PAYS TO BE PORTABLE

UAE, Dubai 2012 | FINANCE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Michel Khalaf, President of Europe, Middle East & Africa for MetLife, on the company's product offering and adaptation to the local insurance market.

What is the history of MetLife?

MetLife held strong leadership positions in the US, Mexico, South Korea, and Chile for many years prior to the Alico acquisition in 2010. The transaction provided MetLife with a significant global footprint reaching into more than 50 countries around the globe with substantial earnings and distribution power. I would say that historically, around 85% of MetLife's earnings used to come from the US. This figure has come down to about 60% after Alico's acquisition, with over 40% coming now from the international operations as a direct result of this acquisition. In the Middle East, MetLife was branded “MetLife Alico" due to the strong presence of Alico's operations in this part of the world. The operation celebrates its 50th anniversary in UAE this year, with its diversified product offerings, a variety of distribution channels, and a talented team working together to create the best and most innovative value-added services for its loyal customers. A key component for success is a strong commitment to delivering superior value to the market and our customers, both individual and corporate. It takes a company with the experience, expertise, and a wide product range to understand the market and the particular needs varying from protection, retirement, and savings solutions to help individuals reach the financial goals they envision.

What are the benefits of operating from Dubai as a hub for the insurance sector?

Historically our regional Middle East headquarters were based in Beirut. However, when unfortunate events took place in the country in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a need to identify a regional headquarters that made more sense not only from a security perspective, but also from the perspective of having infrastructure that would facilitate our operations, allow us to attract talent, and offer all the facilities to be able to conduct business efficiently and successfully. The UAE, being our biggest operation in the region, it only made sense to relocate here, with our regional headquarters being set up at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), the gateway for capital and investment. In addition, the UAE's track record of business innovation and excellence, as well as the government's forward thinking ideology paired with its geographical location, provides us with a gateway to the wider region. We have pride in being been part of the social fabric of the region for decades.

“New products have appeared that were not present on the market a decade ago or even a few years ago."

How would you characterize the local market in comparison to other markets you are familiar with?

There are a number of local, regional, and national companies present in the market, which makes it very competitive. But when you look at the levels of penetration on the life side, you find that those are still relatively low, especially when you compare them to Western and developed economies. This is still an emerging market in many respects. In recent years, we have seen the development of a number of new channels that give customers better access to insurance products of different natures. We have also seen many new products appear on the market. These are all very positive developments. However, it doesn't characterize the market as saturated in any way. This is a market full of significant opportunities for our industry to grow and prosper, and life insurers can play a vital role in contributing to the economic growth and development

Are you developing any new insurance products for the local market?

We are constantly reviewing our product offerings, and we are also in touch with the market to determine the emerging needs and areas that require additional focus. To give you an example, early in 2011 we launched a whole series of new products focused on education because we feel that is an area that, obviously, everyone cares about in terms of their children's future and education, so there is a need to make sure that there are products out there that fulfill this particular need. People want portability. If they leave, they want to be able to continue to enjoy these products, and to make sure that the products provide them with the benefit that they were intended to provide.

How has the insurance industry transformed locally over the past decade?

New products have appeared that were not present on the market a decade ago or even a few years ago. I think the most important and significant change is that the channels that offer insurance products have also evolved significantly. Banks were not major distributors of insurance products in this part of the world 10 years ago, but that is a trend that followed Western Europe and other markets. Now banks are very important distributors of insurance products. Also a few years ago a channel like direct marketing was not really existent in this market. Now this channel is growing at a fast rate. These complement some of the more traditional channels such as agency, face-to-face, direct and broker distributions, which continue to be very important and significant.

What is your outlook for the insurance sector in the Middle East in 2012?

I am bullish and positive. Obviously there are challenges, and we are dependent to some degree on the global environment, what happens in Europe, and what happens elsewhere, but I think, provided there are no major events, we are going to continue to see growth in the markets here and positive development of the sector. With the regulatory environment also evolving we should look at it as a facilitator, not an impediment. We remain optimistic, we had a good year last year, and we think this year will be good as well.

© The Business Year - September 2012