Present in Hong Kong since 1995, MetLife – one of the foremost life insurance providers in the United States – is celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary this year. Newly appointed as CEO of its operations in Hong Kong, Lennard Yong speaks candidly about “doing something that fundamentally changes people’s lives”
By Blessing Waung
With the many uncertainties of life, there are very few things that can be guaranteed.
Insurance, then, is one way to ensure that life’s curveballs don’t throw things off track. One American company wants to help Hong Kong residents keep everything as stable as possible.
One of the foremost life insurance providers in the United States, MetLife has been present in Hong Kong since 1995, and is celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary this year. MetLife is a household name in the US and in Asia; it is the top foreign life insurer in Korea (based on gross written premiums) and the second largest in Japan (calculated by annualized new premiums in statutory filings).
The company is seeking to be number one in Hong Kong, one of its target markets, with both aggressive hiring and marketing campaigns. Last year, starting at the top with the appointment of Lennard Yong as CEO of its operations, the company saw a rebranding and reinvigoration of the company’s presence.
“It’s been an exhilarating 12 months, with a lot of fun,” Yong says. “Our objective in 2014 was to make MetLife relevant in Hong Kong. So far, MetLife has been very low profile, and one of the key things we wanted to do was to position [the company] not where it is, but where it should be. In the US, it is the preeminent brand, and we want to restore or bring a much stronger presence here in Hong Kong.”
A Business and Beyond
Yong, who started his career banking in Australia, said he switched industries because he wanted to be associated with an industry closer to the customer, by “doing something that fundamentally changes people’s
“In life, we’ve all had different challenging moments,” Yong says. “I was myself personally a beneficiary of an insurance policy that was paid out, so I understand what it means to be a recipient of the insurance benefits.”
“When the opportunity came up to join ING in Australia, I thought I could really contribute to moms and dads,” he adds. “It was good for my career, but there was something inherently good as well for society.”
Arriving in Hong Kong in 2005, Yong has learned the landscape quite well. Services such as private banking and asset management are key to the foundation of Hong Kong, to be sure, Yong says, but life insurance is up there alongside them. And while other service providers have struggled, especially during the Asian financial crisis, insurance has remained a safe bet.
“How many sectors in an economy of any country could have double digit growth for ten years, especially right around the financial crisis?” he asks. “Hong Kong is one of the most sophisticated markets in Asia, and the consumption of life insurance here is pretty substantial.”
“Each year, we have US$32 billion of life insurance premiums going through the economy. The economy of Hong Kong is about US$260 billion, so if you do the numbers, about 12 percent. I would regard this as one of the most highly penetrated markets.”
Though MetLife has built a solid foundation in Hong Kong, there is much more to be done. According to Yong, the insurance industry has been growing year-on-year at about 14 percent, with double-digit growth that has been going on for the last 10 years.
“Hong Kong is a great place for life insurance,” Yong says. “What’s driving us to drive harder is because we have a significant opportunity to provide for the needs of people here as well as the people who come from elsewhere, including the Mainland.
“It’s less about reacting to competition, but more about figuring out what MetLife should be,” he believes. “We thought we can bring about better products and services and present a fresh brand to Hong Kong.”
For example, the most obvious of such products is a RMB savings oriented product, and RMB endowments as well, products that are not available in the US. According to Yong, the RMB Universal Life program was the company’s product of the year.
“Based on previous statistics I’ve seen, the most penetrated market in terms of insurance percentage of GDP in Asia is Japan, then Taiwan,” Yong says. “Hong Kong is somewhere up there. Some of the newer markets include Vietnam and Indonesia. China is also growing very rapidly. The Chinese consumer in general has a strong appreciation for preservation of wealth and passing legacy onto the next generation.”
“The understanding and the perception of life insurance have been quite easy because of the cultural nuance. It’s complementary to what we provide for Hong Kong people,” he says. “Let’s not forget the Hong Kong consumer. But a lot of the things we’ve developed for this market seem to be well-liked by the Mainland consumer.”
There are in fact many Mainland Chinese customers who come to Hong Kong to invest in such products.
“At the end of last year, about 16 percent of the sales across the whole market of Hong Kong emanated from Mainland visitors,” Yong points out. “Mainland Chinese are increasingly astute in their buying behavior.
“They obviously have needs that are met in the Mainland, but those who appreciate more sophistication and want a little more of a difference are opting to come here and explore financial service opportunities,” he says. “Certainly for MetLife, we want to participate in this market and support that consumer segment.”
A Proven Record
Competition is stiff, with many local competitors, but Yong believes that MetLife’s ironclad track record gives the company an edge.
“In western economies, often, life insurance is generally a function of tax planning,” Yong postulates. “So the drivers in other societies are slightly different, and it can be driven for the need for annuities such as 401k in the US and super-annuation in Australia.”
“Ultimately, people need savings, but how it’s expressed through different cultures is very different,” he adds. “Some are more tax-driven cultures; some are more family and community wealth preservation-driven.
“We have a unique opportunity to position ourselves as one that is addressing the needs of the customers, but also injecting safety and security given we’re a 150-year-old US institution. We’ve survived just about every crisis, including war.”
And as for the black-and-white dog that goes everywhere MetLife goes? Yong and his marketing team believe in the power of Snoopy, their brand ambassador, as something fun and non-intimidating. “It brings about that fun,” he says. “Snoopy being a dog conveys a sense of loyalty and friendship.”
“Especially in Hong Kong, iconic cartoon characters or figurines often have a special place in the public’s hearts,” he explains. “Everywhere we go, whenever we share our brand ambassador Snoopy, you just get smiles on people’s faces.”
Snoopy’s face will be seen everywhere this year, as MetLife continues its aggressive marketing campaign in Hong Kong. Already, he can be found in MTR stations and on taxicabs, on targeted Facebook and LinkedIn advertisements, and even on food app OpenRice. Nearly every local paper has featured print ads, featuring Snoopy flying into Hong Kong with the tagline, “Something new is coming to Hong Kong.”
Something new indeed, with more uniquely tailored life insurance products and networks and supporters to help accelerate the company, Yong says, so big things can be expected from MetLife.