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Insuring the future with technology

g&m, a traditional family owned business is transforming itself into a tech driven player in Singapore’s competitive insurance sector.

The insurance industry in Singapore is in a state of flux, with price wars and online marketing making it a hard sell of products, often without consideration as to whether the potential customer needs or wants these products.

Douglas Chia, managing director of g&m, a local insurance agency, doesn’t mince words, saying that it appears everyone has forgotten that the insurance business is all about helping and advising individuals and businesses on how best to stay protected.

“Our job is not very different from risk advisory. On several occasions I have advised a client against buying insurance as that might not be the best solution for them. I point them somewhere else.”

According to PwC research[1], the top three risks faced by the insurance sector in Singapore are change management, technology and quality of management.

The sector has been witnessing intense competition with new players entering the market yearly. At the same time, the use of technology to provide quality of service to customers is confined to the top few players, with a vast majority of smaller companies still depending on traditional methods to reach customers.

Another PwC report[2] quotes an industry expert as saying that “the sector in Singapore suffers from a lack of sufficient local talent for sustainable growth and it is getting increasingly challenging to attract new graduates to work in insurance without ‘government level sponsorship and promotions”’.

This is where g&m seeks to differentiate itself from the competition. It is seeking to redefine the delivery of insurance through innovation, creating value with simple solutions for its customers and stakeholders. A local talent, Douglas has taken a plunge into a sector that doesn’t attract too many individuals with drive and ambition.

A father and son story

Since taking over his father’s insurance company in 2013, Douglas has reimagined the business and engineered sustained growth with a technology focussed approach to insurance. From a two-person show when he took over, g&m now has around 37 employees and is growing. Among its many achievements, it has around 70 per cent of the high-end car insurance market, which gives it access to some of the highest net worth individuals in Singapore.

Douglas began his career as an equity derivative trader based in Tokyo and Hong Kong. His derivative trading days helped lay the foundation for his risk management skills as well as gave him insights into how to do change management within the insurance sector.

g&m was incorporated in 1975 by Douglas’ late father, Chia Teck Kim. The elder Chia was 39 years old and working as an insurance agent when he set up the company, on the advice of a friend that suggested he go into General Insurance, as he had many acquaintances who were businessmen, “and businesses need insurance”.

The company started out as General & Marine Agents Pte Ltd with a few large corporate accounts, focusing on commercial and health business.

In the initial years, business grew, and soon, from a one-man show, the company’s staff strength grew to seven, comprising a couple of account managers, a dispatch and accounts. In the eighties, the company changed its status from that of an agency to a brokerage and expanded its business. The company name also changed to General & Marine Brokers Pte Ltd.

While things were looking good for the company, unexpected hurdles showed up. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Singapore had started its push to become a financial hub. In order to attract foreign insurance companies and brokerages, the Republic began to issue new licenses to spur competition and increase the competency level in the industry.

The unintended consequence of this was that local players like General & Marine Brokers were either forced to merge or get bought over. Brokers were affected because the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) started tightening regulation and increasing scrutiny.

Certification, compliance, disaster recovery, due diligence and other requirements came into force. Unable to fulfil such stringent requirements, the elder Chia made the decision to convert back to an agency to avoid the hassle.

Increased competition

Due to increased competition the company started to find that survival was challenging. Business volume dwindled, and the number of employees went down. By 2000, the office space was also given up, and the elder Chia settled for a “free” office corner within one of the insurers’ premises. By 2010, the business was down to just himself and a dispatch.

This was when disaster struck. In March 2012 Douglas learnt that his father was suffering from an advanced stage of lung cancer. At the time, he was working in Tokyo and consequently made the decision to resign from his job to spend time with his father.

Since his parents had separated when he was young, Douglas had never lived with his father. Spending the last one year of his father’s life with him, sending him to work, being at work with him, gave Douglas closure to many questions and issues he had with regards to their relationship. Douglas recalls that, in between the many discussions he had with his father, one was centred on what to do with the company? His father response was “I can’t let go”.

Douglas was himself looking for a change from the high pressure of a job as a derivatives trader. He promised his father that he would take over the company.

“After following my father around, I realised that there was huge potential in the insurance market in Singapore,” Douglas recalls. Towards the end of 2012, he officially joined the firm and one of the first things he did was to change the name to g&m as he wanted the company to represent simplicity for insurance.

He bought a PC and a scanner and began to digitise all the piles of hardcopy documents that had been kept in physical log books. The exercise took him five months, but it gave him more than 20 years of data and laid the foundation to the company’s data driven approach to insurance.

Simplicity and service

One of the key learnings for Douglas from his time in the banking sector was that people don’t like things they do not understand, and so a product needs to be packaged in a way that a layman can easily understand it. Also, the sales desk of investment banks poured their souls into client relationships. He intended to do the same for insurance products.

Traditionally, to get an insurance quotation, long proposal forms have to be filled up. This process is laborious and tends to turn customers away. g&m realised that if the customer experience during the sign-up process was simplified and enhanced, the dropout rate from customers would be greatly reduced.

Motor insurance is by far the largest in terms of volume in the retail insurance segment. A traditional questionnaire would ask the customer for name, ID number, gender, occupation, date of birth, years driving, any past accident, any past suspensions, address, and so forth.

g&m reviewed this process and identified that just two key components are truly required for a quote: the ID number and date of birth. So instead he structured the company’s motor team’s business model around this simplified process.

This seamless experience has given the company a chance to interact more with clients, who like the improved customer experience. Today, the turnaround time for an application is less than an hour, as opposed to the hours, or days that is the industry norm.

Another show of ingenuity occurred when g&m was approached to work with an insurer to secure the Employee Benefits Insurance for a Canadian Bank. In traditional claim servicing, employees submit claims to Human Resources (HR) for collation, before passing it to the Agent or Insurer.

To expedite the process, g&m proposed that all employees could directly contact them (by email or phone, or face to face) to process their individual claims queries and submissions. This meant an administrative layer was removed and a service could be offered. At its core, g&m fundamentally believed that having someone on hand to answer queries on whether “this medical procedure is claimable”, “does my policy cover this?”, and “What is the limit for hospitalisation stay?” was important and addressed a basic human need for connection on these matters. Business wise, the client’s HR team were grateful for less workload, and employees enjoyed instantly receiving pertinent, quality advice about their claim matters.

The model became a standard offering for g&m’s clients. Consequently, g&m are now developing technology, for example, web portal logins for claims submission. Yet to fully digitalised its processes, g&m intends to soon automate manual submission of claims into online methodology.

The company is targeting organic revenue growth at the rate of 30-50 per cent for the next three years. It has a current staff strength of 37 and is hoping to increase that to 70 by 2020.

g&m is looking add baseline infrastructure and put functions in place and hence sees the need for manpower growth. The company is also exploring the possibility of non-organic growth through acquisitions.

Douglas is on his way to fulfilling his father’s dream by transforming the company into a major insurance player in both the Singapore as well as regional markets. He feels there are lots of opportunities in the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market for a company that emphasises on the use of technology to offer high quality service.

 

[1] https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/financial-services/insurance/insurance-banana-skins-2017.html

[2] https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/insurance/assets/csfi-insurance-banana-skins-web-2017.pdf

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