Goh Chye Huat doesn’t like standing still – in life, or in business. Instead, he’s a firm believer in the power of change. And given that he has more than three decades’ experience, and now heads the Asia division of one of the world’s leading insurance brokers, it seems like Chye Huat might just be on to something.
“I’m conscious of the need to reinvent ourselves at each turning point of the business cycle because we operate in a constantly evolving environment, and change is the only constant in life,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
“By embracing change, incorporating and accepting new ways of doing things, we ensure we remain relevant and don’t suffer the fate of the dinosaurs.”
Chye Huat’s career in insurance began in the late 1980s. Having completed a Bachelor of Science (Building) with Honours at the National University of Singapore, he joined the Insurance Corporation of Singapore, a company that was later acquired by MSIG and Aviva.
Unsure if he was embarking on the right career path, Chye Huat took a sabbatical to undertake a master’s in finance at Lancaster University in the UK. The experience prompted him to reconsider, and transition into banking.
However, this career change was short-lived. “I specialised in structured derivatives but, over time, I realised that it’s actually quite boring looking at spreadsheets all day, every day,” Chye Huat laughs.
“The mathematics and intellectual demands can only keep you intrigued for so long. “That’s when I decided to return to the insurance industry. So from 1993 all the way to 2015, I worked for another UK-headquartered insurance broker, starting as a construction broker and making my way to Managing Director by 1998. I was lucky to have some amazing people in the team, many of whom have since joined Howden and are still working with me to this day.”
After 22 years, Chye Huat departed the company, and began a new and exciting chapter as CEO Asia of Howden Insurance Brokers. Chye Huat explains that from day one, he was impressed by Howden’s core values and people-first mentality that were already firmly ingrained within the company.
“The group strategy has always been to build a sustainable people-focused business,” he says. “And one of the key aspects in achieving this is to attract the best local talent in the market. When I joined, my task was to build our footprint here, with the goal to become the leading independent broker in Asia. Since then, we’ve more than doubled our headcount, and our revenue has grown fivefold.
Look after your people and your people will look after your clients, and the money will look after itself.
“This phenomenal growth has been made possible through the combination of acquisitions and by hiring the right specialist brokers. We’ve also really embraced our people-first culture, which is the cornerstone of our strategy. People are your most valuable asset. Our Founder and Group CEO David Howden sums it up when he says, ‘Look after your people and your people will look after your clients, and the money will look after itself.’”
When three friends founded Howden Broking in London in 1994, they had big dreams for a company that would empower employees by making them part shareholders.
Unlike most of their competitors, Howden gives its staff the opportunity to act as entrepreneurs – which not only encourages an overarching sense of collective investment and, in turn, boosts productivity, but also provides a slew of advantages for clients, given they’re dealing with actual shareholders every time they pick up the phone to contact Howden.
“In our organisation, our employees are our single largest shareholder, making up about 44% of the shareholding structure,” Chye Huat explains.
“This creates a completely different atmosphere or kind of culture where every employee is encouraged to act as if it is their business – because they have a stake ownership. This attracts more entrepreneurial talent and that results in better, more innovative solutions for our clients in a more engagement-driven workforce.”
Today, (parent group) Howden Group Holdings employs more than 6,000 people in over 40 territories, and is one of the world’s largest employee-owned insurance companies. More than 1,000 of Howden Group Holdings’ employees are shareholders, with the aim that, before long, one in three will own shares in the company.
Howden is the third-largest insurance broker in Singapore, and received multiple ‘Broker of the Year’ accolades during 2019 and 2020. “Over the past 20 years, Asia has grown to become a significant global insurance hub, rather than there being that historic reliance on the London and continental European markets,” Chye Huat says.
“The advent and commercialisation of modern insurance as we know it today has its roots back in the London market, with this key institution, Lloyd’s of London, which had its beginnings in the 17th century.
“So since then, London has been the epicentre of the global insurance market. In the late 90s, however, there was a shift outside London, and Asian hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong have now become the epicentre for Asia–Pacific. This has attracted international talent and brought specialist insurance expertise closer to clients in the region.”
