Insurance broker with heart

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2007, 12:00am

Sitting alone in a small office in Central in 1971, there must have been days when Charles Monat wondered if he had made the right decision.

The two years before that, he had been a social worker and an administrator back home in New York, considering sailing around the world with a few army buddies, and searching in vain for suitable work in Thailand.

Now, as proprietor and sole employee of Charles Monat Associates, he was trying his luck as an independent insurance broker in Hong Kong, and was learning the hard way what it took to run a business.

'Initially, I had to do everything myself,' he said. 'I made calls and had meetings during the day and often worked till 11pm at night doing the typing and filing.'

Fortunately, he had two things to spur him on. One - a facility for making contacts and attracting clients - was immediately apparent. The other developed more gradually. That was a firm conviction that the insurance business offered a chance to do something genuinely worthwhile and of 'redeeming social value'.

'This is a decent business, fair for the buyers and the beneficiaries,' he said.

Mr Monat can directly trace his own interest in the Far East to the late 1960s. Like many Americans of his generation, he faced the prospect of military service, so rather than taking his chance in the draft, opted instead for a commission in the quartermaster branch of the army.

'I liked the idea of having a real mission,' he said. 'In that respect the army was good. It made you focus and get things done. It is the same in business - you have an objective and need to achieve it.'

He was posted to a base near Pattaya in southern Thailand, handling supplies, vehicle maintenance, and the refuelling of B-52 bombers. A year there changed his life, and reinforced values which have guided him ever since.

After establishing himself in Hong Kong, he found a way to put some of that experience to practical use. In 1979, inspired by stories he had heard from a journalist friend, he worked as a volunteer in the refugee camps on the Thai border with Cambodia. Distributing emergency supplies and helping to evacuate the sick and wounded, he realised how the actions of just one person could make a big difference.

'It was really a high point of my life,' he said. 'It was a great experience and quite a contrast with this materialistic lifestyle. The Cambodians were happy with something to drink and some dried fish. We felt we were very lucky to be there.'

Today, Mr Monat said his role was to find the best policy and underwriting for each client's particular needs. These could be highly specialised, and for high-net-worth individuals might relate to paying estate or inheritance taxes, covering loss of income, guaranteeing a bank credit line, or providing cash to redeem shares in a private business. In certain cases, payouts could amount to several million US dollars.

'You are paying a fairly low premium for fairly substantial benefits,' Mr Monat said.

He said putting together the right 'package' was a matter of knowing the different strengths of the major international insurers and conducting meticulous research. That involved in-depth discussions not just with the client, but possibly with their lawyers, bankers and trust officers as well.

As part of the risk assessment process, it was also vital to do detailed checks of relevant financial, medical, credit and legal records.

'The basis of policies is life insurance - a mortality risk - and the insurance company wants to know where the money is coming from,' Mr Monat said.

In the early days, he built his network through contacts with American expatriates, and soon learned an invaluable lesson.

'Happy clients are the key because referrals lead to additional business.'

That principle has driven steady expansion over the years. The firm now has a 17-person team in Hong Kong, an office in Singapore and, altogether, has placed more than US$8 billion in coverage.

Mr Monat believes it has been easier to achieve such success by remaining a privately held company. In his opinion, this makes for faster decisions, higher productivity and better motivation among staff.

'I am the only shareholder, but I view my employees as partners,' he said. 'My philosophy is to distribute profits according to a formula which relates to the bottom line.'