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Published on Friday, 20 Sep 2013
James Tan
Photo: Gary Mak

James Tan is leading Friends Provident International’s bid to boost Asia growth

Friends Provident International (FPI), one of Hong Kong’s longest-standing offshore insurance companies, is embarking on a new Asia-focused strategy as it celebrates its 25th year in the region.

“Hong Kong is actually the first city that FPI started a business with in Asia,” says James Tan, the company’s recently appointed managing director. “We’ve had great partnerships and customers, and it has been a very positive story for us for the past 25 years.”

Tan’s appointment earlier this year marked the first time that the managing director of the business was based in Asia. This is part of the strategy to bring decision-making and other important functions closer to where FPI’s business opportunities are. Prior to the shift, much of FPI’s business was managed out of Britain.

“At that time, when the business hadn’t reached [its current] scale, this made sense because the head office had all the skill sets and operations to support the business in Asia and the Middle East. But as we grew in scale, the need for us to be in the market and be closer to the client became apparent,” Tan says.

“There’s a lot of continuous wealth going into the Middle Eastern region – the same as in Asia. We are now positioned in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UAE – the key financial centres in the region – to capture these opportunities.”

Part of the Friends Life Group, FPI is currently renovating its Hong Kong office to pave the way for a double-digit increase in hiring over the coming months. On completion, scheduled for the end of September, its new home will be able to accommodate 86 people, compared to the original capacity of around 60.

“We have some roles, including a financial controller and the proposition team, that we are moving to Asia. The whole idea is to have these functions here rather than 6,000 miles away in Britain so we can serve our clients in this region better,” Tan says.

FPI has £7.3 billion (HK$90.2 billion) in assets under management as of the first half of 2013, a figure that has grown by almost 18 per cent over the £6.2 billion in the same period of 2012.

When it started 25 years ago, the company concentrated on servicing the expatriate segment. Over the years, its products and propositions have become increasingly popular with affluent domestic customers. “We continue to grow both segments. That’s a very positive message to the market that we are able to cater to various customers,” Tan says.

Although the company has no physical presence in mainland China, it receives plenty of business from the north Asia region. Over the past three years, approximately 10 per cent of Hong Kong business has been derived from fly-to-buy transactions from the mainland.

“Mainland Chinese come to us wanting to purchase our products. Being present in Hong Kong allows us to access these opportunities and provide our financial services to these people,” Tan says.

FPI won nine different awards last year for products and service delivery. “We’ve developed some very good propositions over the years. We get plenty of support from our distributors and will continue to reinvent ourselves to make sure that we keep things fresh and innovative,” Tan says.

Originally from Singapore, Tan has always been good with numbers, but he avoided opting straight for maths when he was selecting a major at college in the US.

“Maths was an option, but I realised that actuarial science was more interesting. At that time, it was the number one job in the US, so I thought choosing it would be an interesting career path for me,” he says.

After receiving his degree in actuarial science and insurance management, Tan worked at various financial institutions in the US and in Asia, including stints at Standard Chartered Bank and AIA, prior to joining FPI in 2012.

Having lived and worked in Singapore and Hong Kong, he finds very little difference between the two cities. “You can find good talent in both places. Hong Kong seems to have a lot of energy, in terms of people. But from a family perspective, Singapore slightly edges out Hong Kong. It has more family places to go to,” he says.

He describes his management style as being heavily influenced by all his former and current bosses. “The initial influence in the US was fantastic. It was very much a coaching style, very professional. Coming to Asia, there’s a lot more energy and sense of urgency,” he says.

He values being positive and doing the right thing. He also insists on being disciplined and focused. “I’ve always been keen to make sure that we do four or five things well, rather than 10 different things poorly,” he says.

With the insurance and banking industries increasingly overlapping, Tan says one of the most important areas in which to excel is communication. This is especially when it comes to insurance jargon and technical terms, which may not be familiar to bankers.

“Over-communicating is fine. It’s worth explaining exactly what you mean in a very simple sense. It’s important [for others] to understand very clearly where you’re coming from and exactly what you’re doing,” he says.

He also manages to combine his love for coffee and flair for communication with keeping a finger on the pulse of his staff. He regularly invites small teams of employees from different departments to morning coffee sessions, where he engages them in informal conversations.

“I want to learn more about them. I try to understand their problems and how to make their jobs easier. It also gives me an opportunity to really break things down for them. This kind of interaction is hard to have in big town-hall meetings,” he says.

One of Tan’s biggest career lessons revolves around communication. Noting the increasing overlap between the banking and insurance industries today, the various jargon and technical terms can have different meanings in the course of interaction between the two.

“Over-communicating is fine. It’s worth explaining in a very simple sense exactly what you mean. It’s important [for others] to understand very clearly where you’re coming from and exactly what you’re doing,” he says.

With so much going on at FPI at present, Tan says it is a challenge to make sure that all the different teams are working well together and pulling in the same direction. “That’s easy to say but hard to do, because everybody is coming from different angles. As a leader, you have to set the right priorities and directions, and you want to make sure that everybody is moving at the right pace,” he says.

Though Tan’s expanded role requires frequent travel, he still tries to find time for his other passions, such as taking his three energetic children to the movies. He also works out regularly, plays basketball and tennis, and watches his favourite sports on TV whenever he gets the chance.

“It’s hard to get American football and baseball on TV in Hong Kong, but I try to follow them as much as I can,” he says.


James Tan lays out his ground rules for leadership
Clear Strategy “People need to understand where the business is going.”
Excitement “Introduce new things, because people always want to learn.”
Positivity “Always make sure to motivate people.”
Communication “Keep an open window to talk to people.”
Discipline “Get the priorities right and set the right pace.”


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