Challenging twin roles for NTUC Income chief

Keeping insurance accessible and sustainable for all is still a key goal, says Mr Ng.
Keeping insurance accessible and sustainable for all is still a key goal, says Mr Ng.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

A top executive role and fatherhood both landed in Mr Ken Ng's lap the same year - both carrying heavy if different responsibilities.

In 2013, he became father to twin boys just as he took on the post of NTUC Income chief executive.

Hard-pressed to decide which has been the tougher role, Mr Ng, 47, said: "Both are equally challenging, but there's a sense of being accountable and also appreciation. Becoming a father at a late age, I appreciate that opportunity of having kids, which also teaches you some lessons you can bring to work."

For instance, some things are just beyond your control, like how toddlers behave, which "helps put things in perspective".

In his first in-depth interview since taking the helm at NTUC Income, which turned 45 last year, Mr Ng said: "My mandate is to continue the journey as a social enterprise. We are different from our competitors. Primarily, we are a business that has to compete in the marketplace, and we have to be strong enough. On top of that, we have to deliver social outcomes as an NTUC social enterprise."

A major driving force for NTUC Income, set up by the labour movement 46 years ago, is the need to make insurance "accessible and sustainable for all Singaporeans".

One way to do that is by giving value to consumers and acting as a price moderator, said Mr Ng.

"We believe that the better value we provide to our consumers is influencing our competitors to set a better price than would have been the case if we had not been operating in this market."

Looking at markets where prices can be directly compared, he highlighted motor insurance and health insurance as ones where NTUC Income had seen a positive impact.

"We see that competitors in motor insurance do set prices based on our price, and we act as a sort of price benchmark. In health insurance, we also find that our competitors' prices have come very close to ours."

The ultimate aim for NTUC Income is to be among the most competitive players in life and general insurance. Mr Ng said: "Price is only one element of value, of course. We've also been working on areas like product features. As Singapore becomes more affluent, people don't look only at price."

That is why NTUC Income has also added value to its products.

In motor insurance, it set up Orange Force, a 24/7 accident response team, in 2011. Last year, it launched a one-stop motor service centre, where policyholders can drop off their moveable cars after an accident.

Group and health insurance make up 25 per cent of NTUC Income's revenue. General insurance generates 10 per cent and life insurance 65 per cent.

"Our primary goal is to compete effectively and to have market leadership so we can assert a price influence," said Mr Ng. "Like our competitors, we want to expand our distribution footprint, have competitive products and services, and grow our market share. It's just that we're doing it for a different purpose."

For life insurance, he said the target is to move from the top five to the top three.

The insurer has also been trying to reach a younger and more technologically savvy demographic in recent years.

Last year, it started matching potential clients with its financial planners online, through its Adviser Connect platform. From April 1 last year to June 30 this year, the site had 221,000 unique visitors and almost 32,000 "conversations".

Mr Ng said: "After 17 months, some of the top advisers are getting a large proportion of sales from this, as much as 20 to 25 per cent."

NTUC Income also has 16 products available online, including the personal mobility guard insurance released in April for those who ride bicycles or personal mobile devices. It has held several campaigns as well - one in 2014 to raise financial awareness among youth, and another early this year to raise awareness about retirement, which resulted in a furore over a publicity stunt by a Singapore actress gone wrong.

Despite the hiccups, said Mr Ng, NTUC Income is serious about reaching out to consumers. "To help them understand the value we can offer, we publish the yields of our policies that mature. We want to be transparent about what our policies have actually earned."

Such yields have been under the spotlight for years, especially for participating policies where the yield can affect non-guaranteed bonuses.

"If all insurance companies published their yields, it would help the consumer. In Britain, all firms publish the actual returns, and consumers compare them. It's a way of keeping companies honest," said Mr Ng.

"Unit trusts also have league tables that show the performance. Although it's always said that past performance is not a guide to the future, at least that's one piece of information people can look at. At least they can spot trends, like whether a company is consistent or the yields fluctuate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Challenging twin roles for NTUC Income chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe