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UAE, Dubai 2014 | FINANCE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Michel Khalaf, President Europe, Middle East and Africa of MetLife, on new regulations, working with Citi, and rebranding.

The UAE insurance market is saturated. What differentiates MetLife from its competitors?

There are over 60 companies in the sector, making for pronounced competition for such a small market. Yet given persisting low penetration levels, this still stands out as an emerging market from an insurance standpoint, which in turn means that it has significant potential for continued growth and development. Among those 60 companies, there are some major players of international standing and smaller players that operate in niche segments. Generally speaking, we believe competition is healthy, because it affords the consumer options, and companies need to be on top of their game and offer the kind of service that will prevent customers from opting for the services of rivals. However, there is also something to be said for having strong, well-capitalized companies of a certain size that can continue to innovate. We have been in this market for over 50 years, and we have a long tradition and history here. We have seen this market grow and evolve over the years. We like to think that we've played an important part in that evolution. We have a diversified business, in terms of both products and distribution channels. Those are some of the characteristics that distinguish us from other competitors here in the UAE.

There is a new regulation that requires mandatory health insurance for all workers in Dubai. How will this impact your business?

The mandatory healthcare reform is a positive development, providing valuable and much-needed coverage for workers here in Dubai. It will be phased in over the next couple of years, but it is hard yet to predict its likely impact on the market and on our own business.

“The industry should have well-capitalized and financially strong companies."

Which institutions do you work with closely in UAE?

We work with various institutions including the UAE Insurance Authority, Dubai Health Authority (DHA), and the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) and engage with the regulator to exchange ideas and best practices based on our experiences. We are also major players in the employee benefits field, providing life and medical insurance coverage to many companies here in the UAE. MetLife also works with employers to determine what some of the most important aspects of the decision will be for them.

The UAE Insurance Authority is also working on regulations regarding capital adequacy ratios. What effect will this have on the insurance sector in the UAE?

The industry should have well-capitalized and financially strong companies. This will help build trust from a consumer perspective, and we think the regulatory authorities' engagement and involvement in this area will be helpful to the industry. We believe that the local market still has room for growth and development. More structured and developed growth is better for business. To make that happen, we need to gradually increase the level of insurance awareness, and part of that is making sure there is trust in the financial standing of the industry as a whole, and in individual companies. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

MetLife also signed an agreement with Citi to establish a distribution plan for 2025. What is your plan for the Middle East in 2015 and beyond?

We already had an agreement with Citi to distribute credit-linked products, which was a global agreement of widespread coverage. That agreement was due to expire in 2015, so we have agreed to a 10-year extension to this agreement with Citi, as well as a series of enhancements, especially on the product front. As stated in a January press release, MetLife and Citi are pioneering the type of partnership required today to ensure that consumer needs are met in a consistent way, and providing enhanced value, products, and services to our clients. Those elements are all present in this agreement, and we are pleased to be able to work with Citi in this area going forward.

How do you get the feedback you need from your customers to be able to provide better products and services?

Steve Kandarian, MetLife Chairman, President, and CEO identified a customer-centric focus as the key to achieving a long-term, sustainable competitive advantage. Competitors can copy products and technology, but becoming a truly customer-centric organization takes years to achieve and is difficult to replicate. To achieve this, we have embarked on a major transformation in every aspect of the way we do business starting with the way we design our services and products. Part of the process is listening to what our customers are saying. To do that, we have measures that include what we call a Net Promoter Score, which allows us to survey customers, gaining feedback on how they view our products and services and our engagement with them. We measure that and use it as a baseline, embarking on activities that are intended to improve on that baseline, and then measure again, in a continuing process so as to ensure that we are making progress in different customer touch points. That is one of our major initiatives, not just in the UAE, but also across the world.

MetLife Alico is rebranding to become simply MetLife. What is the strategy behind this brand change?

One of the ways we run our business is to focus on what we call One MetLife, making sure that there is connectivity across the organization, even in a region as diverse as the Middle East. When MetLife acquired Alico, MetLife understood the value of the Alico brand, and it was important to preserve that value for a period of time at least, which is why we initially branded as MetLife Alico. As MetLife brand awareness has become stronger and more widespread, the aim is to move to a single brand, which is in keeping with the One MetLife approach. This proved highly motivational for our employees and associates, and also helped us to determine how to position ourselves in various markets. We have already moved to the single MetLife brand in many countries across EMEA, and we are getting ready to implement in other markets like the UAE where we currently have the MetLife Alico brand. This will be a central focus for us in 2014.

You already have an agreement for takaful in Malaysia. What's your strategy in that regard in the UAE and the Middle East?

The Asia region has recently announced a joint venture in Malaysia that covers both conventional insurance and takaful, in partnership with a leading Malaysian bank. For us here in the Middle East, we continue to look at takaful as a potential opportunity. There are regulatory aspects that one has to take into consideration when assessing this business. We had partnerships in the past with certain local takaful providers bringing expertise, and we provided knowledge on the product and a distribution front. We may well continue with this strategy. Takaful is a developed business in Malaysia, whereas it remains a nascent business here in the Middle East, meaning there is the potential for rapid expansion and growth in the segment.

What is your outlook on the mainstream insurance sector in 2014?

We had a good 2013 with strong growth, including here in the UAE, and we think that will be sustainable going into 2014. There are of course political and economic factors that can have unexpected effects on how business is done in the Middle East, but in a healthy and stable environment, I expect growth in the sector to exceed GDP growth, simply because the industry has been catching up to the ever-growing middle class in the country and the region at large. That tends to reflect how the insurance industry will grow in the future. All things considered, 2014 should bring continued growth in the life insurance sector.

Some insurance companies are developing specialized products in anticipation of Expo 2020, in particular for the hospitality sector. What is your strategy for offering new products and services for 2020?

First of all, Expo 2020 is a great achievement for Dubai, bringing exceptional growth opportunities, which can only be good news for the insurance sector as well. We tend to develop a wide range of portable and flexible products and services that can cater to specific needs and be distributed across a variety of channels, so we have good experience and know-how that we can bring to bear here. Expo 2020 will open up many opportunities for us, and it's something we can focus on in the coming months and years.

© The Business Year - March 2014