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Very high standards

Published on Friday, 26 Jul 2013
Standard Life (Asia) CEO for AEM Alan Armitage
Photo: Gary Mak
Edinburgh-based group operations officer Sandy Begbie
Photo: Gary Mak

Standard Life is on a hiring spree to achieve its big plans for Asian expansion

Last year, Standard Life set up new branches in Singapore and Dubai. It is also in the final phase of converting its Hong Kong subsidiary into a regional hub. Improving the underlying performance was the reason the group started up a transformation programme three years ago.

Sandy Begbie, group operations officer based in Standard Life’s headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland, describes the transformation strategy: “The first three years was very much about taking on existing businesses, fundamentally improving their performance and getting them fit for the future. The next three years is all about how we’re going to leverage those businesses in a way in which we can capture more of the value that sits within our existing operations.”

Part of the challenges at Standard Life is striking a balance between a 188-year-old organisation that is rich in heritage and the need to develop a young, innovative, dynamic and entrepreneurial organisation.

Established in 1999, Standard Life (Asia) relaunched its business in 2007 by shifting its focus to retail savings and investment, keeping up with the rest of the Standard Life Group. These are the same areas it is expanding in Singapore and Dubai.

“A lot of our emphasis now is how to leverage our footprint and grasp the opportunities that are in front of us,” says Alan Armitage, CEO for Asia and Emerging Markets (AEM) at Standard Life (Asia). “Part of creating an Asian emerging-market-centric business is to have people here respond to the opportunities that these areas provide.”

Armitage has worked in various posts at Standard Life since joining the company 23 years ago. He started in IT, before shifting to business programme management and then general sales management.

“I’ve found a real opportunity for variety within the organisation that has allowed me to develop my skills and have real interest in the things I work on. I’ve had the opportunity to work on exciting and interesting projects for a business that is developing and going places,” Armitage says.

Standard Life sees AEM as a key focus for business growth and is committed to developing its retail savings and investments business in Asia. The wholly owned subsidiaries of its AEM business had total assets under administration of £253 million (HK$3 billion) as of March 2013, versus £233.1 billion (HK$2.78 trillion) for the group.

Standard Life’s operation in Hong Kong used to only be focused on the city itself and North Asia. Being promoted into a hub entails a considerable number of job roles being moved to Hong Kong. Even though the new roles will be geographically based in Hong Kong, successful applicants will actually be supporting the businesses in Dubai and Singapore as well.

Besides the transfer of roles and responsibilities, Hong Kong will also play a greater role in decision-making as the AEM leadership team sets up base here to drive growth in Asia.

In the past, making decisions from Edinburgh over matters relating to the local market had at times been both frustrating and ineffective. “When decision-making is taken on the ground, it’s much quicker, more relevant and actually responds to local market conditions. We are basically setting the business up for success,” Begbie says.

“Communication thousands of miles apart is always a challenge. The problem was we tried to apply a big group infrastructure over a small business and ended up constraining that business. We are freeing the business up, moving the decision-making into the region and having oversight from the group,” he adds.

Standard Life is looking to build a team that can help springboard the company to greater heights. Many of the positions being moved from Edinburgh to Hong Kong are largely back-office roles. A significant number are IT-based as the company makes essential system changes to support the move. There are also roles in business development, marketing and customer service.

“We are really getting close to our customers and business partners here so that, one, we can understand their needs, and two, we can respond to their needs more dynamically than we have done in the past,” Armitage says.

Standard Life is also casting a wider net as it searches for people who have entrepreneurial flair.

“We’re going beyond the financial service industry to see if there’s talent that we can bring into this organisation. We recognise that there’s an opportunity for us maybe to reshape things. Those who want to come in and make a difference, that’s the type of people that we’re looking for,” Armitage says.

Begbie says candidates will find that they are joining an organisation that’s small enough for their voices to be heard and that provides a collaborative, collegiate feel around what is done within the organisation. “Hopefully, people will see this as a real opportunity to develop their skills and their careers,” he adds.

Despite having country-specific businesses, Standard Life ensures employees feel a connection with the broader group, while also having a good sense of identity with their own local business.

“We are not a group that is heavily centralised, but likewise we’re not one that is completely decentralised. Our employees enjoy the benefits of being part of a group, but they also have a strong identity at local level,” Begbie says.

Armitage adds: “We kind of leverage our size. Individuals joining us will have plenty of opportunities to have real influence on the direction that the business takes, but at the same time feel that they have wider support as well.”

About 40 roles are now open in Hong Kong, with the rest split between Singapore and Dubai. Once all positions are filled, the workforce in Hong Kong will total 190, excluding employees of Standard Life Investments, which is also growing and expanding its Asia business.

“We want to keep it relatively tight because we also want to make use of group support and third-party business partners and suppliers to enhance our business,” Armitage says.



Armitage and Begbie on how to grow the Asia and emerging markets business

Organic growth "Our primary focus is on how we can get more value from existing businesses."

Three wealth centres "Our emphasis now is how to leverage that footprint and to really grasp some of the opportunities that are in front of us."

Group support "We maintain our close links with the Standard Life Group to see how we can further leverage its capability, expertise and infrastructure."

Hometown decision "When decision-making is taken on the ground, it's much quicker, more relevant and actually responds to local market conditions."

Fitting in "We have a strong set of values and seek people who fit our culture."


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