Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Profile of a chief executive:

Tan Suee Chieh (NTUC, Singapore)

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2012

On October 17 th 2011, Tan Suee Chieh announced that NTUC Income was going orange.  His aim over the next four years is to lead the staff at ICMIF's Singapore affiliate, NTUC Income, in an “Orange Revolution”. The objective: “We want to be a modern Singapore icon, a social enterprise of distinction,” he says.

Orange is in fact already NTUC Income's corporate colour, so Tan Suee Chieh is not talking about a simple rebranding exercise or a new logo.  The change he is after is rather more profound.  NTUC Income's ‘Orange Revolution' is designed to continue and extend the work of converting a successful cooperative insurance company into a highly professional social enterprise and the most ethical insurer in the Singapore insurance market.

In February 2007, Tan Suee Chieh took over the reins at NTUC Income, the long-established domestic insurer established in 1970 by Singapore's National Trades Union Congress.  At that stage, NTUC Income was a household name in the country, with over three million policies taken out in a country where the total population was only about 4.5 million.  But NTUC Income was also coming under siege from overseas commercial insurers, determined to carve out their own market share of the Singapore market.  NTUC Income's traditional business was firmly in their sights.

Tan Suee Chieh's response was to engineer a transformation - what he termed The Cultural Revolution - in the way NTUC Income operated.  “It rested on cultural change, and by culture I mean people's attitudes and behaviour.  We were extremely strong in values like trust, but we needed do much better in terms of professionalism and adopting a more dynamic or commercial approach towards running the business,” he explains.

This is, he believes, a general issue for the whole cooperative and mutual insurance sector.  Ask what values mutuals encompass, and terms such as stability, security, honesty, caring and trustworthiness come back in response, he says.  “But what is required our sector is being more professional, smart, energetic, and contemporary.  We need modern business characteristics of dynamism,” he argues.

His aim is to marry the best practices of corporate business with the values of social enterprise:  “Commercial companies' whole raison d'être is about profit maximisation, and profit maximisation requires you to be smart, to optimise, to do what you need to do to get things done.  Ours is more about mutual support and care.  The challenge for us is not an either/or, but how to adopt the best of both sets of attributes.”

He is critical of old-fashioned mutuals which end up acting as if they were gentlemen's clubs because they are free of shareholder pressures.  But he is also aware of the damage which can come from chasing the goal of profit maximisation. “You see companies which are so profit-orientated that their pursuit of profit actually damages the company,” he says.  The global crisis of 2007-8 can be traced back to such an over-pursuit of profit.  Balancing traditional cooperative principles with business attributes was at the heart of the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution, as Tan Suee Chieh envisaged it, was to be a programme which would last for 1,500 days.  Launched in August 2007, it came to its formal conclusion in September 2011.  The Orange Revolution, also designed for 1,500 days, will continue where the Cultural Revolution left off. Whereas the Cultural Revolution was primarily about working methods and attitudes within the organisation, the Orange Revolution is aiming to influence the external world in which NTUC Income operates. The objective is the ambitious one of changing the insurance industry by taking the lead in redefining how insurance is bought and sold.

Tan Suee Chieh uses the words ‘honest insurance' to describe what he is after.  There is, he points out, much that is wrong with the way the insurance industry has traditionally operated. The focus has been on strongly incentivised distribution channels, with aggressive sales forces and opaque products on sale. There is also an asymmetry of knowledge between the insurer and their customer, which means that policyholders often don't have the understanding to know what is in their best interest. The bottom line is that the insurance industry is not meeting the consumer's real needs.

NTUC Income's Orange Revolution aims to change this.  Tan Suee Chieh talks of four elements in honest insurance he wants to see implemented.  Firstly, he wants plainness and fairness in the way contracts are worded: “Not just written in plain English.  You can be plain and unfair…. and that's plainly unfair,” he says with a smile.  Secondly, claims settlement has to be handled in a genuine way.  “Insurers too often drag their feet in paying claims,” he says. Thirdly, he stresses the principle of fair dealing: products sold have to be the products that customers need, not those which help agents meet sales targets.  And finally, he says, insurance companies have to be transparent in the way they work.

“The Cultural Revolution was about excellence and doing things well. The Orange Revolution is about doing things differently. It's about changing the rules outside the company, and change the way the game is played in the insurance industry,” Tan Suee Chieh says.  One early example of his thinking is the introduction by NTUC Income of the Orange Force, a fleet of staff motorcyclists who are able to ride, within twenty minutes, to the assistance of a policyholder who has had a motor accident. “We had what I call an ‘orange moment'” he adds.

