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Singapore start-up aims to displace the insurance ‘dinosaurs’

Singapore start-up aims to displace the insurance ‘dinosaurs’

Singapore Life’s 13th floor office feels only half-finished. The door access panels are still sprouting with bare wires. While the previous tenant left most of the furniture behind, they took the chairs with them.

It is a change of scenery for Walter de Oude, the company’s founder and chief executive, who spent seven years at HSBC’s Singapore insurance business, including four years as CEO.

Last week, Singapore Life became the first life insurer to be fully licensed in the city-state since 1970. It will begin by targeting high net worth individuals, and de Oude hopes that it can muscle into a business that has been slow to change due to ‘inertia, cost and the significance of the challenge’.

‘We all knew [we had to change]. But we were kind of tied. It’s very difficult to make that kind of change, particularly with policies that have been around for tens of years, and you’re dealing with budgetary constraints, and profit targets that you have to meet,’ he said. ‘It’s a big chunk of change to spend on transformation. The appetites haven’t been there.’

The company raised $50 million in series-A funding from Hong Kong-based Credit China Fintech, and IPGL, the family office of ICAP founder Michael Spencer.

Those investors, along with de Oude, are betting that being a Singapore specialist, with a single regulator to deal with, will give it an edge over its multinational competitors – and that the city-state will continue to grow as a base for HNWIs to park and invest their assets.

The HNWI insurance market is typically dominated by universal life products sold through private banks, and Singapore Life hopes to offer its services through the same channels. The company has launched with a universal life offering, and hopes to add variable life insurance product soon.

Singapore Life is also hoping that it can differentiate itself through its technology. De Oude said that the technologies used in the sector are often ‘dinosaur-ish’; by using more modern, flexible systems bought from vendors can substantially lower costs, he hopes.

The company plans to move into the mass market in Singapore, allowing clients to buy life insurance online, as they might travel or car insurance. The potential for the whole business to change is huge, de Oude said, with different sales channels emerging to meet clients’ shifting needs and tastes.

Although it is unlikely that HNWI life insurance products, which integrate other wealth management products, including advice and discretionary investments, will move out of the private banking channel, the industry cannot afford to rest on its laurels, de Oude said.

‘At the moment it is such an integrated solution. You’ve got discretionary assets, you’ve got bank lending, you’ve got relationship pieces, you’ve got advice. The model kind of works. The secret sauce that we’re trying to bring is the nimbleness to change as things change.’

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