Today is the first anniversary of Manulife Financial in Cambodia, the Canada-headquartered life insurance giant that has made quite a big splash in Cambodia.
CEO Robert Elliott sat down for an interview last week to describe the challenges of educating Cambodians about the benefits of life insurance and long term financial planning.
“We started from scratch. There was no life insurance industry in Cambodia,” he said. “This Cambodian market is in its infancy stage. The regulatory framework is designed mostly for general insurance, whereas life insurance is more about long term financial planning and long term protection of your income,” he said.
Elliott said another challenge of starting a life insurance industry from scratch in Cambodia was overcoming the lack of local expertise in the industry.
“One of the great benefits to a company like Manulife is that because we are in seven of the ASEAN countries, we are able to bring expertise in various disciplines including actuarial, underwriting, claims, IT systems. We are able to tap into regional support to help us,” he said. “Our offices in the region take people for training and bring people in for training. They have supported us in building up our operations,” he said.
One young Cambodian at Manulife, Head of Agency Sales Rotha Chan, has been recognised by Manulife Financial as a Young Global Rising Star and was able to travel with his family to Manulife headquarters in Toronto to receive the award.
“Manulife will serve as an indispensable pillar for the long term good of Cambodian people both customers and staff,” Chan said. “I feel very proud and honoured to be part of this giant and socially responsible company.”
Elliott said Chan was thrilled when he received news of the award.
“He got this award by the amount and quality of work he did in helping us establishes our distribution,” Elliott said. “Manulife loves to recognise talent and hard work and Rotha certainly deserves it.”
Also during Manulife’s first year of operation in Cambodia, a claim was paid to the family of a man who died climbing Mount Everest.
“It was very tragic for the family, but we were glad to be in a position to help. We paid the claim and it went to his parents. The significance is that it was the first one ever for Cambodia and it was a learning experience for us and our staff. I think it helped prove to Cambodians that Manulife is a company that can be trusted to deliver on its promises,” Elliott said.
Other events during a year of raising public awareness included reaching out to the Cambodian public about the relevance of life insurance and long term financial planning to the emerging middle classes, with more than 10,000 Cambodians attending the seminars.
“We undertook to run a number of seminars to explain our industry to the public, how it works and the history of our company. People ask a lot of questions about trust: how do we know you’ll pay out? How do we know you’re going to stay in Cambodia?”
Elliott says the key has been clarity about Manulife’s long-term commitment to Cambodia.
“Manulife is a company that is here to stay. We have a 116 year history of continuous presence in Asia and Cambodia is a very important part of our future,” he said. “These education seminars, the career seminars and the branding seminars we’ve done are part of that.”
During the course of the year, Elliott says he’s seen a shift public perception, from people asking first about trust and now more about life insurance product.
“People don’t always know what product they want but they always know what they need. They need things like a way to protect their family in case something happens to them but also a way to save, so if nothing happens they’ve got a secure nest egg. Or they need a way to help them pay for their children’s secondary education or university. Our job is to show them how insurance is a good and reliable way to help them achieve these goals.”
“We have got a savings protection product, an endowment so you’re putting money in, it protects you if you die, and in 10 or 15 years, whatever term the policy holder has, it matures. We’ve also launched two education policies to pay for secondary school and university.”
Elliott says the education policies will pay out school fees for families when their children become old enough to enroll.
“This will pay out their fees every year, it will pay out when they are at university and if the policy holder is unable through sickness or accent, Manulife will pay and the premium will be protected,” he said. “The money is invested and it will grow.”
Manulife has 80 employees and a sales staff of 600. Some of the sales staff are full time and some are part time.
“The sales staff attend our seminars and follow up on people who are interested in learning more about our products and our company,” Elliott said. “All our sales staff go through an initial training program of five days through the week and even over the weekends.”
As a career life insurance man with experience in markets all over the world, Elliott said the difference with Cambodia is that the concept of insurance is new to many people here.
“The key difference between Cambodia and the rest of the world is that the whole concept is new. That’s why we have been investing in our brand to build up trust in the community, running seminars to have people ask questions of me and my team, and then having to find and develop key staff and developing our sales distribution,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that people in Cambodia are no different to people anywhere else. They love their children and they want to protect their families.”
Manulife made a deliberate strategic decision to raise brand name awareness in Cambodia.
“The concept and the product has never existed before in Cambodia and life insurance is about protecting your future income. We have invested in increasing the knowledge of the brand.
“When you’re asking people to invest their hard earned money in an intangible product it is important that they have confidence in that organisation. Branding is one way, or part of doing that. The other is making sure our staff are well trained and supported,” he said.
It all comes down to making promises and keeping promises, Elliott says.
“I believe this is a very noble profession. You are asking people to think long term, not just today or tomorrow. That’s actually extraordinarily hard for people to do. Are they going to be financial independent? Will their mortgage be paid off? Will their children be able to be educated if something happens to them? It is a noble profession to be able to sit down with somebody, to help raise their quality of life and give them peace of mind.”
Manulife made donations to Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals in Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn during the last year, totaling $33,000 as well as sponsoring “Youth Stars” to take students from universities and recognise their entrep-reneurial talent through a business model competition through University of Puthisastra.
“We’ve also donated 425 helmets to the Sampov Meas Primary school,” Elliott said. “There is a great enthusiasm from the children and parents for safety. I felt it was important not only for the children but for the parents as well, as a good example. We did that in conjunction with the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIP),” he said.
Another memorable event for Elliott during Manulife’s first year of Cambodian operations was an email he got from Cambodian-American Sambath Chau, 35, of Boston who worked for Manulife subsidiary John Hancock. When he found out Manulife had opened in Cambodia, he sent Elliott an email.
Chau asked Elliott if he could transfer over to Cambodia and Elliott hired him immediately. Today he serves as Manulife’s operations manager.
“The work is fun and exciting working, but it’s also challenging,” Chau said of his transition from American to Cambodian life.