Robert J Elliott, CEO of Manulife in Cambodia, is looking at the future, while building relationships today. He talks to the Post about the company’s efforts to build enough trust to sell insurance policies totalling $40 million after only two years in the Cambodian market – a country in which family and friends traditionally need to help in case of an emergency.
Manulife started in Cambodia in 2012 and is one of three life insurance companies in the Kingdom. What makes Manulife different from other large life insurance companies?
Well, while Manulife was started in Toronto in 1887, it opened up its first operations in Asia in 1897. That means it’s been in Asia for over 117 years, and we operate in seven ASEAN countries today.
Manulife takes a very long-term view, and the fact that it’s been operating in Asia for so long means it has deep roots. We have a lot of confidence in the Asian market, and lots of ties to other markets in the region which can help Manulife in Cambodia.
What kind of market is Manulife going for?
We are here to market our products to local people. Our key market is the emerging middle class in Cambodia, and with the country’s population of 15 million, we estimate this sector at 1 million. With GDP growth steady at around 7 per cent since 2004, the result is that there is an emerging middle class which wants to protect its income. We’re very confident that Cambodia will replicate the ASEAN pattern of development.
Have you noticed any trends in Cambodian customers’ preferences?
One of our most popular plans is the Manulife Education protector plan. In Cambodia, funding for children’s education is very important. We have found that in Cambodia, people are very keen on educating their kids, so in the event of anything happening, Manulife can help ensure their education plans are secured.
How many customers have you had since you began operations?
We have over 4,000 customers and have sold insurance worth over $40 million since 2012. What that means is that when something happens, our customers are protected. And when these policies mature, the benefits will support their financial future.
Cambodia is still a developing country – how are people finding out about Manulife?
Two years ago no one in Cambodia knew Manulife, but today we have 90 per cent brand awareness. We have also developed a strategy of educating people about what we do. We’ve been running a testimonials campaign on TV and billboards explaining to people how life insurance helps them protect their future, and we’ve run a lot of seminars about life insurance with the ministry of finance, for example.
How do you get people who have not heard of life insurance to trust your product?
The key thing is building up trust and faith that they will be protected. And we don’t just do that through our brand or our regional history, but with our service. Whenever we’ve had legitimate claims, we’ve paid them out in a speedy fashion to make sure everyone is protected.
Tell me about Manulife’s expansion into Siem Reap.
We’re opening our Siem Reap branch on December 8. The reason we are setting up in Siem Reap is because we want to provide our service and products to more people in Cambodia, Siemp Reap is the first step in realising that goal. Siem Reap is a prosperous town. It has good infrastructure, good access, and thriving economy.
What have been some of the challenges?
There have been some, in that Cambodia has little experience with actuaries, and some of the financial skills aren’t quite there yet. But we have invested in our staff, who have been sent to places like Hong Kong and Singapore to gain further skills.
The life insurance industry in Cambodia only really started in 2012. We’re one of the three life insurance companies operating in Cambodia right now, and we were the first foreign own life insurance company to be granted a licence.
Has bureaucracy been much of a problem?
The life insurance industry has been working with the Ministry of Finance to help develop regulations to make sure the industry can properly develop. Cambodia is very open to foreign companies opening their business, so red tape has not been much of a problem.
How is Manulife utilising new technology in its business?
One of our main points of emphasis is customer-centricity, so we want to make getting insurance as easy as possible. So through mobile banking, for example, people can pay their premiums entirely on their smartphones. And the Cambodian middle class has leapfrogged desktop technology: most people in our target market have a smartphone now.
How do you view life insurance as contributing to the development of Cambodian society?
Sometimes when a breadwinner dies with no insurance, the family can be left out in the cold, and through life insurance, we can help end that. In 2013 alone, Manulife globally paid out $19.2 billion to our customers. When a company is 126 years old it simply has an ability to do things right.
Has Manulife been involved in any charitable activities?
We’re very keen about corporate social responsibility. We’ve been working with the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to promote helmet wearing amongst schoolchildren. Manulife has donated over 2,300 helmets not only for children but for their parents and teachers as well.
We also support the Kantha Bopha hospitals in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and we gave some 300 bicycles to children supported by Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, a French NGO.
We don’t see our CSR as just a one-time thing. We want to keep up these relationships.
What kind of future does Manulife have in the Kingdom?
As this industry grows, we will be looking to invest in the economy, in Cambodia’s capital markets. All around the world, life insurance plays a key role in capital and stock markets, which is just coming to Cambodia.