The arrival of the bright orange motorbikes on the streets of Singapore city has already attracted considerable positive media attention, and helped reinforce NTUC Income's status as an innovator in motor insurance. This is a market which has historically been very important to the cooperative, and NTUC Income continues to have a significant business.  Of the 913,000 registered vehicles in Singapore, more than 240,000 (26.5%) are insured with NTUC Income.  But it is also a market where there have been major challenges in recent years.  NTUC Income's competitors have been aggressively trying to muscle in, taking premium levels to unsustainably low levels and in the process capturing market share.  There have also been problems with fraud and grossly inflated claims. 

The forty-two strong Orange Force team was originally dreamed up of as a way of tackling fraud and managing claims.  “Orange Force was conceived as a very functional model in trying to reduce the incidence of fraud.  At the point of first contact at the accident site, we would have a better chance to negotiate a direct settlement. Not only would this help save some costs for the policyholder, but we would also be able to avoid interferences by any unscrupulous workshops, lawyers or doctors,” Tan Suee Chieh says.

But the wider benefits of Orange Force were rapidly realised as a way of promoting NTUC Income's branding and customer service reputation.  “The three factors that made this radical service innovation possible are NTUC Income's sizeable share of the motor insurance market, the compactness of Singapore and ultimately our desire to create meaningful interventions to elevate customer experience,” Tan Suee Chieh explains.

In 2009, NTUC Income chose to raise motor premium rates and tightened up its risk selection process.  This enabled NTUC Income to record a significant underwriting profit turnaround that year, in contrast to competitors who continued to suffer losses on motor lines.

In general, 2010 was a strong year across all NTUC Income's business. The year saw a growth of over 22% in premium income, with revenues at SGD 3.7 billion (USD 2.9 bn), a record level.  The market share on the life side (weighted life insurance new business premiums) increased by 1.5 percentage points to 20.8%, whilst NTUC Income had a 35% market share in single premium life products. 

NTUC Income uses a mixture of distribution methods. Almost exactly half of its new business in 2010 came through its network of tied commission agents, with a further 25% through bancassurance tie-ups. “It's expensive to have formal alliances with banks, so we have loose alliances, but we're doing quite well. We also sell through a salaried sales force, independent financial advisors, brokers and corporate agencies, and directly through worksite marketing and telesales. The other thing which is important is the internet.  It's at a nascent stage, but it's becoming more important all the time. Online sales have contributed about nearly 50% of travel insurance in recent years,” Tan Suee Chieh says. 

But strong results are not enough, if you're operating as a social enterprise. “We did very well commercially in 2009 and 2010, but the question asked of us by our stakeholders was “So what? What have you been doing, to do good?'” Tan Suee Chieh says.  The challenge was taken up by the management team, who looked in detail at examples of good practices from elsewhere in the world and who developed the thinking which led to the Orange Revolution agenda. 

NTUC Income's objective here has been spelled out in the organisation's latest annual report:  “As a social enterprise, NTUC Income is made different from other insurance companies.  We remain committed to our social role to provide essential insurance cover that is accessible and affordable… We will strive to maximise the value of our products for our customers and to set the standards for the insurance industry to become the most ethical insurer”.

For Tan Suee Chieh himself, there is an obvious satisfaction in steering his organisation through this period of change.  He joined the NTUC Income Board in 2003, having previously held a number of jobs in the commercial insurance sector, working for Prudential (he was managing director of Prudential's Hong Kong and Singapore businesses), and SHL, where he was President for the Asia Pacific region.  A qualified actuary, he graduated from the prestigious London School of Economics in 1981, and had also undertaken a Masters at Columbia University in New York, this latter degree being in organisational psychology, an area of management which has clearly influenced his approach at NTUC Income. 

In his early 50s, he says that he is fortunate to have a good team working with him.  Being CEO is, nevertheless, a full-time position.  Where he is able to escape from the pressures of the work, he admits to taking time to practise yoga.  The Chinese language is another interest of his, as is travel.  And judging by his Facebook entries, there's also been the pleasure of successfully completing a half marathon race recently.

So what does his Facebook page have to say about his trip to Manchester for the ICMIF conference?  There are, he says, five insights he took away from the event, and these are that:

  • The Social Enterprise proposition is more compelling than ever in the face of financial crisis.
  • This could be Our Time if we know how to embrace the new world of social media.
  • Professionalization and Excellence are the non-negotiable foundation for success. Being good hearted is not enough.
  • Branding and communications are integral to strategy.
  • Structure and solvency are two increasingly important considerations for sustainability in the world of low interest rates and volatility.

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