Company plans tenfold rise in agents as provincial licence opens door to cities Manulife Financial is gearing up for expansion in China with plans for a tenfold increase in the number of its mainland agents as the country relaxes its restrictions on overseas insurance companies. Manulife's mainland joint venture with Sinochem was one of six given approval by the China Insurance Regulatory Commission last week to expand from offering individual life insurance to group life, health and pension business. It also received approval to expand its Guangzhou city licence to a provincial licence, allowing it to operate throughout Guangdong, excluding Shenzhen, which has a special status and still issues separate licences. 'The relaxation will significantly enhance Manulife-Sinochem's exposure and product range in China. We can open into many more cities and offer a wider product portfolio. This brings our business scope in line with that of any domestic insurer and we plan to take full advantage of as soon as possible,' said Marc Sterling, executive vice-president of Asia for Manulife Financial. 'Expanding from a city-by-city licence to a province-by-province licence is a huge difference and means we can open as many branches as we like in any city in the licensed province,' he said. In Guangdong, the joint venture plans to set up branches in cities including Dongguan, Zhongshan and Foshan. Mr Sterling believes that in five years, the company will have about 4,000 sales agents in Guangdong - 10 times more than at present - and will need to send managers from Hong Kong and Taiwan to train them. 'It is very easy to set up the office but the key issue is to recruit the best talent and provide them training to sell the products,' he said. After Guangdong, he said, the company would open an office in Ningbo in April, after receiving a Zhejiang provincial licence. It will also apply for licences in Jiangsu and Shandong provinces. 'We are targeting the rich provinces where there is room for growth. We won't be in every province in China, but within the next five years, we could operate in all the provinces we want to be in,' Mr Sterling said. As the joint venture has the right to offer individual life, group life, health and eventually pension plans to mainlanders, agents can sell policies to headquarters of firms with staff working nationwide. Mr Sterling said the group business would therefore focus on major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where most companies had their headquarters.