NYSE-listed MetLife Inc, the largest US life insurer by market capitalization, is quite bullish about the growth prospects of its Indian Joint Venture unit, PNB MetLife. Michel A Khalaf, who is the President & Chief Executive Officer of this 154-year-old global financial services major with operations in over 40 markets, shared during his ongoing India visit with MetLife’s strategy and vision for the Indian market.

What are MetLife’s strategic plans and priorities for the Indian market?

We operate in mature markets like the US and Japan. We have big businesses there that are quite profitable, that generate a lot of cash for us. We also are in some of the most attractive secular growth markets, and India, China, Brazil are good examples of those markets. And the idea here is that, for us, we have the strong presence in mature markets. If we think about our future, the growth is really going to come in the long run from those attractive growth markets where we see really good momentum from an economic perspective and also from an insurance industry penetration perspective.

India is very much one of those markets that we believe is going to contribute significantly going forward. We see very good momentum here. We’ve been in this market for 21 years and we have a very strong team as well. So, that’s why feel confident about… One, we feel good about being in India, but we also feel confident about India’s trajectory going forward.

Will you look to raise your equity shareholding (47%) in the Indian JV PNB MetLife now that FDI limit stands has risen to 74%?

Whenever I get questions about commitment to India, I say that actions speak louder than words. The fact that we increased our shareholding from 32 per cent to 47 per cent in 2021 reflects our commitment. This (India) is clearly a market that we are committed to and this clearly is a market that is attractive and would play a role in our long term growth trajectory. We are open to further increase our shareholding if the opportunity does present itself down the road. This is something we are open to. We are well capitalized as a company globally.

We are happy with the way our Indian JV is being run. There is no burning platform. But if there was an opportunity to increase our shareholding, this is something we would consider.

Is there any proposal on the table? Are you open to become the controlling shareholder in PNB MetLife?

There’s no…I would say there’s no burning platform in terms of…like I said we are happy with our partnership with PNB. It’s been 10 years since that partnership started, it’s been a great – really great partnership.

Was this issue of increasing shareholding taken up in your meeting with PNB top brass on Monday?

No no.. we talked about sort of the business and the company’s growth and the partnership. It was also a chance for me also to thank Atul Kumar Goel (PNB MD & CEO) for the great support we get from PNB.

Is there an aim on how much do you expect India to contribute to your global operations in terms of revenues or market share?

We’ve seen really good growth over the past 21 years. I would start by the fact that I think we built a really good brand here, which is very important. We have a strategy that I believe will allow us to continue to grow responsibly, but also to grow faster than the market. And when I say responsible growth, I think there are two elements to that. One is, we want to deliver great value to our customers, that’s very important. I think that’s how you build success, resilience and consistency. And, we also want growth that is value accretive to the company over time as well. So, that’s why our definition of growth is called ‘responsible growth’, because it has to have those two components.

What are the key elements of your strategy for India?

Our strategy has three pillars to it here in India. These are distribution excellence, product capabilities and we’re complimenting these products and the distribution capability with digital and enabling tools that make life easier for our distribution partners, and better service for our customers as well, which is also very important. The last piece is around our people, which is again making sure that we are able to attract the best talent and retain the best talent in the industry.

So what are the aspirations for the Indian market?

I really would like to grow faster than the market. But again, the type of growth matters as well. India is a growth market, so we want it to grow. I think the market has tremendous potential to continue to grow here. I recently met with IRDAI Chairman Panda and was really really impressed, one, with the reform agenda that he’s championing but also with the 2047 vision – Insurance For All. I think those are really important developments here, and I think they augur well for the future of the industry. If you think about India’s economy as the 5th largest in the world, its insurance industry, life insurance industry is 10th largest. I think ranking will only improve going forward.

Do you think you can break into the top five league in Life insurance industry here?

I don’t want to put pressure on our team. (laughs). But, I think it’s less about numbers, it’s more about the trajectory that we see for India. I believe over time we will be able to climb the ladder if you like it, but I just want to emphasize it, we want to do it responsibly, that’s more important to us than just sorting out the market share. We want to go for responsible growth.

So you are focused on achieving responsible growth?

I would not describe our strategy as a market share driven strategy. I would say it’s a responsible growth driven strategies and I believe that you know as long as we continue to maintain that discipline based on everything I’m seeing. I mentioned to the strategy here being distribution capabilities, product capabilities, the fact that here you’re combining sort of global know how with tremendous local expertise and distribution reach. I think those are really powerful – I think it’s a powerful combination. I am extremely pleased with our partnership with PNB, which is one of the oldest and most significant banks in the country. So, I think we have the ingredients to climb the ladder, but we’re going to do it responsibly.

Post COVID19, competition in insurance markets has only gone up. How is MetLife playing a meaningful role in this competitive market in India?

Absolutely. So, I think if you think about the more competitive the market, the more you have to differentiate in terms of your value proposition. So, we are doing that and I think the team here is very focused on making sure from a product and service perspective, we have a differentiated value proposition because increasingly as customers have more choice, they’re going to be more discerning in their choice and they’re going to choose based on what they perceive to be the best value and who offers the best service as well, who’s there to meet their obligations and pay their claims on time in customer friendly manner as well.

So, we’re doing a lot to make sure that we bring capabilities not only from outside, I can tell you that India is a great source of innovation for MetLife as well and I think our approach is that I always tell people that the best Ideas and the best innovations need not happen only in New York or at the headquarters, they can happen in local markets too. There are ideas and products that get developed in India that could be used by us around the world. Our dental plan product that is on a pilot here is one good example.

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