Anusha Thavarajah’s foray into the insurance industry happened by chance. As a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. After completing her A-Levels, she was offered a scholarship by the Malaysian government to study actuarial science. With her father’s encouragement, Anusha accepted the scholarship and moved to Birmingham to pursue her tertiary education.
During her second year of university, Anusha sent out applications for a summer internship and received a positive response from a pensions consultancy that had a very accomplished Malaysian at the firm. The Malaysian, whom Anusha considers to be one of her mentors, promised her that if she worked hard and did well in her exams, he would offer her a full time position at the firm. After graduating, she was offered a job at the firm and worked there for three years, gaining a solid foundation in the business.
Anusha returned to Malaysia, switching from pensions management to life insurance. She focused on her work, sat for the professional exams, and soon became Chief Actuary in a Malaysian insurer. Seeking a greater challenge, she moved back to the UK to work as a pricing actuary for the insurance arm of a major bank.
It was when she returned to Malaysia in 2002 that she joined AIA for the first time. After a few years, she moved to ING Malaysia as Chief Financial Officer. During her time there, Anusha started to get involved in a wider range of functional areas as her CEO was taking on greater regional responsibilities. Anusha was eventually made deputy CEO in charge of Operations and IT.
Anusha re-joined AIA Malaysia in 2011 as Deputy General Manager of Finance and Actuarial. It was an exciting time as the company had just gone through an IPO and was intent on making transformational changes across the business. When AIA Group acquired ING’s Malaysian operations in 2012, Anusha was tasked with ensuring a smooth transition. In 2015, Anusha was named CEO of AIA Malaysia and became the first woman to join AIA’s rank of CEOs in the life insurer’s six largest markets in the Asia Pacific region.
Transforming the industry
Under Anusha’s leadership, AIA Malaysia started a mission to put “life” back at the heart of life insurance. For too long, life insurance has been linked to sickness and loss. Instead, AIA believes that life insurance should be about helping people to live rewarding and fulfilling lives, while still protecting them against uncertainties. In June 2016, AIA did just that with the launch of AIA Vitality – a unique insurance and health programme that actively supports and rewards Malaysians for making healthy choices every day so they can live healthier, longer and better lives.
As the largest provider of health insurance, AIA has witnessed the steady decline of health in Malaysia. The company saw the opportunity to use insurance to help its customers improve their health and wellbeing. This innovative, game-changing programme allows AIA to change the conversation it has with its customers by focusing not just on preparing them for life’s unexpected events, but also talking to them about their health and well being. The launch of this programme effectively changes the AIA insurance model from “we’ll help you when something unfortunate happens” to “let us support you to lead a healthy life”. AIA now proactively helps customers to have good health to enjoy a better future. The programme has made waves in Malaysia, validating Anusha’s belief that the life insurance industry must keep evolving to stay relevant, especially among the younger generation.
Taking the lead
With Anusha at the helm, AIA Malaysia continued to make great strides towards achieving its vision of becoming the Undisputed No. 1 Life Insurer in Malaysia. This is evidences by the company’s strong financial results. In the first half of 2016, AIA Malaysia saw a 30 per cent increase in Value of New Business (VONB – an important measure of new business profit for insurers) and a 31 per cent increase in Annualised New Premiums (ANP). In addition, the number of active new Life Planners increased by 30 per cent, while active Life Planner productivity rose by 27 per cent. In line with AIA’s strategy to grow its Takaful business, the first half of 2016 saw a 79 per cent increase in active Takaful-producing Life Planners.
Benchmarked against its competitors in the industry, Life Insurance Association of Malaysia’s statistics for the second quarter of 2016 showed that AIA had retained the No. 1 position for total Annualised New Premiums in both the Individual Life & Group Life businesses, which placed AIA in a remarkably strong position at the mid-year point. At 30 per cent growth, AIA is now the fastest growing life insurer in Malaysia, outpacing the industry’s 19 per cent expansion. In the fast-growing investment-linked products, AIA recorded the highest growth in the industry at 39 per cent. This performance helped AIA to gain market share in the first half of 2016. These strong results stem from a clear business strategy, which includes:
Enabling and engaging AIA’s people.
One of the first things that Anusha did when she took the reins as CEO was to meet with employees to understand their needs. She believes in setting her people up for success by equipping them with the tools and the knowledge that they need to do their jobs well and enjoy coming to work each day. Anusha focused on unifying AIA’s employees through Reach Out – a campaign that encouraged inter-departmental co-operation. Teams or individuals that went beyond the call of duty to provide assistance to their colleagues were acknowledged, rewarded and celebrated. AIA’s people strategies were recognised at the Malaysia HR Awards 2015, where AIA bagged the Silver Award in HR Best Practice for its robust employee engagement initiatives.
Professionalising AIA’s Life Planner Force.
Life Planners continue to be AIA’s main distribution channel and they are often the face of AIA for many of its customers. To enhance the professionalism of AIA’s 14,000-strong Life Planner force, Anusha has prioritised the development of a world-class agency force in Malaysia. This investment in its people has paid off as AIA Malaysia doubled the number of Million Dollar Round Table members in its ranks within the span of a year, thanks to a myriad of training and mentorship programmes that are on par with the world’s best. In an effort to recruit quality Life Planners, the company rolled-out initiatives to support new recruits with a steady monthly income and strong support network to give them the stability they needed to build their businesses. This encouraged recruits to look at Life Planning as a full-time career with AIA, rather than as a part-time job.
Enhancing the customer experience.
Anusha is a firm proponent of putting the customer at the heart of AIA. This commitment is reinforced by the presence of a Chief Customer Experience Officer. Indeed, AIA Malaysia is the only AIA market that has the head of customer experience in its Executive Committee (EXCO). To ingrain customer service into the DNA of AIA Malaysia, the company partnered with world-renowned customer service consultant Ron Kaufman to launch the Up Our Service! Initiative – a programme designed to create a service mindset across every level of AIA Malaysia. All its 2,300 employees attended a two-day workshop and were encouraged to use their knowledge to implement service transformation in their own teams. This resulted in many customer service improvements across the organisation. Perhaps most notable are the refurbishment of AIA customer centres and the revamp of the company’s website. In both instances, improvements were catered to the customers’ needs – introducing automation and self-service machines to increase efficiency and reduce waiting time and simplifying language to allow customers to better understand AIA’s offerings. These initiatives were recognised regionally, as AIA Malaysia bagged four awards at the Asia Pacific Customer Relationship Excellence Awards 2016.
A leader on a mission
Anusha often quotes Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” She believes that if we see opportunities to improve ourselves or the world around us, we cannot just sit passively and hope for change to occur. Each person can make a difference if they start treating each other the way they would like to be treated. This philosophy not only guides her in her personal life, but also in her work life when she thinks about the needs of her customers as well as her employees. She says, “I tell my people that if something’s not right, change it. Make it better. If we all take personal responsibility for what we do as a company, we will be the best company in the world. Our customers will know it and they will continue to trust us to protect their future and the future of their loved ones. If we follow this path with unwavering focus, we will achieve our vision to be the Undisputed No. 1 Life Insurer in Malaysia.”