Prudential Insurance of Britain plans to increase its investment in Asia as the region recovers from the financial turmoil that struck two years ago. Chairman Sir Roger Hurn told Business Post the group would keep an eye on acquisition opportunities in the region as part of its expansion plan in Asia. However, he declined to give further details. 'We would invest more in the region as it is an important market. Asia is recovering from the financial crisis and there are many business opportunities,' said Sir Roger, visiting Hong Kong last week on a tour of the group's Asian operations. Besides new acquisitions, he said Prudential would also recruit more agents in Hong Kong, India, Taiwan and Vietnam to boost insurance policy sales. Established in London in 1848, Prudential is Britain's largest life insurer and retail fund management company with more than US$270 billion in funds under management worldwide. In Asia, it operates in 11 countries. The newest operation is in China, where it opened a joint-venture life insurance company with partner China International Trust and Investment Corp (Citic) two weeks ago. Prudential is the first British insurer to set up such a joint venture in China, which has so far granted licences to just 15 foreign insurance companies, allowing them to operate in only one city. While most foreign companies choose to set up in Shanghai, Prudential and Citic established Citic Prudential Life Insurance in Guangzhou. Sir Roger said Guangzhou's seven million people offered excellent potential, and the city is only three hours by train from Hong Kong. Such proximity allows the staff of Prudential's Hong Kong office to lend support to the Guangzhou venture. Prudential was eager to operate in other mainland cities and would apply to do so when China opened its market to competition after accession to the World Trade Organisation, he said. 'Our plan in China is to be aware of the awakening opportunities and to be the leading player to capture these opportunities,' Sir Roger said. 'We will put a lot of effort into developing China when it opens up its market.' In Hong Kong, he said Prudential would boost its team of 2,000 agents to increase sales. It will also consider link-ups with banks besides Standard Chartered Bank with which it already has a deal on selling insurance products. In Britain, Prudential has developed an Internet banking arm - Egg - to sell insurance, pension, and retail fund products. In Asia, however, only Singapore sells its insurance polices via the Internet. Sir Roger said Prudential would consider introducing Internet sales in Asia, but it was not a priority. Its concern in the region is to recruit more staff as Asians seemed to prefer buying policies from agents. Because buying insurance is still a new concept to many Asians, Sir Roger said the human element was important when explaining policy terms. In Britain, people preferred buying insurance on the Internet to take better control of their personal finances, he said. 'If it can be shown that there is a need in Asia for Internet sales, we will not rule it out. However, we wonder if Asian customers want to buy insurance on the Internet,' Sir Roger said. In 1998, Prudential set up Egg, and has so far signed up 1.2 million customers. Egg allows clients to make bank transactions, apply for mortgage loans, and buy insurance products and unit trusts online. 'Internet banking has a lot of potential as it allows customers to access their account information 24 hours a day, seven days a week,' Sir Roger said. 'It is also much cheaper to run an Internet bank as there is no need to set up a branch.' Despite its success in Britain, Prudential has no plans to bring the Egg concept to Hong Kong yet, even though the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has invited companies to apply for a virtual banking licence. 'It is still too early to bring Egg overseas. We plan to prove that Egg can be a profitable business before we take it to other parts of the world,' he said. At present, Prudential has seen no profits from Egg, despite securing a large customer base. The insurer would have to wait until 2002 before Egg started making money, Sir Roger said.