Allianz wants to grow its headcount in Asia this year, but is up against a skills shortage in emerging markets like China and India, according to Rangam Bir, the firm’s Asia-Pacific head of property and casualty, and regional market management.
The company, which has about 144,000 employees, 14,500 of whom are based in Asia, is focusing mainly on emerging Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, China and India. "These markets are growing and are underinsured," Bir said. The expansion plans come as Allianz, Europe’s biggest insurer, announced on February 21 that net income in the fourth-quarter of 2012 had more than doubled compared with the previous year.
Bir, 40, was educated in India and has worked for Allianz since 1997, first in India, then in the Middle East and Europe, and now in Singapore. He said in an interview that, while the German insurance company wants to expand, it's difficult to find candidates who understand both Asian markets and global best practices.
Is international experience now as valuable in insurance as it is in banking?
Banking has been globalised for ages, but insurance is rapidly heading that way. People who are only familiar with their domestic market may struggle at an international firm. On the other hand, while I work for a Western insurer with roots in Germany, it’s not enough to rely on conventional European thinking when doing business in emerging markets. We need candidates who can blend Allianz best practice with the reality on the ground; who can overcome local problems without compromising global risk-management standards. We also encourage our own staff to move internationally in-house.
Did your career benefit from working internationally?
Yes, when I joined Allianz in India in 1997 there was not so much of an active market for private insurance there, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to move to Dubai as an underwriter and to work on big projects throughout the Middle East. Everyone views it as one region, but the markets there are very different from one another and you have to adjust how you work accordingly. In Egypt, for example, insurance back then was run by state-owned companies who didn’t have modern international practices. By contrast, the UAE was at the forefront of developing innovative solutions in Islamic insurance. And in Lebanon, with its history of civil war, risks were very difficult to assess.
Do Western insurance professionals have their eyes on Asia?
In the past Western expats used to be much more prevalent in Asian insurance. Today there is more emphasis on moving people from one emerging market to another, so if you don’t already have emerging-markets experience, it’s not so easy. Our expectation is towards having more employees with regional experience in Asia, but of course this could include Westerners if they have this background.
What are the hot jobs in international insurance right now?
Increasingly, I think some insurance professionals should take a risk and branch out of traditional job functions into more innovative ones. Actuaries, for example, are sought after in product-development roles, which are becoming more important in the industry. We need people who can come up with innovative ways to distribute products that are relevant to local customers in each market. Actuaries can help us change our distribution structure. Similarly, even claims people can move into jobs where they help develop value-added claims services.
Customer-analytics is also an emerging area. It involves looking at our portfolio of customers, especially the high-value ones, and seeing what type of products we should be providing them. These analytical skills aren’t unique to insurance, so we can consider people from different sectors, including banking.