Stepping Up In The Middle
After taking the pulse of the market in his first 100 days in office, Kevin Leong, Allianz's new chief agent for Canada, has his sights set on the SME space
The first is an area where Allianz already has a strong foothold: large, corporate risk. The second will involve forging closer partnerships with brokers to serve the middle market, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
“To grow [the corporate risk] business, we have to be quite traditional,” Leong says. “Good client relationships, spending time with major clients. Big clients who are managing large balance sheets need a lot of understanding, and we want to be seen as … the preferred partner of choice to have this dialogue when it comes to technical expertise, and when it comes to [our] international network. We have a good reputation and we want to build on this.”
The emphasis shifts when working with smaller companies. “The more you go into the middle market and SME part, the less you focus on this high-end consulting work. You have to provide a slightly revised customer service and work closely with the distribution channels; with brokers, for example,” he explains.
With clients and brokers, Leong wants Allianz to be known for its technical expertise, its network and its responsiveness. “We want to be excellent in everything we do on the execution side, on the service delivery,” he says. “Canada is one of the most important markets for Allianz. We are committed to this market. We are committed to our partners. And we are committed to deliver every service we offer and guarantee it. This is very important to my personal agenda.”
Path to the Top
Leong has worked for Allianz his entire career. His path to chief agent began in Munich, Germany, when he took his first job as an apprentice. “I did everything from being a person in operations putting policies into the system [to] being an agent,” he says. He progressed to underwriter for engineering, which meant the construction business. He then moved into AGCS’s Chairman’s Office, where he assisted the CEO on special projects such as mergers and acquisitions.
From there, he moved to Asia, where he was responsible for opening AGCS’s offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, China and India, in collaboration with the Allianz network. In addition, as CEO of AGCS’s Singapore branch, he oversaw underwriting, claims, market management and risk consulting for the entire region. Then came the chance to move to Canada.
“I had completed my task [in Asia],” he says. “Having the opportunity, with the branding of Allianz, the support of head office [in Munich] and the regional office [in New York], sitting in a large country like Canada and having the possibility to build profitable growth—that’s what every manager dreams of.”
So Leong packed his belongings and, with his wife and two children, left tropical Singapore for Toronto. He jokes that he didn’t own a coat when he arrived—“Oh my goodness, it is cold!”—but also emphasizes that, having grown up in Europe, he missed the seasons when living in Asia. And compensating for Canada’s chilly temperatures is the warmth with which he says he has been welcomed by colleagues, by the market and by people in his private life.
“The thing that we enjoy most is the openness of Canadians, outside the business but also inside the business, to talk about opportunities, … to be friendly,” he says. “It’s an easy market to get into a relationship business.”
The First 100 Days
On the day of his interview for this magazine, Leong marked exactly 100 days as chief agent. To that date, he says much of his time was spent ensuring a smooth handover from his predecessor, Thomas Paap. The rest was dedicated to meetings with his primary partners.
“I spent probably 40% of my time with clients and brokers trying to find out where we are, what the opportunities are, and what we have to do to grow,” he says. “People are so forthcoming with feedback, so it’s really great … They give me very good advice. Not everything can be done in a quick fix, but there are a lot of things which can be done and I am very positive about it.”
He says that brokers didn’t surprise him with anything they said, but they did confirm certain things.
“Even though we have a strong reputation already, a strong market presence in Canada, almost everyone said, ‘Guys, you can do more. You are actually the sleeping giant that everyone waits to awake,’ ” he recalls, adding, “We can do more as Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. And we can also do more as Allianz Group. We have a sister company called Euler Hermes: What can we do together with them? This is what everyone expects us to do, and step up.”
The character of the Canadian market is quite different from the character of Asian markets, Leong adds. In Asia, the insurance business is transactional and price-driven, and business moves very quickly. In Canada, he is experiencing a relationship-driven market where people focus on long-term commitment and partnership. There’s more of a sense that brokers and insurers are interested in forging ties that hold through good and bad times. As a result, he has found that conversations with clients and brokers are broader. Instead of remaining centred narrowly on a specific insurance policy, he suggests, they may encompass wider themes, from procedures to strategies, and look further into the future.
AGCS’s lines of business in Canada currently include aviation, engineering, energy, financial lines, liability, marine, property, and package and multiline.
“We always want to extend and expand every line,” Leong says. “And some of these lines of business are still young to us—specifically, financial lines and package and multiline. Package and multiline is especially interesting because that is the department that will deal with the SME sector and there’s a lot of potential.”
Beyond growing market share in these areas, Leong says expansion also has to be about how AGCS brings products to the market. He acknowledges that the company currently has a Toronto-centric model—and that worked well when the main target was corporate risk customers. It’s not as effective when going after the middle market and SME sector, a segment where success depends on building close ties with the distribution channel.
“We opened an office in Vancouver, which is the first great step,” he says. “Is that all? Can we be happy with that? Of course not! … There might be other offices popping up.”
He adds, “Growth comes with investments. Investments have to be taken at the right time with the right structure.”
That cautious tone likely comes from the fact that it is not an easy time to be in the insurance business in Canada. It’s a highly competitive industry, and it was hit by two of the largest floods in the country’s history in 2013. Leong says that’s been tough on insurers, but also on brokers and clients, who have to work out how to navigate through this year and beyond. For him, one solution is keeping lines of communication open.
“The company that I want to run, I want my clients, when they are in trouble or they have a question, I want them to have me on speed dial if they want to have a discussion,” he says. “This is what I stand for.”
He adds, “Very important for us as a company in a market like this are also people and talent … Expertise you can acquire. Culture, corporate behaviour, you can’t acquire. You need to live it … You need to form it over time. We have a very strong brand name and a very good reputation because of the history we’ve got, because of good leadership in the past, and I want to take this legacy and build on this and continue being the employer of choice.”
How long will Leong’s Canadian assignment last? It’s a difficult question to answer less than four months into the job, and Leong is well aware the decision will not be entirely his. But he sees his mandate to grow profitably as a long-term commitment.
“When I signed up to Asia, I signed a two-year contract and it ended up being seven years,” he points out. “The story wasn’t ready. If you asked me ‘when is the story ready for Canada,’ I can’t tell you. We are still in my [first] 100 days.”
Copyright 2013 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the December 2013 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine