FOR CHARLES MONAT, tailoring insurance policies to produce cash when it is needed at a cheaper rate than it would cost to raise money from alternative sources, such as from a bank, is much like being a social worker. 'What I have been doing in Hong Kong for the past 35 years is an extension of the social work I used to do for the Department of Health in New York City,' said the chairman of leading insurance firm Charles Monat Associates. 'It is of redeeming social value, and all the staff who work with me can see this as well.' He said customers received practical assistance and substantial benefits in times of difficulty, which meant that employees could feel good about the work they did. Mr Monat originally arrived in Hong Kong via Thailand. He had served there as a United States army lieutenant at a support base for B-52 bombers in Pattaya. After returning to New York in 1969, he came back to work for an insurance brokerage, known then as Robilec International and later taken over by global insurer Aon. 'They sent me to their Hong Kong office where I was appointed as an estate planning manager to sell insurance to Americans,' he said. The job involved financial and wealth planning, using insurance products to provide liquidity. In 1971, he decided to branch out on his own and, with just US$5,000 in savings, set up his current firm as a one-man insurance brokerage run from a friend's office. By 1973, things were looking up, making possible a move to a 200 sqft office in Central, before subsequent steady expansion made larger premises necessary. As the business grew, Mr Monat added staff and, for the past six years, has had a team of 15 co-workers, whom he generally refers to as partners. To date, the company has sold about US$8billion worth of insurance to about 8,000 clients and has paid out about US$100million in claims. 'Most of our Hong Kong staff have been with us for more than 10 years and some as long as 25 years, which is a great asset,' he said. 'That continuity means they are able to establish close relationships with clients who will immediately recognise the voice at the end of the telephone. They are like partners rather than employees, and my philosophy is that if I do well, I like to share.' Remuneration packages comprise basic salary plus a discretionary bonus, which is awarded on a point-scoring system. This takes full account of the support contributed by back-office support staff as well as those in frontline roles responsible for closing new contracts. 'The business is essentially wealth planning and insurance planning to provide liquidity solutions for such things as loss of income, or to pay estate duties,' Mr Monat said. 'What these plans do is create tax-free cash at a discount to prevent the forced liquidation of assets.' One product in demand in Hong Kong is 'key person insurance'. As an example, this might be sold to partners in a private business and would be payable in the event of one of them dying. It enables the surviving partners to buy out the shares and create cash relatively quickly for their estates. 'The idea is that you are indemnifying against loss of goodwill and profits of the person who dies,' Mr Monat said. 'In some cases it could be an extremely productive person in a public company. In many cases, [it is] a private company where just one or two people generate all the profits.' The policy can be used to redeem shares for a deceased estate at an agreed fair value, thus avoiding the disputes and litigation that often arise. Usually, the company pays any premiums. 'Other areas we work in have to do with charitable donations,' Mr Monat said. 'Given the growth of personal wealth in this part of the world, more people are becoming interested in charitable giving and an insurance contract is the best way to do it.' In his opinion, the most important quality for sustained success in financial advisory work is being able to communicate well. This extends to being a good listener, properly evaluating individual clients' needs, and having the vision to see which solution offers the best fit. All of this becomes easier with experience. In all the time he has been selling insurance in Hong Kong, Mr Monat said the only 'complaints' he had to deal with were from customers who realised too late that they had not taken out enough insurance. 'As wealth and assets grow, insurance cover should be expanded,' he said. 'So, we make a practice of getting together with clients every year to do a review of their needs.'