AXA chief likes to walk the floor

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2011, 12:00am


Like other insurance veterans, Stuart Harrison, CEO of AXA China Region Insurance, knows how important it is to understand and meet people's needs. He joined the insurance industry from a totally different field - he used to be a teacher of printing technology. In his 27-year career in the 'worthwhile industry', as he puts it, Harrison has been country manager and managing director of AIA Australia, vice-president and chief sales officer of AIG Life Korea, and other key positions with Zurich Financial Services, Royal and Sun Alliance, and TSB. He talks to Ginn Fung

How did you get started in your insurance career?

I started as an insurance agent in 1984 in Britain. When I was a young guy, an insurance agent used to come to our house to collect insurance premiums, never bothering to ask what we needed or what we wanted out of life.

I remember thinking that I could do a better job than that. And that was what really drove me to join the insurance industry.

Before that, I used to be a teacher of printing technology.

How would you compare the work culture in Hong Kong to that of other countries where you worked?

First of all, I love Hong Kong as it is a fantastic place to work in. The willingness to win and go the extra mile in Hong Kong is different from the attitude in Korea and Australia. People [here] really understand what it means to win, to work hard and to set their goals.

In Australia, they have more of a work-life balance, which for me is a good thing. I think that is something we [in Hong Kong] can learn from.

And in Korea, it's their extreme discipline. This may not be good as it restricts their thinking and stops innovation in some respects.

What is your leadership style like?

I like to be very close to people on a day-to-day basis. That said, I am not a micromanager. I like to give them the autonomy that goes with the responsibilities in business.

My style is to work along with people and show them some respect. Let them know what is right, what is wrong, what the rules are.

My door is open, I walk the talk, and I walk the floor - and I walk the floor not just to show my face and make people feel grateful. It's because I learn a lot from talking to people about their problems. And their problems are my problems.

What is the essence of being a CEO?

I think you've got to do the things that you expect people to do, so I never ask anyone to do anything I would not do myself. That's an important standard I think for a CEO.

And you need to make sure that your team really understands where it is going. So your vision is clear, the direction is clear, the goals are clear, and it's easy to work towards it together.

To me, the biggest mistake ever made by CEOs is they don't communicate clearly. If everybody knows our goals, then we have a common direction and we can follow.

What do you think of the insurance industry in Hong Kong? What challenges and opportunities does it present?

There will be changes in Hong Kong, just like other mature markets such as Britain, Australia and Korea, to some extent.

So what change is that? We've got a new insurance authority coming. I can't predict what will be the effects, but I pretty much guess there'll be tightening regulations, and we welcome those. If you look into all mature markets, there have been some good decisions and some very bad decisions, and hopefully the independent insurance authority will look at what's happening in the mature markets and make the right decisions for our own industry.

If you add extra layers of protection for customers, they will be very happy with that. Besides, I think there will continually be more consolidation in the industry. There are simply too many insurers in Hong Kong. And I believe that smaller insurers will find it very difficult to be economically viable.

How does the management team run an effective communication network within the organisation?

Communication is absolutely critical to running a business, and we communicate in many different ways such as through the internet, town hall meetings and bulletins, and I include the management team to walk the floor with me. Moreover, we meet on a fairly regular basis and do engagement studies all the time, so we get real feedback from our staff as well as our customers, knowing how engaged they feel with the business.

Any advice for young people who want to work in the insurance field?

It's the most worthwhile industry to join. It's not just about making money, it's not just about selling policies.

When you sit in front of a customer, what you are looking to do is help him solve his problems. And you can build a great relationship in the business. I don't know any other industry that does this.

Any other thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

We recently opened a new training academy. The reason is that we want to raise the professionalism of our agents. AXA is redefining and we have a very clear commitment to be the leading insurer in Hong Kong.

By that we don't mean the biggest. What we mean is to be a warm insurer that people can turn to and say: 'Yes, we'd like to do business with AXA because we know we can trust them.'