Henck springs surprise after merger coup

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am

The sudden resignation of a talented individual riding the crest of success can cause a stir at the best of times.

But when it involves the mastermind behind a continuing $3.5 billion industry takeover - Hong Kong's largest insurance merger - the desire to know why is intense.

The burning question is whether the move will endanger the historic merger between the Hong Kong offices of Sun Life Financial and CMG Asia, announced two months ago.

Speculation surrounding the real reasons behind the shock departure of Sun Life Financial Asia president, Douglas Henck, a 31-year veteran of the insurance industry and a former Hong Kong American Chamber of Commerce chairman, has been rife. The company made the shock announcement last week. Mr Henck will depart at the end of this month.

Some say Mr Henck's head had rolled because the deal was overpriced, or because there had been a dispute. Others believed the deal was such a smart move that rival insurers pleaded with him to jump ship.

According to the man himself, in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, none of this is true.

For him, this is simply a mid-life sabbatical, not a mid-life crisis.

'I am not jumping ship. I will not rule out doing another job. But there is no negotiation going on. I am more interested in doing something else, such as business ethics, social responsibility or corporate governance. I may well become a corporate governance advocate,' he said.

'You can call it a mid-life sabbatical. I might work again but I am lucky that I don't have the need to go back,' he said, adding that whatever he did would need to be interesting and challenging.

And if he ends up doing nothing after a 31-year career in insurance, mostly in Asia, it is a change of direction he can easily afford, even at the relatively young age of 52. Coy about future plans, Mr Henck will say only that he is returning to his New Hampshire home in the United States early next year.

Mr Henck has been the key mover behind Sun Life's expansion in Asia during the past five years, that has seen the business grow nearly 500 per cent from C$49 million ($314.37 million) in 1999 - before Mr Henck joined the company in April 2000 - to C$240 million today.

The $3.5 billion takeover of CMG Asia will make Sun Life the seventh-largest local insurance company - up from 19th - in terms of premium revenues. Its number of agents will also climb from 500 to 1,700.

Mr Henck admits that his departure is linked to the deal but is not the result of a disagreement with the company.

'The takeover of CMG Asia is a big thing that makes Sun Life a leading insurer in Hong Kong. It led me to look back at my 5? years in the company,' he said. 'I felt I could be proud of what I had accomplished in that time, and that it was a good opportunity to open a new chapter for the company and a new chapter for me.'

The company's Asia business - which covers China, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines and Indonesia - has experienced an average annual growth rate of 50 per cent and profits have risen an average 30 per cent a year in the past five years. In terms of individual life policy sales, one in three dollars sold by Sun Life is in Asia - up from less than 10 per cent five years ago, according to Mr Henck.

This, he said, had been the result of acquisitions, setting up joint ventures in China, India and the Philippines, arranging alliances and establishing Hong Kong as the firm's Asian headquarters - all his favourite lines of work.

But now he believes the company will focus more on operational matters, something he does not particularly enjoy. 'Good leaders know what they are good at and what they are not good at. Organisations need different leaders at different stages of their development,' he said.

'The job at Sun Life in the next five years will be very different in that it will need more operational work. In terms of what I like to do and what type of leader the organisation needs over the next five years, it is time for me to think of doing something else,' he said.

Even though the CMG Asia takeover will not be completed until October and it may take a year to integrate the two firms' operations, Mr Henck believes his departure will not sink the deal.

'I have made my best effort to ensure a smooth transition. There will be no problems,' Mr Henck said. He will make himself available to Sun Life for the next year.

His job will pass to his boss and great friend, C. James Prieur, who will also continue to be its president and chief operating officer.

'It is better for me to leave now, at the beginning of the merger. It would not be convenient to go in the middle of the integration,' Mr Henck said.

A former senior executive of Aetna International and American International Group before joining Sun Life, Mr Henck said the local market had changed markedly, particularly the multi-channels approach to sales that employs bank branches, telephone marketing and the internet in addition to traditional agent sales. His wife supported his decision, he said.

'My wife and I have our health and the means and our children have grown up. So we can do whatever we like.'

Mr Henck said too many executives took their accomplishments too seriously.

'No matter how good you are, you need to leave your work. I would rather be doing something else I like at the right time,' he said.