I know that we got niching right, and as businesses move online you should look at niching and even micro-niching. When you are an MNC you can focus on products with multiple teams, but as a small business you need to hone your focus so that you don’t get overstretched. If you understand your customers’ needs and the potential market, there should be no fear of missing out on customers.


Do you staff ahead of your growth or is it reactionary?


Do I wish we could? Yes! But in today’s economic environment, as a CEO, founder and now shareholder, one of my responsibilities is to create a stable employment opportunity for my team. We are in the business of protection, so my primary responsibility is to create a safe environment and to build a culture of trust within my own team. If my team does not feel that their jobs are safe and they have long-term prospects with us, then they will leave.



How close is your relationship with your clients? Given that insurance is typically an annual renewal process and contact with the team could potentially be limited as a result.


Our business model is totally different! With our corporate clients where we take care of their employee benefit structures we become their benefits team, like an implant. We become integrated with their team, work with the HR staff every day and try to reflect their company language and culture. Insurance, in my opinion, has become disconnected from its purpose and original intention. Because it is in my blood, insurance has, for me, this beautiful original intention of protection, piece of mind, safety and so much of that has been abandoned by the industry. It’s about paperwork, premiums and profits now. Establishing Expat Insurance was about doing it differently for me and trying to create awareness that it should, could and can be done differently. It’s important that all of my team delivers on that promise and we start to make an impact and disrupt what insurance has become to so many people.


It will be important to make sure your marketing gets that passion and purpose across effectively…


One of my philosophies is that I continue to personally engage with my clients, and I have been lucky enough that I have been able to build a team around me to help support our message and that desire for personal contact so that I can make a difference for them. I feel like it is my role to create a ripple within the industry, because a ripple will make people stop and think.


When we first started we were an agency so we went largely unnoticed, no one expected us to succeed or become as big as we have done. In 2013 when we got our MAS independent broking license, people started to take notice of us and I started to move the company towards corporate clients rather than only individual policies. The time when we went relatively unnoticed allowed us plenty of space to build our company culture, service standards and team. The recent award is a big recognition of what we have been able to create. We are no longer the underdog.


How has the employment landscape and your clients’ needs changed over the years?


The 2008 financial crisis was the catalyst for a lot of change. Employees want an engaged environment to work within and to make an impact through their work. When hiring, companies now need to look for people whose personal goals are aligned with their company goals. That’s when the magic will happen. There are fewer jobs in western countries now so people look to Asia as a growth area. For example mobility has become a powerful leverage point for employees — they can say that they are willing to relocate anywhere, which is attractive to employers. At the same time we are in an age of entitlement and expectation — social media means that nothing is hidden about a company when current and ex-employees can post reviews online and you can judge the culture by how connected employees are to their company. The power is now in the hands of employees, and a lot of companies don’t know how to react to this so they freeze and do nothing about the perception of their company culture rather than make a mistake.


How has qualified talent recruitment been for you in Singapore? We hear common issues from our members of a lack of experience and knowledge in some sectors.


We have taken a very unique path and do not hire typically from the insurance industry. I decided to hire primarily on personality and soft skills rather than on technical knowledge of insurance, as this can be taught. Creating meaningful relationships with clients was a more important priority when we started, and as a result we have a variety of backgrounds in our workforce with a common desire to build strong relationships with our clients. There is a very large insurance talent pool within Singapore, but less people with excellent customer service and soft skills, which are much harder to teach. Having said that there is some great local talent here in Singapore and we are immensely proud of the team we have built.


How do you anticipate the recent Brexit issues having an impact on your industry?


As a local startup I don’t expect any immediate major implications. We are not governed by an overseas head office so we anticipate less challenges. This will be a very big year with the US election; only time will tell what will happen. With financial uncertainty of this scale, the employment landscape has shifted and will continue to do so. People want to feel safe and secure. In the last year, continuation of coverage and transferability has become an increasing factor in corporate packages. People want to be able to take their insurance policies with them at a personal level if they have to move on. This change is happening at an employer level, as companies want to behave responsibly if they are forced to make redundancies which is admirable.


You recently published your book on employee benefit blueprints; what would be your key tips for companies to adopt if they are starting from scratch?


The best advice I can give is to start small and build as your company grows. Don’t make the mistake of elaborate coverage based on growth projections of an SME, as it may be unsustainable. Your policies should reflect the size of your company and grow with you. If you reach renewal time and have to withdraw elements of the policy, this can have a detrimental effect on employee morale.



What are the company's short and long term plans for the future?


The acquisition has provided us with the financial stability to scale, which is every entrepreneur’s dream. Adding additional services we don’t currently offer and refreshing the website are both in the pipeline. I am powered by the same purpose and drive to make an impact as I was on day one... exciting times are ahead!


How has the Chamber helped you as a business over the years?


BritCham has been amazing. We were introduced by referral from another member and the support we have always received makes it easy to renew every year. The value of the network is in connecting businesses that can satisfy your company needs. The social and professional networking opportunities are nicely balanced which make it a fun and alluring proposition. There is a value in building your profile within a larger business community and enjoying the fruits of those connections.


What do you anticipate to be the future trends in the industry?


I expect an increasingly competitive market in Singapore as it matures, which means better solutions and innovation for our clients. As an independent brokerage this offers our clients more choice, which can only be a good thing. I also expect a move towards technology for easier access to care and treatment, though the personal touch for us is absolutely critical to our proposition. Companies’ want the same reassurances of ROI as they have always done, perhaps even more so now, which technology cannot provide in the case of insurance.

People will always be involved.


For more information on Danielle and Expat Insurance visit