Life could have been very different for Jack Yuan. A sliding doors moment could have seen the CEO of Generali China Insurance working with the Colonel, running a finger lickin’ good franchise. Instead, he chose a path he believed would lead him to protecting people. More than 25 years later, he’s damn pleased he did.
Either way, both jobs were worlds away from Jack’s major in polymer science at Fudan University in Shanghai. He did work in the chemical industry for about four years after graduating in 1989, but recognising the job’s limitations for the use of spoken English, a language his grandmother urged him to learn, he looked outside the industry for work in more foreign environments.
Various offers came from KFC, manufacturing and insurance.
“I discounted manufacturing fairly quickly because I saw it as an industry just producing goods,” he remembers. “And sure, KFC provides a service, but even though I knew more about their chicken than I did about insurance, I chose to be Section Chief in the Suzhou Branch of the People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC).”
Granted, the job wasn’t in an English-speaking hub, but Jack knew that as a global industry his experience with PICC could lead him to work with foreign companies. He was also intrigued by the fact insurance protected people, their lives and property, a concept not well understood in China.
“That was attractive to me,” he admits. “At the time, I didn’t know anything about insurance, but I talked to a lot of people about it and found that what it offers, and the strength of the industry, inspiring.”
There’s no doubt that this strength has catapulted by leaps and bounds. China has emerged as the world’s third-largest insurance market and is on track to become the largest by 2028. While leveraging centuries-old expertise in foreign joint ventures, the much younger and more digitally savvy insurance industry in China has a critical advantage over more mature global markets.
Traditionally, more of a copycat than an innovator, the country is now flourishing in tech and with a population of 1.4 billion, nearly 725 million of whom are mobile internet users, insurers are tapping in and engaging directly with customers.
“The China market is unique because of the enormity of our digital consumption,” Jack says. “It’s fuelling huge growth in our industry. Alibaba, Tencent, WeChat, all these digital platforms allow us to offer a one-stop customer experience for millions of customers.”
Generali China Insurance was established in 2002, the first Sino-foreign insurance joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Italy’s Assicurazioni Generali. Headquartered in Beijing, the company has more than six branches spread across China with a registered capital of RMB1.3 billion.
Its tailor-made insurance policies cover numerous options including property, construction, motor, marine cargo, short-term accident and health benefit programs.
Jack will celebrate a year at the company next month and remembers his first day in the office well. He settled into his chair and reached for two pieces of blank paper, placing them side by side on his desk. He scrawled ‘Opportunities’ on one and ‘Issues’ on the other.
“From that first day, I added to each list and as time went on I was adding more to Opportunities. That was a nice surprise,” he says. “Sure, I was addressing issues, but fortunately they were not too significant and often they have to be resolved before you can seize the opportunities.”
“Sure, I was addressing issues, but fortunately they were not too significant and often they have to be resolved before you can seize the opportunities.”
Jack was well equipped to tackle the initial challenges confronting him when he joined Generali. He had carefully honed his English and, for more than a decade, held senior positions with the multinational insurance firm AXA, his last role there being Chief Strategy Officer and CEO of the company’s health unit.
“I had to work closely with my AXA colleagues, whether they were in London, Paris or Singapore,” he recalls. “Naturally, we were all very different. We had different backgrounds, languages and ways of doing business. I learned how to manage and overcome conflicts or misunderstandings arising from these different cultures.
Learning how to work in cultural collaboration was an enormous advantage for me and a considerable benefit for Generali where most of my Chinese colleagues had only worked in local companies.”
Adding that to Jack’s vast experience working in all aspects of insurance, from underwriting to distribution and marketing, he was a rare and valuable asset. He admits, however, there is still a long way to go to educate the Chinese about insurance. While the numbers of middle and high-income people in China are increasing rapidly, they are keen to buy a car before a home.
So the motor vehicle insurance sector is well developed, worth US$112 billion in 2017, but other insurance sectors remain largely ignored.
“Car insurance is at around 60% for individuals and 40% on the corporate side,” Jack explains.
“But, other than motor insurance, the industry is not well developed; travel, household, health, personal liabilities and other insurance options all need to improve.
“Not many people in China really understand insurance and we need to change that. Chinese people tend to think of insurance as more of an investment, whereas we need to focus on communicating that the main function of insurance is protection.”
Meanwhile, Jack is also ensuring the protection and education of children. He is the co-founder of the Yi
Zhong Fund, China’s first collective donation philanthropy organisation, made up of 120 members who donate a fixed amount of money every year to various not-for-profit organisations (NPOs).
“The NPOs submit an application and we vote for the projects we will donate to every year,” Jack explains. “Yi in Chinese means ‘one’, while zhong means ‘many’. And that can mean different things – that we are one group trying to help many; or we are many people uniting to achieve one goal. But the result is the same.
We’re helping, like insurance really, to create greater peace of mind.”