Death and taxes, the cornerstones of a life in insurance for Alwin Lam
From a humble upbringing in Guandong, to the peak of the Hong Kong life insurance community, Alwin Lam shares his thinking on what has made the sector a vital ingredient in Hong Kong’s financial scene
It was former US President Benjamin Franklin who is credited with the much-coined adage penned in a 1789 letter that, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”.
And rather smartly, legendary Hong Kong life insurer Alwin Lam Mun-dart says he stuck rigidly to those two key elements, to become the city’s top sales agent, when he first joined the sector nearly half a century ago.
Now AIA International’s honorary chairman, Lam was first blooded in the industry with Manulife, in 1970, and still well remembers how hard it was getting his first signature on a proposal form.
“Back then, many Chinese didn’t like to discuss anything related to death, which is considered to be unlucky. So it was tough selling them the idea of buying a policy to protect their family in case of their death.”
So he studiously avoiding overusing the ‘d’ word, focusing instead on taxes to sell the idea.
“When I first started, Hong Kong still had a 20 per cent estate duty. I told my clients that buying life insurance would help pass on the family wealth to the next generation, without having to worry about coming up with the cash to cover the cost of that tax.
“This led many wealthy clients to buy policies from me,” he said. The estate duty was only abolished in 2006.
Within just three years, Lam had become Manulife’s top salesman, and was promoted quickly to lead the agency team in the city.
David Hancock, the firm’s then regional head of Southeast Asia, eventually made him the first Chinese to head the Manulife Hong Kong business in 1986.
After steering the operation for seven years, he had brief stints at Sun Life in 1995 and 1996, and the following year as Hong Kong was handed over to China after 150 years of British colonial rule, he joined AIA, where he remains until today.
Although now 77-years-old, he says he has lost none of his passion for insurance, and certainly has no plans to retire. The longevity of his dedication is based on a handful of core principles.
“Life insurance is a lifelong promise. It offers protection to families if their main bread winner falls sick or dies. It also allows people to plan for education and retirement.
“For the past 48 years, I have just helped a lot of customers offer protection to their families... and of course it has also given me a good income.”
With more than 15,000 sales agents, AIA is now Hong Kong’s largest life insurer.
When he collected a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th anniversary dinner of Hong Kong Federation of Insurers last Tuesday, the more than 100-strong audience gave him a standing ovation. [South China Morning Post was a co-organiser of the award.]
Among them was Edmund Tse, AIA’s group chairman, who told the Post that back in the day, he spent three years trying to tempt Lam to join the firm.
“Mr Lam is so good at dealing with people. He knows exactly how to drive a team. His leadership of AIA over the past decades has proved that. I certainly did the right thing chasing him for so long,” Tse said during the award ceremony.
In turn, Lam modestly adds he feels lucky to have had Tse and Hancock guiding his early career.
The huge success of his lifetime in the industry is also all the more remarkable, given his humble upbringing.
Born in Guangdong, the southern mainland province, in 1941, his mother died when he was just seven and his father then decided to try his luck starting a business in neighbouring Hong Kong.
The young Lam was left at home with his grandmother and a younger brother and sister, and well remembers the tough existence they had surviving, often going hungry and living in very basic conditions for much of his childhood.
At 15 year old, his father arranged for him to illegal enter Hong Kong, a perilous journey back then over the mountains. Without food for days, he was caught by the Hong Kong police.
“The policeman was very kind and gave me a soft drink and a biscuit. It was so delicious that I still remember how good it tasted,” he remembers.
“Yes, my childhood was full of hardship but that prepared me well for the challenges that arose later in life.”
He eventually went to secondary school in Hong Kong and then university in Australia, but couldn’t finish his degree, after his father’s factory went bust. The two then set one up in South Korea, but that venture foundered too.
He did, however, meet his wife there and the two married in 1967, going on to have three children, and now five grandchildren.
“Hong Kong was, and is still like a paradise to me. The city is so full of opportunity,” he says.
“Young people here should be prepared to wait, as there are always great chances around the corner.”
His advice to the next generation is as simple as was his own early principles, based on Franklin’s famous punchline.
“By combining passion and hard work,” he says, “anyone can have a successful career in Hong Kong.”