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Friday, July 07, 2017, 11:52
Chieftain on a multipronged sortie
By Lin Wenjie
Friday, July 07, 2017, 11:52 By Lin Wenjie

Insurance veteran Winnie Wong is on a crucial errand, telling Lin Wenjie her priorities include crusading for gender diversity and correcting the public’s wrong perception of the industry.

Winnie Wong Chi-shun, CEO of Asia Insurance Ltd, aims to turn Hong Kong into a regional insurance hub, while striving to correct the industry’s image among young people. (Photo by Parker Zheng / China Daily)

Winnie Wong Chi-shun prides herself as being among just a handful of female bigwigs in the insurance world.

With more than 20 years’ empiricism in the industry under her belt, Wong, as chief executive officer of Asia Insurance Ltd — the insurance arm of Hong Kong-listed Asia Financial Holdings — communicates with others protruding a tender and gentle voice.

As leader of one of Hong Kong’s eminent players in the trade, Wong has three key goals in her multiple-fold mission — fighting for gender diversity, laying waste to what she calls people’s misconception of the insurance sector and getting the government to give the industry the backing it deserves.

She speaks of how much she’s aware of the social responsibility that comes with her gender and job title and, as a result, she has been trying all she can to promote gender diversity within the company itself, plus her two other listed ambitions.

As a female leader in this male-dominated industry, I emphasize equal opportunities for members of both sexes in my organization

Winnie Wong Chi-shun, CEO of Asia Insurance Ltd

“As a female leader in this male-dominated industry, I emphasize equal opportunities for members of both sexes in my organization. I also encourage female colleagues to work after giving birth, so I offer them flexible working hours.”

Sporting an easy-going and considerate attitude, Wong is popular among the staff. She prods her team members into trying out various tasks. She neither puts them in the cross hairs nor throws a tantrum if they aren’t up to the mark, but guides them in learning from experience, particularly from failure. Her team thus exhibits a sustained commitment to performance excellence, candor and mutual respect.

Insurance hub

However, being a good boss isn’t really enough for an industry leader. Wong, who also serves as a council member of the Financial Services Development Council (FSDC) — the group set up by the Hong Kong government to lift the development of the SAR’s financial services sector — tasks herself with turning the city into an insurance hub for the region. And, topping her goals is changing the people’s traditional mindset about the insurance business.

“There’s still a general misunderstanding of insurance. When speaking of insurance, people tend to think of the sales agents slogging under immense pressure because their number is very large and they’re more visible in the market. A small number of agents may not behave well, so the general public may harbor a bad impression of the whole industry. Many parents even bar their children from entering the insurance business because of such misunderstanding. And, this has led to a serious shortage of talents in the sector,” she says regretfully.

The insurance universe is far from that of brokers, agents and life insurers, she enlightens China Daily. It embraces a lot of professionals behind the scenes — underwriters structure and price insurance programs, lawyers handling claims, risk engineers providing risk management advice, marketing and actuarial professionals, etc.

“But, the general public just isn’t aware of that,” she emphasizes. To this end, Wong has been giving talks and lectures to members of the public and university students with the aim of correcting the industry’s image, especially among the younger generation.

Rallying for support

Another must-do on her list is pushing for government support. Along with several other experts sitting on the FSDC, Wong came up with a report earlier this year suggesting ways of making Hong Kong an insurance hub. The report highlights the challenges facing Hong Kong, such as the stiff competition from regional markets like Singapore, and the need to stem the flow of business out of Hong Kong. It also urges the Chinese mainland authorities to grant Hong Kong insurers preferential or special status, especially those in the reinsurance and marine insurance sector.

“Hong Kong is considered totally offshore under the China Risk Oriented Solvency System (C-ROSS). That’s to say Hong Kong and other insurance centers enjoy the same status under the system. But, as insurance hubs offer a lot of tax benefits to lure insurance companies to set up offices there, many Hong Kong-based reinsurance companies, such as Munich Reinsurance Company, have moved their regional headquarters to  neighboring cities, weakening Hong Kong’s competitiveness. It’s a serious problem, and that’s why I had put so much effort into the report,” she clarifies.

Two months after the report was issued, the China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) and the Hong Kong Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) signed an agreement framework to conduct an assessment into equivalence for the insurance solvency and regulatory regimes in the SAR and on the mainland. Wong’s effort paid off.

