HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Insurer AIA Group shares fell 2.8 per cent on Monday morning (March 13) in Hong Kong as investors digested the news that chief executive Mark Tucker will be retiring in September after what was regarded as a stellar seven-year stint at the helm.
A one-time professional footballer who has held several leadership jobs including running Britain's Prudential, Mr Tucker is leaving the world's third-largest life insurer as it faces new headwinds amid a regulatory crackdown in China and sluggish growth in some other key regional markets.
He will be succeeded on Sept 1 by Mr Ng Keng Hooi, who has served as AIA regional chief executive for the past 6½ years. Mr Ng joined AIA in 2010, before which he was group CEO of Singapore-based Great Eastern Holdings and served a 20-year stint at Prudential.
Mr Tucker, 59, will be a tough act to follow. Since taking the company public shortly after his appointment in 2010, the British-born executive has presided over a doubling in AIA share's price - driven for the most part by a pivot in focus towards Asia.
Over the past seven years, the company has expanded rapidly into key growth markets including India and China, leading to a quadrupling in the value of new business at AIA to US$2.8 billion between 2010 and November 2016, according to the company.
"Under his leadership, AIA has achieved impressive growth via steady topline expansion, ongoing product mix improvement, expansion in distribution channels, accretive acquisitions, as well as expansion into new markets," analysts at Citi wrote on Monday, noting the company was still well-positioned with an experienced senior management team.
The group put in another strong performance in 2016 buoyed by steady demand for policies in Hong Kong, with mainland Chinese seeking overseas investment opportunities to cushion the impact of a weakening yuan. China and Hong Kong together accounted for about half of new business growth globally at AIA.
But last year's surge in mainland Chinese seeking policies in Hong Kong has led Beijing to crack down on such purchases, and worries about further regulatory tightening are weighing on investor sentiment, according to analysts and industry insiders.
AIA shares dropped 15 per cent in the December quarter, and were down 6 per cent for 2016 - their first annual decline since the insurer's market IPO. Citi said on Monday the group's historical growth had set a high base and that much of the easiest expansion had already been realised under Mr Tucker's tenure.
"We also continue to believe lingering capital controls in China may further dampen growth from here," it said.
The group's other major markets include Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia - the South-east Asian countries that have become a battleground for foreign insurers attracted by the region's lower insurance penetration levels. Industry insiders said these markets had also seen a tough start to the year.
"It has been a difficult start to the year for the insurance industry. The very profitable mainland (Chinese) business is showing signs of slowing down because of the crackdown on capital outflow channels," said a senior executive at a rival group in Hong Kong.
"Secondly, some other regional markets like Thailand, which have been strong growth areas, have showed a decline recently. So the Asian insurance industry is braced for a few tough years."
Analysts at Morgan Stanley said Mr Ng's strong industry experience should make for a "manageable" transition.