Feb 16, 2023
Manulife CEO on diversification, insurance demand and digital transformation
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Manulife Financial Corp.’s earnings beat shows the strength of its market diversification despite a challenging economic environment, according to its chief executive officer.
On Wednesday, the insurer reported it topped profit expectations in the fourth quarter and post record-high investment gains.
In an exclusive interview with BNN Bloomberg on Thursday, Roy Gori, the president and chief executive officer of Manulife, said the positive earnings report comes “against the backdrop of a really challenging environment” with COVID-19 restrictions in Asia, volatile equity markets and high interest rates.
“We had really strong growth in our Canadian market and our U.S. market from a sales perspective,” Gori said.
“So you know, I'd summarize by saying that [2022 was] a really solid and strong year demonstrating the diversity of our franchise against the backdrop of a really difficult and challenging environment.”
In a press release on Wednesday, it said the company’s Canadian operations helped drive growth in the fourth quarter, with core earnings in that division up 22 per cent to $350 million.
Strength in the Canadian division helped offset a slump in its Asian unit. Manulife’s operations in Asia posted $569 million in core earnings, with full-year results falling to $2.13 billion, from about $2.18 billion in 2021.
“22 was a challenging year for Asia as it relates to COVID restrictions, which quite interestingly, was very different to 21,” Gori said.
“21 we actually saw Asia performed quite well with very limited restrictions in place, which was quite the opposite of what we saw in North America, both Canada and the U.S. saw significant restrictions that impacted sales in 21.”
He said the company saw “almost the inverse” in 2022, with a bounce back in North American operations and stronger restrictions in Asia.
“So again, a big positive that comes through our diversity of our franchise. More recently, we saw a pivot away from COVID Zero and that really fills us with optimism as we think about the full year of 23, and markets getting back to more of a normalization through less restrictions in place that will limit people's travel and movement.”
LONG-TERM ASIAN OPERATIONS
Despite current issues in its Asian operations, Gori said it’s still “a significant source of value for us” and that the company has operated in that market for over 125 years.
“We do understand that there are various cycles and challenges that we'll experience from time-to-time, and they may be geopolitical, they may be social, they may be environmental or even economic. So we've always played the long game [with Asia],” he said.
But Gori thinks this year will be better for their Asian operations, after China eased its “zero-COVID” strategy that consisted of targeted lockdowns from buildings to entire cities, mass testing and government-run quarantine facilities.
“That really fills us with optimism [the pivot from zero-COVID] as we think about the full year of 23 and markets getting back to more of a normalization through less restrictions in place that will limit people's travel and movement,” he said.
GROWING INTEREST IN INSURANCE
While the pandemic has restricted travel for many countries, Manulife has benefited from a surge of Canadians looking to buy insurance before they take to the skies once again.
In the company’s earnings release, it said the annual premium equivalent (APE) sales increased three per cent in Canada, which was “primarily driven by higher sales in group insurance, participating insurance and travel insurance, partially offset by the impact of market volatility on the demand for segregated fund products, and lower universal life and health and dental sales.”
Gori said they have started to see a higher demand for insurance and that it’s “been a driving force for what we’re seeing in our numbers [earnings].”
“The pandemic has really brought to the fore that people probably don't have enough coverage and that they need to have greater protection,” he explained.
“So we're seeing a phenomenon of people looking to insurance, travel, health, life and more broadly, as a key part of their need proposition; and then clearly also after having been locked down people are getting out and travelling again.”
OPPORTUNITY IN TECHNOLOGY
Gori thinks that the digitization of the consumer is the largest, long-term trend that they need to tap into.
He said Manulife has invested over a billion dollars over the past five years to accelerate the digitization of their business and said it really benefited the insurer when the pandemic first hit.
“When we actually had to move to an environment that was remote, the fact that we'd invested a lot of our capital into tools and technologies that would allow us to remotely deal with customers was a significant blessing,” Gori said.
But he added that Manulife won’t be done with its digital transition anytime soon.
“We see that the opportunity to further digitize our business and ultimately create a better experience for customers is going to accelerate at a pace that I don't think we've ever seen before.”
ACQUIRING TALENT AMID TECH LAYOFFS
Over the past year, a number of several high-profile technology companies have announced waves of layoffs.
Big names like Ottawa-based Shopify Inc., Google and Facebook parent company Meta Platforms, Inc. have laid off thousands of workers in the tech industry.
Layoffs aggregator Layoffs.fyi has counted 6,319 tech sector workers have lost their jobs in Canada since March 20, 2020.
Gori said this could be an opportunity for the insurer to scoop up strong Canadian talent, as it continues to place a focus on digitizing its business.
“There's no surprise in the fact that tech resources and tech talent have been hard to come by,” he said.
“So we have seen some tech layoffs in certain sectors and we’re seeing that as an opportunity to recruit and acquire great talent to help us continue the journey that we've been on to digitize our business.”