Career Path

From insurance to financial planning

by Jairam Parameswaram

Financial Planner
Anthony Lau
Sun Life Financial

The world does not know them as Insurance Agents any more. They are the full-fledged Financial Planners of the new age. Unlike agents earlier, a financial planner's job is not to just sell one among the scores of policies his organization might offer.

"Rather, he needs to first understand the long-term financial strategy or plan of a client, or maybe even create such a plan for the client. Then he has to see which policy matches the client's needs best. Only then does a sale, based on trust and confidence, fructify." These words of wisdom come from Anthony T Y Lau, Chartered Insurer and President of Sun Life Financial (Hong Kong) Ltd.

And he should know. Mr. Lau sold insurance and worked himself up to start his own company, which he ran for nearly two decades, before joining Sun Life in 1990 to cater to expanding business.

Sun Life Financial, one of the oldest and most respected financial institutions in Canada, started its Hong Kong operations in 1892. Today, Sun Life Financial (Hong Kong) Ltd., a fully owned subsidiary of the Canadian parent, is one of the largest insurance companies in Hong Kong.

"This is the best-paid hard work. The more you sell, the more you make"

In the insurance sales line, starting as a Business Consultant, you grow to becoming a Sales Manager by which point you are an experienced insurance seller. As a Sales Manager, you need to build and manage a team of equally good sellers. Moving up to Senior Sales Manager, you could work up to Branch Manager, Senior Branch Manager, District Manager, Agency Director and finally Executive Agency Director. Being commission based (earnings directly proportional to policies sold), the above career path is the most remunerative.

And for someone like Mr. Lau, with an aptitude for management, you could move over from the sales line on to the corporate ladder.

"Obviously, not everybody can become the President of a company. Also, selling insurance you can make more money than a President of a company. This keeps happening even in North America, which has a very mature insurance market," points out Mr. Lau.

At the crux of insurance business is the prerequisite of being able to sell, first the concept and then the policy. But competition is very tough. "In the insurance market, of every 100 entrants, about 40 leave the field quickly. Of the remaining, more than 70 per cent have to be constantly supervised and made to understand the ropes. Only about 10 in 100 need little or no supervision, and of them, about three go on to higher levels," says Mr. Lau.

How can this seemingly low strike rate be increased to more comfortable levels? First, induce professionalism. The government has now made it mandatory for insurance professionals to undergo "continuing education." Else, it does not renew their yearly licenses.

The other effort comes in the shape of in-house training, something Sun Life offers to all employees. "We do a lot of mentoring, profiling and sales workshops," says Mr. Lau.

"The entrants are made to understand that they would face tremendous amount of rejection in the market, and we prepare them psychologically for that," says Mr Lau.

In Hong Kong, the coverage rate for insurance policies is about 60 per cent, whereas in a mature market like North America, coverage is above 90 per cent.

Given that there is space to grow, recruitments are still on in the insurance business despite the overall economic gloom. Sun Life's staff number has surged more than 50 per cent in the past five years, and this year, it is looking to add at least another 100 to its employee strength.

"This is the best-paid hard work," states Mr. Lau. "The more you sell, the more you make."

The writing is on the wall. If you want to make it big in insurance, tie up your bootlaces and hit the field. "Not being able to sell" may still be corrected with training, but "not wanting to sell" cannot.

China Opportunities

China offers limited opportunities to Hong Kong job seekers in the insurance industry, according to Mr. Lau. Those on a local ground are better suited because of the language and networking requirements. Only very senior positions of foreign investment companies would be filled from outside of China, to ensure international-standard management but even so, good language skills are a prerequisite.

Mr Lau cautions: "You have to prove yourself here, at home, first. You have to be successful in your own right. We need to be sure that people have been very successful in Hong Kong before we start looking at placing them in China."

Figures for reference only   K='000

Taken from Career Times 07 June 2002, p. 32
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