What is your remit at Generali International?
My official title is head of sales for Generali International. I have been with the company for just approaching 11 years now.
I originally joined as regional director for the Far East based in Hong Kong and I have been based in our Guernsey head office for nearly six years.
My responsibility is for delivery of new business sales results on budget and ensuring our regional offices run efficiently, and also looking for new business development opportunities.
Where did you make up the bulk of your new business last year?
The mix of our business from the international IFA community worldwide is quite evenly split between the three main regional offices: Hong Kong, including our Singapore and other Far East regional activity; Dubai and Cyprus, covering the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe; and Ireland, covering Western Europe and Latin America.
I would say the highest latent growth in 2011 was in the Middle East region, but we also saw significant growth in Latin America, and this year in particular I would expect the Far East to do very well as the new Singapore branch becomes established.
Were your sales up in every region, or were there declines in some areas?
Sales were up in all regions other than the private bank channel in Generali International, although that was compared to a quite exceptional year in 2010. But what I would say is that while volumes are always important we really focus on writing the right quality of business rather than quantity, always sensitive to consumer value and risk.
What types of clients are there in these regions?
They are predominantly high net worth, high-earning expats and also internationally-oriented domestic investors in our authorised markets.
There are some typical expat centres such as Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but increasingly we have seen a lot of interest from domestic investors in places such as Hong Kong.
How does the pattern of single premium and regular premium products vary from region to region?
Our traditional strength at Generali has really been with regular premium products. Our flagship Vision plan has had year-on-year sales increases for pretty much all of the ten or 11 years I have been involved in the company.
We have also recently been investing very heavily into our portfolio bond product, Professional Portfolio, and the main focus has been on streamlining and automating the service that supports the actual product.
So, for example, we are now able to offer straight-through processing and dealing instructions for over 4,000 lines of funds and stocks, and that is just one feature that will certainly help us to grow our single premium business with both brokers and banks.
What were the trends in terms of underlying fund selection by your clients?
The regular premium investors are typically high earners so they are usually seeking long-term capital growth, and are also typically willing to take on more adventurous investment options than you would see people doing in their home countries.
So what we tend to see is higher inflows into emerging market funds, commodities, themes such as agriculture, infrastructure, precious metals, and luxury brands – these have all been popular recently.
What trends did you notice last year in terms of fund selection?
The addition of new funds to our unit-linked range is a good way for us to add value and to help our intermediaries to have compelling propositions for their clients, and the areas that have been most popular are the ones I have mentioned [above].
Are investors returning to equities and becoming less risk averse generally?
I think there is still a great deal of nervousness and uncertainty about markets generally. At the same time, people recognise great opportunities in certain asset classes and specific geographical regions and they also have more tools at their fingertips to be able to play a more proactive role themselves if they wish to get more involved in fund selection.
Ultimately, we believe it is the job of the adviser to ensure no matter what is happening in markets, people recognise the need to save.
I believe our advisers have been very successful over the past few years at doing this and that is reflected in our consistent new business growth.
We have had consistent growth in both regular and single premiums and, during the ten years I have been involved, our volumes have increased tenfold.
Are you focusing on any particular regions in 2012?
The core focus for us is growing business in all regions, with particular focus on Singapore and Dubai as we build our presence in these markets.
We are also, since the appointment of James Weston, very proactive in seeking opportunities for growth in bank distribution channels.
The third area would be working on opportunities for further collaboration with other Generali companies around the world.
Is there anything from that summary you would like to expand on?
Yes. We call this collaborative concept ‘Business in a box’, which packages all the various elements of bringing our products to market in an easily deployable framework.
We would like to collaborate with other Group companies to extend their offering in their own markets.
What are your priorities in terms of the Generali International product range this year?
Over the years we have continually refined and enhanced the three core products, Vision, Choice and Professional Portfolio, and we will continue to do that for the foreseeable future. We are also investing heavily in technology to make the use of those products simpler both for advisers and clients.
But we are also currently exploring ideas for a new generation platform and one that can easily adapt to evolving regulation models and different markets.
So, most recently, we have been very active in engaging with intermediaries, regulators and end consumers to ensure the ideas that we are pursuing are as relevant as possible.
What do you think of Singapore’s announcement of a major review of its advisory industry?
We welcome anything that is going to help with transparency for customers and improve the quality of advice in the market generally. So we will be engaging with the Monetary Authority of Singapore in their industry feedback. We are generally very supportive of the initiatives they are talking about.
What impact might that have on how you design products?
We would need to see the outcome, but we are mindful of regulatory change around the world and ensuring our products can adapt and grow in different environments and different advisory models as well.
Are there any areas in which Generali International is deploying more resources, in terms of marketing or recruitment of more sales people?
First of all, technology is influencing all aspects of our business and that of the industry – from how we deploy the most efficient business model for ourselves, to the creation of online tools for clients and advisers.
So for the past three or four years, Generali International has invested almost €10m in new business administration systems.
That was a massive undertaking, but it now puts us in a position where we can facilitate straight-through processing solutions much more readily, and these are designed to help advisers and clients interact with us in a more efficient manner.
Something we have always been particularly pleased about is to have been voted the best online proposition in the International Adviser awards for the past two years by advisers in the Far East, so that suggests we are heading in the right direction.