Embrace change with a core compass - AIA Regional Chief Executive

| 02 Jan 2018

From starting his career as an insurance agent to being named regional chief executive of the largest independent publicly listed pan-Asian life insurance group, Mr John Cai, Regional Chief Executive, AIA, has built his career on embracing change.

His role has changed several times over his career. He spent the first decade of his career in sales, starting out as an insurance agent in New York City after graduation. 

In 2003, he moved back to Asia as Chief Agency Officer of AXA Hong Kong and four years later, he was appointed CEO of AXA Hong Kong. 

In 2009, he became CEO of AIA China – the Group’s second largest market – where he transformed the business into one of the most successful life insurance companies in China.

Mr Cai then became Regional Chief Executive of AIA, responsible for the Group’s businesses operating in China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Myanmar, in June 2017. 

Described by Mr Ng Keng Hooi, Group Chief Executive of AIA, as “one of the best CEOs in the industry”, Mr Cai also won Executive Champion of the Year at the inaugural Asia Trusted Life Agents & Advisers Awards in 2016 for his transformative role in creating a culture of leaders and encouraging a customer-centric mindset, as well as leading his company to great heights.

The humility to learn

Commenting on his career path, Mr Cai said: “A lot of times, the higher the position someone holds, the more reluctance there is to change. My role has changed several times over my career. It is important to keep the humility to learn and to keep our sense of curiosity.” 

More significantly, this helps to build a learning and changing organisation that will thrive no matter what the challenges are in the future, he said. 

“Always think in the best interests of your customers, shareholders and employees. Don’t work for KPIs and bonuses because you will only be thinking of yourself,” he added. 

Focus on the truly important

And this focus on the truly important is also how insurers should navigate a world that is changing rapidly with the advent of InsurTech and FinTech.

Ultimately, it has to be about customers, incumbents or not. Disruptors eventually “need something on the ground and can’t just exist in the cloud”.

“You look at companies like Amazon, Alibaba and Tencent, they are all buying traditional shop front companies. Likewise, incumbents are continuing to digitalise. Hence, I see more of a convergence in the industry as a likely outcome,” he said. 

The cross-point, he believes, is agents. Digitalisation cannot replace human touch. On the other hand, technology will result in human touch being even more valued. In fact, “customers are looking for more personalised service and more human service”. 

Common direction

This is why, FinTech or not, and whether it is a market such as China which AIA has been in since 1919 or Myanmar which is still in the preparatory stage, much is driven by an alignment with the group proposition and core strategy. 

He said: “In most markets, Premier Agency is key; we also focus on premium and profitable bancassurance partnership; an Ease of Doing Business (EODB) strategy; and digitisation, riding on technology.” 

High quality agency force and bank partners, enabled with technology, with a focus on customers – results in a competitive differentiation, he said.

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