MENTION RICHARD BURTON and most people get an instant image of the 1960s movie star who was twice married to Elizabeth Taylor, to whom he gave a 69 carat diamond. However the Richard Burton who The Informer recently caught up with is the regional general manager of Greater China for Coface Group - a French-based credit insurance company which offers protection for exporters against default payment of buyers. Born in England, Mr Burton holds a degree in mathematics from Kent University and an MBA from City University Business School in London. Before becoming an insurer, he did a range of jobs from government defence contractor, to the London Stock Exchange and as an independent consultant. Since joining Coface in London in 1993, he has worked at the company's Paris headquarters and was part of an international development team which set up business and partnerships in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Greece, Ireland, Israel and South Korea. He became general manager of the Hong Kong branch in February 2000 and was promoted to his present position in July of that year. The Informer talked to him about his career and famous name. Q. How did you switch from the defence industry to becoming an insurer? A. I graduated with a mathematics degree and got a job calculating the probabilities of advanced weapons hitting the right target. It is a pretty specialised job and to be frank not one that was very exciting. People's eyes would roll when I explained what I did, so that encouraged me to change track. I then turned to a more glamorous job in a start-up cable television business, trying to convince venture capitalists and local authorities that it was a good idea to spend large sums digging up roads to lay cables for dozens of new TV stations. It was very interesting to be involved in a start-up, but I guess we were too early in that business as not many were convinced. I soon changed again to work at the London Stock Exchange (LSE) developing the information business and international equity market. I visited Hong Kong once in that job in the late 1980s to promote the LSE. I then decided to progress further and do an MBA and I went to City University, now Cass Business School, in London. Q. Why did you choose to join Coface after you got the MBA? A. I was in serious debt due to tuition fees and not having had an income for some time. I needed a job as soon as possible and Coface was the first to offer me one. This was in February 1993. I thought it was pretty good to join a French company as it meant I may be able to work in Paris - my favourite city. That is exactly what happened. Soon after I joined the London office, I was sent to the insurance company's headquarters in Paris to work on international development projects all over the world. Paris was where I met my wife and nearly four years ago I was asked to come to Hong Kong to manage the newly created branch. Since then we have had three children, two of them born in Hong Kong. Professionally and personally I have had a fantastic experience. I paid off my debt too. So joining Coface and then coming to Hong Kong were definitely the best moves I have made. Q. How popular is credit insurance in Hong Kong? Did Sars and the recent political crisis have any impact on this type of product? A. Only about 2 per cent of exports are credit-insured today. In markets where credit insurance is more developed, mainly in Europe, it can be five to 10 times that. In Hong Kong, users of credit insurance range from the very largest quoted companies to the smallest businesses, but there are too few of them. However this is changing rapidly. More and more Hong Kong businesses are being asked by their buyers to deal with them on open account and will need credit insurance. Combine this with financing from a bank backed by a credit insurance policy as security and you have a powerful tool to help companies trade more securely. The Sars crisis affected our business and we have noted a pick-up in late payments in some sectors, mostly restaurants and some stores - those directly hurt. However, we are sure that this will be shortlived and that the worst is behind us. This is why we have maintained a high rating for Hong Kong, despite the current political situation which we do not think will affect the prospects for the economy, unless it is not resolved quickly. Q. Do you have anything in common with the movie star Richard Burton? A. That is a question asked by just about everybody. I do not have the star's great voice and I can't afford to buy a 69 carat diamond for my wife. I would rather be a descendant of the 19th century explorer Sir Richard Burton who went just about everywhere in the world and was passionate about languages and different cultures. Q. As you have travelled and worked in so many places, how do you compare places like Brazil, Chile and Israel with Hong Kong? A. They are all fascinating and all very different, but they have one thing in common - they welcome strangers with open arms. But Hong Kong is definitely the busiest place I have ever been to. Q. What do you like most, and least, about Hong Kong? A. I like the beach and the sea. I am lucky to live in Stanley where I can go to the beach with my children. Most of the people are very friendly and so you have an active social and professional life. I dislike the busy traffic on Friday night. Q. Which French restaurant in Hong Kong do you think is the best? A. Petrus at the Shangri-La. Both the atmosphere and the food are very good. Q. What would you like to do if you were not an insurer? A. I admire journalists. I believe that the role of a journalist in helping people understand an ever more complex world is vital. Alternatively, I would have liked to be a chef, but my friends and family who have eaten my creations prefer me to remain a credit insurer.