According to the OCI, the next step is for both sides to work out a more detailed plan for the equivalence regime, which is set to be completed within four years. Before completion of the assessment, a transitional arrangement will apply under which the two solvency regimes will be recognized as equivalent or similar on a provisional basis.

“The authorities acted very quickly to our proposal. Hopefully, Hong Kong could get closer to an onshore status and enjoy some preferential policies during the transitional period, which will prompt some insurance companies to move back to the city. If they move back to Hong Kong, more talents will join our industry,” says Wong.

Apart from seeking a close-to-onshore status, she suggests introducing tax incentives and promoting business to overseas clients.

“Currently, Hong Kong has a sagging insurance market with a deteriorating record. There are over 160 insurers in such a small city, so we need to develop a bigger pie for Hong Kong insurers.”

Wong’s upbeat that with adequate government backing, Hong Kong insurers can do business from other countries and reclaim the business they’ve lost in the past. Only after building up a bigger market with healthy and sustainable growth, can the industry afford to improve its reputation, attract and retain young talents.

‘Just the thought for customers and this is part of our magic’

It’s been almost a year since Winnie Wong Chi-shun became chief executive officer of Asia Insurance Ltd, bringing to it a wealth of experience from other insurance enterprises she had headed in the past.

Before joining the company last year, she was CEO at insurance giant Aon Risk Solutions Hong Kong, having been associated with insurance and risk management consultancy for more than two decades.

Wong began her career in the 1990s as a group management trainee at Swire Pacific Group, where she worked in the insurance division before switching to the Risk Management Department of Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd.

In her view, an insurance company’s success lies in four key aspects — a stable, professional and committed team, loyal and satisfied customers, efficient and effective workflow and a sound distribution network.

She believes that to get a faithful team in place, the leader has to set the pace. A positive mindset, a can-do attitude, and being humble and keen on life-long learning are the characteristics she expects of a good leader.

“We meet challenges and obstacles every day, so keeping a positive mindset is very important when facing challenges. A can-do attitude is the solution to the problems we encounter. Just like the proposal I put to the Financial Services Development Council, if we don’t try, we’ll lose our competitiveness. So, I encourage my colleagues to come up with recommendations or suggestions to improve workflow.”

Managing a team of more than 200 staff in Hong Kong and Macao, Wong is firmly committed to team work. “No one is perfect and everyone has limited capacity, so I and my colleagues always work closely to make sure we can complement each other,” she stresses.

To foster customer loyalty, Asia Insurance attaches great importance to claims management services and client education. For corporate clients who know the insurance products very well, they need an efficient and effective claims procedure, but for customers who are not so familiar with what the insurance covers, the company educates them first.

“Insurance is people business, so part of our job is to educate clients about why they need insurance, and how to arrange proper insurance. We have tailor-made products for our clients, so we need to get them well-informed of what the insurance covers beforehand. Only after they are well-versed with the essence of insurance, will there be no misunderstanding between us. If customers are satisfied, they will refer new clients to us.”

Asia Insurance’s thoughtful services and comprehensive product range have helped the company keep many long-term loyal customers. But, distribution channels are as important as services and products in developing a business, says Wong.

“We have a wide distribution network, including local agents, local and international brokers and banks. We also have branches in Macao, Taiwan and Shenzhen. In Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos, we also have presence via our long-term local partners,” she notes, stressing that the company will continue to explore new distribution channels and upgrade products.

Established in 1959, Asia Insurance has been in Hong Kong for close to 60 years. It focuses on selling corporate life insurance, as well as general insurance instead of individual life insurance. As the city’s largest general insurer in terms of underwriting profit, the company’s performance has been stable and healthy in recent years.

As of December 31 last year, Asia Insurance’s total assets stood at HK$6 billion, with a solvency ratio of above 1,300 percent. Underwriting profit grew 31 percent to HK$211 million compared with that of 2015, while gross premiums soared 10 percent to HK$1.3 billion.

Different from other industry players which stress top-line growth, Asia Insurance emphasizes underwriting profit, which is the premium earned after losses and administrative expenses are covered or deducted. It does not include any investment income earned on held premiums.

“We measure performance based on underwriting profit instead of top-line growth. It’s easy to achieve top-line growth if you cut prices significantly. Many companies eschew underwriting profit in order to gain a greater market share, but that’s not the way we work,” says Wong.

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