Profile of a chief executive:
Kazumi Imao (Zenkyoren, Japan)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2009
Mr Kazumi Imao is approaching the anniversary of his first year in the top job in Zenkyoren. It's a big job, in every sense. Zenkyoren is the largest cooperative insurer in Japan and also – by quite a wide margin – ICMIF's largest affiliate, and its statistics are dramatic: here is an insurance business with assets of 43 trillion Japanese yen (USD 434 billion), which last year received income from premiums of JPY 4,700 billion (USD 47 million).
Mr Imao's organisation plays a key role in looking after the well-being of the Japanese farming community, helping almost eight million Japanese households. Zenkyoren also plays a key role internationally, not only in ICMIF (it hosts ICMIF's Asia/Oceania regional organisation, among other things) but also in the whole global cooperative movement, through its commitment to the International Co-operative Alliance. Mr Imao himself is a member of ICMIF's Board.
He brings a wealth of experience to the task. Born in 1946, he graduated from Kyoto University where his degree was in agriculture, and immediately joined Zenkyoren, the insurance arm of Japan Agricultural Co-operatives (the JA Group). He stayed with Zenkyoren until 2000 when he briefly left to join the parent organisation as one of its managing directors. He moved back from the JA Group to Zenkyoren in 2002, to take responsibility at the highest management levels: firstly as one of the managing directors, then from 2004 as the senior managing director, before finally being appointed President last year on the retirement of his predecessor Mr Toshiyuki Uehara.
Zenkyoren is an undoubted success story, but Mr Imao is keen to stress that the organisation he leads is not resting on its laurels. There is, in fact, a structural challenge which has to be tackled, linked to changes taking place in the Japanese agricultural sector. The number of farmers is in long-term decline, and their average age is steadily rising ( Japan itself has an ageing population). Farming has other problems to contend with: prices have been falling, mainly due to competition from food imports, and the country as a whole is heavily dependent on food from overseas, which makes up roughly 60% of the total food consumed in Japan . Add to that concerns over food safety: “In Japan in recent years, issues relating to safety and reliability of food have been in the spotlight,” Mr Imao says.
So Zenkyoren has to respond to these trends. Mr Imao talks of the efforts his organisation is making in its current three-year business plan to find what it calls ‘new partners'. “By new partners we mean new policyholders of Zenkyoren. The farmer population – in other words, our members – are getting older, but many of our members haven't purchased policies with their family members. We are working to increase the number of new policy holders by focusing on the next generation of young people,” he explains.
This is being tackled by a very ambitious programme to talk directly with all policy holders. Zenkyoren operates in a partnership relationship with the 760 or so primary agricultural cooperatives, who together comprise the foundations of the whole Japan Agricultural Co-operatives Group. Zenkyoren's role is in undertaking product development, underwriting, marketing, investment management, and overseeing claims, among much else. The primary agricultural coops handle the policy administration work, processing and contract maintenance, as well as the payment of claims. Around 22,000 insurance advisers, trained by the primary coops, are the main interface between individual farmers and their coops. As Zenkyoren points out, insurance is becoming more sophisticated and individuals' needs are becoming more varied – customers need someone they can turn to for helpful, accurate information.
These grassroots links are now being harnessed in a proactive way, to thank customers for their past loyalty and to look ahead, to build future business. This initiative is what Zenkyoren calls the 3Q Visit Project (the name perhaps needs explaining: ‘three' in Japanese is ‘san', so that san Q when spoken sounds like the English words ‘thank you'). The choice is deliberate: “The 3Q Project is helping us strengthen ties of trust. It's based on a sense of gratitude,” Mr Imao explains. “JA employees have been arranging to visit all our members and policyholders. During the visits they make sure they ask three key questions: ‘have there been any changes in your family situation?, ‘do you or any of your family have any concerns regarding life security?' and ‘Is there anything you don't understand about your policies?'. Through these questions, our staff are able to grasp the family situations of our members, offer insurance policies that meet their needs, and try to cultivate our next generation of partners.”
It's a way, Mr Imao believes, of directly improving communication with Zenkyoren's policyholders, and thereby improving customer satisfaction. But it's also a way of growing the business. For example, Zenkyoren knows that only a minority of its customers have purchased the complete range of products (life, household and motor insurance) which it offers. “The percentage is only approximately 20%, not a very large number. This shows that our business still has the potential to develop,” Mr Imao says.
If direct human communication through the 3Q programme is seen as key, Zenkyoren knows that this needs to be backed up by efficient use of technology. It has invested in a sophisticated nationwide online network, linking Zenkyoren's own offices, the JA Group's office network and the individual insurance advisers, who can access information and respond to enquiries when on home visits. “The system has a range of functions, such as managing our more than fifty million insurance policies, as a sales promotion system, and as an automobile claims adjusting system. We use scanners to convert written policy applications into data to input into the system. Zenkyoren staff can instantaneously refer to documents collected by each JA base,” Mr Imao explains.
Because of the sheer size of its asset base, Zenkyoren is an important player in terms of fund investment. Since the 1980s it has maintained small operations in both London and New York , respectively Zenkyoren Europe Ltd and Zenkyoren Asset Management of America Inc. However the vast majority of its investment is in its home market. “Almost all our working assets make up the liability reserve for future insurance payments, so the top priority is to secure stable profits over the long term. Specifically, we primarily purchase yen-denominated government, public and corporate bonds and carry out lending to blue-chip companies,” Mr Imao explains. This means that Zenkyoren has so far avoided too much exposure to the financial crisis in the US and Europe . “Our New York and London subsidiaries manage our working assets overseas, but overseas stocks, investment trusts and lending only make up 4% of our total working assets. The adverse effect of the current financial crisis in the US and Europe is limited. However, I believe we must pay close attention to the trends emerging from the crisis and respond appropriately to them,” he adds.
As you would expect of a business firmly rooted in the cooperative tradition, Zenkyoren takes its social commitments seriously. Among other things, it runs a road safety initiative primarily targeted at children and older people, operates a very large rehabilitation centre, helps in the training and provision of guide dogs for people with disabilities, and also runs a major health and exercise programme. Zenkyoren is also well known in Japan for its calligraphy contest for children and young people, which it runs each year. “We've already held the calligraphy competition 52 times, and in 2008 the total number of entries reached 1,444,000,” Mr Imao explains proudly. Almost as longstanding is a similar context aimed at designing effective road safety posters. This has been held 37 times, and also attracts a large entry.
Overseeing the development of a large insurance company like Zenkyoren requires a good sense of strategic planning, so perhaps it is not surprising that Kazumi Imao is a keen player of Go, the board game which originated in China more than two millennia ago and which, despite its apparently simple rules, is rich in opportunities for complex strategic thinking. Golf is another interest, which Mr Imao says he enjoys for the change of pace it offers. And then there is his passion for music: “I have played the French horn since my schooldays, and I am a member of a local citizen orchestra. Unfortunately in the last few years I have not been able to be active in the group, but I still enjoy playing on my days off. In addition, if time permits, I enjoy going to orchestral concerts and to opera performances,” he says.
Looking ahead, he has a clear sense not only of where he wants Zenkyoren to go but also of how Japanese agriculture must respond to the present challenges. He is a strong advocate of the idea of growing food locally for local consumption. Importing food, he points out, is leading to concerns over food safety and food supply, and transporting it is adding to the world's carbon emissions. “Crops should be consumed in the region where they are harvested. This would enable Japan not only to achieve a stable supply of farm products that are safe and reliable, it would also contribute to environmental protection,” he maintains.
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