Given Howden’s ethos, it’s hardly surprising that, since it’s very inception, the management has been focused on creating and nurturing a culture that sees employees at the very centre of the business.
“Our culture is the single most important differentiator,” Chye Huat smiles. “While clients are at the heart of every decision, our driving principle is that when you put your employees first and treat them well, they care more, which will always result in better outcomes for the clients. David Howden wanted to build a different kind of business, and it remains that to this day – good people attract good people. When friendship and care are so deeply ingrained in a culture, it’s not something you have to work hard to instil in people. It’s more a case of making sure that when we bring in people and businesses, they’re a good cultural fit. However impressive an individual or business may be, if the fit isn’t right, you walk away.”
Indeed, part of this strategy includes a focus on heralding diversity in order to guarantee a variety of outcomes for our clients,” Chye Huat says.
We do not seek to be all things to all people, but rather recognised leaders in specialisms and the markets in which we choose to operate.
“We invest time in building high-quality partnerships, because we work best together when we’re able to focus our efforts in the areas where we can have maximum impact and unlock opportunities to deliver even better products to even more clients – it’s a holistic approach.
“We do not seek to be all things to all people, but rather recognised leaders in specialisms and the markets in which we choose to operate. Since 2015, we have grown to become the leading independent employee benefits insurance broker in Singapore. In 2018, IPG, a leading high-net-worth life insurance broker, joined us to form IPG Howden and, last year, in Malaysia, we welcomed a leading niche broker in the energy and power sector.”
With so much trust and responsibility placed in the hands of each employee, Chye Huat explains that he’s always thought that allowing independence is the single most crucial strategy for leaders and managing a company.
We’re about empowering our people by giving them the autonomy to make decisions, which helps motivate everyone to deliver the best outcome for clients.
“Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed many examples of leadership, some good, some bad,” he recalls. “I’ve learned that working for an international company that is driven from the top down is never going to give the best outcome for clients.
“When I met David Howden in 2014, he was trying to persuade me to join. And he assured me that if I did, he would not be breathing down my neck – he’d leave me to run the business in accordance with how I saw fit. And that’s how it’s been. I take the same approach with my country managers. I leave them alone to do what they think is best for the company. We’re about empowering our people by giving them the autonomy to make decisions, which helps motivate everyone to deliver the best outcome for clients.”
While innovation may not be the first thing you think of in relation to insurance brokers, Chye Huat is adamant that, irrespective of what goes on at other companies, at Howden, it’s a priority.
“We have always embraced a culture of innovation,” he says. “We strive to be specialists in the product lines and sectors that we choose to operate in. And this encourages our people to drive forward their own ideas in these areas. Data and technology have changed the landscape entirely, so we have committed to staying at the forefront of the industry by establishing an in-house insurance tech and data analytics business.
“We have also recently welcomed a third institutional shareholder – Hg Capital, a private equity firm based in the UK. This has given us the ability to invest significantly in strategic growth, particularly technology, which means we can help our clients to make better, more informed decisions, and streamline their experience in areas like claims.”
From those humble beginnings just over 25 years ago, Howden has transformed to become one of the foremost global industry leaders.
Now, looking to the future, Chye Huat is adamant that, while Howden will never stop evolving and expanding, it will also ensure that any growth does not come at the expense of the company’s core values: putting people first, empowering people to act like owners and believe that there are no limits to what they can achieve, always upholding a socially responsible attitude, and striving to do exceptional things.
“We’ve built a highly successful business within a relatively short period of time, and have been able to achieve our spectacular expansion because the organisation empowers our employees to make decisions, which in turn creates effective leaders,” Chye Huat explains.
“Each of us takes responsibility for the decisions we make, and this is what sets us apart. We plan to continue to grow, but to do so while building on our reputation as the broker that does things differently.
“Since 2015, in Asia, we have achieved a compound annual growth rate of 54%, plus with a market-leading organic growth of 12%, that far exceeds our competitors. Maintaining growth now that we’re a broker of significant scale is the hard part. But I’m convinced that if we continue to drive change, push boundaries and do things differently, we can surpass our ambitious goals.”
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