AXA Singapore CEO Glenn Williams traded lab coat for business suit and tie

Mr Williams joined AXA in 2002 and rose through the ranks with stints in Hong Kong and the Philippines before coming to Singapore in 2011 to take on the role of chief executive.
Mr Williams joined AXA in 2002 and rose through the ranks with stints in Hong Kong and the Philippines before coming to Singapore in 2011 to take on the role of chief executive. PHOTO: AXA LIFE SINGAPORE

His switch from oil and gas to insurance has seen him rise at AXA to become S'pore CEO

Given the oil and gas sector slump, AXA Life Insurance Singapore chief executive Glenn Williams is probably thanking his lucky stars he did not stick with his first full-time job as a lab researcher at energy giant BP.

He was a third-year university student at the time, and was working on how to get oil out of the ground more efficiently, but could not see himself remaining in that job.

"I like the ability to do different things in my career... I just couldn't see people ever getting out of the labs," said Mr Williams, 46.

When he returned to Britain's Loughborough University for his final year, he heard that a friend worked as a training actuary at an insurance firm.

He felt that taking up that sort of post would play to his strengths in dealing with numbers.

The insurance industry also offered the chance to "go for the management route and do different roles", he said.

He started work in London as a student actuary for life insurance firm Guardian in 1992, and did actuarial valuation and pricing till 1995. Then he moved to reinsurance company Swiss Re. In 2000, he was sent to Hong Kong to take on a sales role for two years.

When he was asked to return to Europe, he felt he was not ready to leave Asia.

He joined AXA in 2002 after learning that the insurance giant wanted to grow its business in Asia.

Since then he has risen through the ranks, with stints in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

He attributes his promotions to a desire to add value to his teams.

"In my early days, there were some days when you just went home and you thought, 'What did I actually do today?' And it just felt like it was a waste of a day. I was always very motivated by adding value to something."

He was offered the role of chief operating officer in Hong Kong in 2006 and said it was one of the hardest jobs he had ever taken on.

"There are tens of thousands of processes every single month, and all along I've always felt quite sorry for the chief operating officer because if one of those 10,000 goes wrong, someone's always moaning straight away."

He spent his first three months trying to ensure that no operational mistakes were made in the processing of about 20,000 transactions a month but found that exasperating.

"I was coming at it from a 'knowing' basis - I know the solution, therefore, you should do it like this. A big challenge in those first three months was: How am I going to know what every one of these people do? How am I really going to understand enough to fix everything?"

After three months, however, he realised that this was impossible. Soon after, it struck him that his job was not to ensure the team did not make any mistakes but to foster a culture of putting the customer at the centre of what the firm did.

Teams were each focusing on minimising the processing time within their divisions, but no one was measuring the time it took to process a new policy as a whole.

So as a policy moved from one department to the next, there would be a lag as the policy would be left unattended for periods of time before processing began at the next department. This would ultimately affect the customer's waiting time.

Mr Williams noted, however, that "from a customer point of view, the only thing you're really worried about is, 'When do I sign it and when do I get told I'm covered' ".

Getting people to measure the customer experience as opposed to meeting department-specific targets was quite a difficult cultural change to drive, he said.

He came up with a new set of eight performance metrics, including the total time customers had to wait for policies to be processed and the premium collection rate.

"When we see some customers not having a very good collection rate, maybe we weren't doing a very good job reminding them," he said.

It took employees about three to nine months to change their mindset, he said.

In early 2011, he came to Singapore to take up the role of chief executive, lured by the challenge to grow AXA's business here. While AXA was a "top five player" in Asia, it "was not even a top 10 player" in Singapore then, said Mr Williams.

Under his charge, AXA broadened its product range and distribution channels. Last year, AXA's market share here was 4.1 per cent, placing it at seventh position in terms of market share. This was up from about 1.5 per cent in 2011.

Looking ahead, AXA's first priority is to improve customer experiences further, he said. This involves structuring processes such that customers can easily access the right mix of human and digital resources they need for a given transaction.

If a customer wants to check if a claim is covered, he would probably like to speak with an employee and also receive digital verification that the company is going to pay.

On the other hand, if a customer just wants to change an address, he would probably prefer just logging in and making the change, as opposed to calling in to speak to an employee.

AXA seeks to cater to the needs of the majority for a given transaction, while also giving the minority the services they require, Mr Williams said.

Mr Williams spends his free time trail running and cycling, and also watches football at pubs on Saturday evenings. He got divorced a few years ago and finds that the toughest thing about working in Singapore is being apart from his two daughters, aged six and nine.

That experience has taught him to prioritise his life goals and be comfortable with the sacrifices as a result.

For two years, he had his children living with him in Singapore. Then, he made a decision to spend more time with them and less time on his health. He felt a lot less fit as a result, but said that it was worth the sacrifice.

"When I've got people who've got conflicting goals, I tell them, 'Look there is no right or wrong, but think about what for you is the most important thing,' " he said.

Ms Kwek Perroy Li Choo, chief marketing officer at AXA Life, says Mr Williams is open to ideas and seeks consensus.

"He is very approachable, which for us Asians, is a pleasant surprise. Having a top guy who is very approachable needs a little bit of getting used to, but is always good."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'He traded lab coat for business suit and tie'. Print Edition | Subscribe