What’s the secret to still being fit enough to work at 95? Ask insurance pro William Woo Shau-kee, who has still got game

Longest-serving general insurer in Hong Kong is honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers and the South China Morning Post.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 9:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 10:35pm

William Woo Shau-kee, the oldest general insurance executive in Hong Kong, has a simple secret on how to stay fit enough to work at age 95: play golf.

“I still play golf at least once a week nowadays,” said the 95-year-old managing director of his majority-owned NIU Insurance Agency.

Not only does he credit the game for keeping him physically and mentally sharp, he says it also has been great for client networking in an insurance career that has spanned 61 years.

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“Golf is a good sport that involves a lot of walking and strategies. It keeps your body healthy and keeps you thinking all the time to study what mistakes you made in the game. This keeps your mindset clear,” Woo said in a loud and clear voice in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post at his office at World Wide House in Central.

“It is a good networking to play as a team with the customers. We teach each other to improve our result. This is a good opportunity to establish trust and relationship with customers,” said Woo, who likes to play at the tree-lined Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling,

Woo is now the longest-serving general insurer in the city. On Tuesday, he won The Lifetime Achievement Award – General Insurance, which is co-organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers (HKFI) and the South China Morning Post.

Woo’s trail to making his mark in insurance in Hong Kong begins with his father, who originated from Guangdong and was among the first generation of overseas Chinese students sent to study in the United States in the Qing dynasty. He went back to work in the government in Beijing, where Woo was born in 1923 in a family where he would have three older sisters and a younger brother.

Woo’s father later brought the family to Hong Kong, where Woo studied at Wah Yan College, then LaSalle and later University of Hong Kong. At the Sino-Japanese war, the son had a brief stint working for a unit of the US army.

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After the war, he returned to Hong Kong to work for a shipping company in Hong Kong.

His father taught him to play golf, which he credits for the break that got him into the insurance business.

In 1956, he won a tournament in Taiwan. And a golf buddy who worked at Insurance Company of North America (INA) – which is now Cigna – offered him a job there.

“I did not know anything about insurance, but my friend at INA trusted me and offered me to become production manager. I decided to jump ship for better pay as he offered me HK$1,200 a month, compared with my shipping company at HK$800,” he recalled, pointing out that at the time a piece of bread only cost about HK10 cents and you could ride the tram for HK5 cents. “As such, HK$400 was a great pay rise,” he added.

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Starting at INA in January of 1957, he sold insurance in life, fire, personal accident and public liability. Back then, only a handful of British and American insurance companies offered basic insurance products.

It did not take long for Woo to learn the basics of general insurance. He was recruited to join American International Underwriters (now AIG Insurance Hong Kong), where he worked from 1959 until 1972 – a period in which Woo said he learn a lot about how the international insurance company underwrites all types of risks for company.

He joined Wheelock Marden from 1972 until 1986 to help the company offer captive insurance to many projects of the group, ranging from shipping to other infrastructure projects.

He set up his own company, NIU Insurance Agency, in 1986 at age 63, and now has a team of about 10 people. It is an agency that sells general insurance products for Hong Kong insurer Asia Insurance, German big player Allianz, French-based AXA General Insurance Hong Kong and Japan’s Sompo Insurance (Hong Kong).

Eric Ng Yin-chee, director and general manager of NIU, worked with Woo when he set up the company in 1986. “Mr. Woo is a good boss who gives us a free hand to do the business. Mr. Woo is also very generous that he always bring us to enjoy good food,” Ng said.

For Woo, NIU was a good move because he did not have to think about retirement ages set by big companies.

“All my customers need insurance. I have to continue to work to serve them. I enjoy working every day, and I could not of anything better than going back to the office in Central and meeting all my business friends there.

“Maybe only playing golf and having a good meals with my friends could bring the same happiness to me,” he explained on why he does not fancy the idea of retirement.

Some clients such as Paul Y Construction and some rice merchants have been his customers for more than 60 years.

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To Woo, the key to keeping such long-term client relationships is simple.

“One needs to treat your clients sincerely and honestly. I and my staff would always try to get the right product to fulfil the protection needed by my customers, to offer protection to their business operations,” he said.

Technology of course has rapidly changed over the decades. But Woo still believes in the human touch.

“Our company is small and we only have about 10 staff. But small is beautiful, as we can respond quickly to what the customers want,” he said.

“Some customers tried to go to the bigger bank or insurance company to try on their services. But many of them returned to us as we respond to them quicker. This is why we can survive in a digital age.”