Chieftain on a multipronged sortie
Insurance veteran Winnie Wong is on a crucial errand, telling her priorities include crusading for gender diversity and correcting the public’s wrong perception of the industry.
Wi n n i e Wo n g Chi-shun prides herself as being among just a handful of female bigwigs in the insurance world.
With more than 20 years’ empiricism in the industry under her belt, Wong, as chief executive officer of Asia Insurance Ltd — the insurance arm of Hong Kong-listed Asia Financial Holdings — communicates with others protruding a tender and gentle voice.
As leader of one of Hong Kong ’s eminent players in the trade, Wong has three key goals in her multiple-fold mission — fighting for gender diversity, laying waste to what she calls people’s misconception of the insurance sector and getting the government to give the industry the backing it deserves.
She speaks of how much s h e’s a w a r e o f t h e s o c i a l responsibility that comes with her gender and job title and, as a result, she has been trying all she can to promote gender diversity within the company itself, plus her two other listed ambitions.
“As a female leader in this male-dominated industry, I emphasize equal opportunities for members of both sexes in my organization. I also encourage female colleagues to work after giving birth, so I offer them flexible working hours.”
Sporting an easy-going and considerate attitude, Wong is popular among the staff. She prods her team members into trying out various tasks. She neither puts them in the cross hairs nor throws a tantrum if they aren’t up to the mark, but guides them in learning from experience, particularly from failure. Her team thus exhibits a sustained commitment to performance excellence, candor and mutual respect.
However, being a good boss i s n’ t r e a l l y e n o u g h f o r a n industry leader. Wong, who also serves as a council member of the Financial Services Development Council (FSDC) — the group set up by the Hong Kong government to lift the development of the SAR’s financial ser vices sector — tasks herself with turning the city into an insurance hub for the region. And, topping her goals is changing the people’s traditional mindset about the insurance business.
“There’s still a general misunderstanding of insurance. When speaking of insurance, people tend to think of the sales agents slogging under immense pressure because their number is ver y large and they’re more visible in the market. A small number of agents may not behave well, so the general public may harbor a bad impression of the whole industr y. Many parents even bar their children from entering the insurance business because of such misunderstanding. And, this has led to a serious shortage of talents in the sector,” she says regretfully.
The insurance universe is far from that of brokers, agents and life insurers, she enlightens China Daily. It embraces a lot of professionals behind the scenes — underwriters structure and price insurance programs, lawyers handling claims, risk engineers providing risk management advice, marketing and actuarial professionals, etc.
“But, the general public just isn’t aware of that,” she emphasizes. To this end, Wong has been giving talks and lectures to members of the public and university students with the aim of correcting the industry’s image, especially among the younger generation.
As a female leader in this male-dominated industry, I emphasize equal opportunities for members of both sexes in my organization.”
Rallying for support
Another must-do on her list is pushing for government support. Along with several other experts sitting on the FSDC, Wong came up with a report earlier this year suggesting ways of making Hong Kong an insurance hub. The report highlights the challenges facing Hong Kong , such as the stiff competition from regional markets like Singapore, and the need to stem the flow of business out of Hong Kong . It also urges the Chinese mainland authorities to grant Hong Kong insurers preferential or special status, especially those in the reinsurance and marine insurance sector.
“Hong Kong is considered totally offshore under the China Risk Oriented Solvency System (C-ROSS). That’s to say Hong Kong and other insurance centers enjoy the same status under the system. But, as insurance hubs offer a lot of tax benefits to lure insurance companies to set up offices there, many Hong Kong-based reinsurance companies, such as Munich Reinsurance Company, have moved their regional headquarters to neighboring cities, weakening Hong Kong’s competitiveness. It’s a serious problem, and that’s why I had put so much effort into the report,” she clarifies.
Tw o m o n t h s a f t e r t h e report was issued, the China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) and the Hong Kong Office of the Commiss i o n e r o f In s u r a n c e ( O C I ) signed an agreement framework to conduct an assessment into equivalence for the insurance solvency and regulatory regimes in the SAR and on the mainland. Wong’s effort paid off.
CAPITAL IDEAS: PETER LIANG
According to the OCI, the next step is for both sides to work out a more detailed plan for the equivalence regime, which is set to be completed within four years. Before completion of the assessment, a transitional arrangement will apply under which the two solvency regimes will be recognized as equivalent or similar on a provisional basis.
“The authorities acted very quickly to our proposal. Hopefully, Hong Kong could get closer to an onshore status and enjoy some preferential policies during the transitional period, which will prompt some insurance companies to move back to the city. If they move back to Hong Kong, more talents will join our industry,” says Wong.
Apart from seeking a closeto-onshore status, she suggests introducing tax incentives and promoting business to overseas clients.
“Currently, Hong Kong has a sagging insurance market with a deteriorating record. There are over 160 insurers in such a small city, so we need to develop a bigger pie for Hong Kong insurers.”
Wong’s upbeat that with adequate government backing, Hong Kong insurers can do business from other countries and reclaim the business they’ve lost in the past. Only after building up a bigger market with healthy and sustainable growth, can the industry afford to improve its reputation, attract and retain young talents.