INSURANCE GOES BEYOND NUMBERS, THIS BUSINESS LEADER SAYS
“Why? You think we all wear stuffy suits?” laughs the 44-year-old Rahul Hora, president and CEO of AXA Philippines, at our surprise to seeing him in a plain white shirt and jeans in an unmistakably corporate setting.
The head of one of the country’s largest financial insitutions and a leading life insurer, Hora looks more like the maverick of a start-up tech company. “It keeps me comfortable and allows me to be flexible,” he explains his attire. “Plus it’s the end of the week, so we do dress down for casual Fridays.” Point taken.
Hora seems to be following suit, reflecting the new norm and mold of leaders who are focused on bringing good service and developing dynamic products like the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Mas of the world.
Paving the way
Hora graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics, Chemistry and Math from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, but this was far from what he had in mind and wanted to do in the future.
“I took it, because I couldn’t do anything else!” he jokes. “In those days in India, getting a Science degree would mean you were an intelligent person, and so it has a bit of an association with pride. But I was definitely sure that I was not going to create a career out of it!”
He set himself on a more agreeable course, obtaining an MBA. “I specialized in marketing because brand management – creating propositions and selling them to the customers – is what interested me and caught my attention,” he recalls. “For me, the end goal was to do Business Management and get into business life. I did not want to be a scientist.”
After working in India for 11 years, he set off to explore the world, doing time in Hong Kong and the Philippines with several companies including tobacco manufacturer Godfrey Philips India and a start up insurance company which he helped establish.
“I actually started my career, working with a cigarette company for four years, in distribution,” he reveals, but eventually moved into the insurance industry in 2000.
And there Hora remains, happily living and working in the Philippines for almost eight years, gliding his way up the corporate ladder in AXA Philippines, which he joined in 2009 as Chief Agency Officer. Under his watch, the organization experienced impressive growth and aggressive expansion. He became AXA Philippines’ president and chief executive officer on April 1, 2016.
As a foreigner, who boasts of a unique world view, Hora has gained a clear and deep understanding of the Filipino psyche – their drives, their dreams, their fears and worries – which has helped him steer AXA Philippines toward a meaningful direction and mold it into a reliable, trusted financial adviser.
“I know the market very well. I’ve traveled the length of the country; I have been to the nooks and corners of the countryside, and I’ve learned that Filipinos are like most Asians – very people-oriented and very social people, who place great value on community and family,” he says with great warmth.
While this particular value has been greatly admired by tourists, this culture of “dependency” and “community reliance” is one of the reasons why the Philippines continues to express a weak understanding of financial management.
“There is a belief that if something goes wrong, the community or family will come in to help. This is common in most Asian countries. While valuing community is good in itself, it does, however, sometimes become unhealthy and prohibits the individual from fully attaining financial independence.
“In fact, this immense reliance has led to the lack of financial planning and discipline of many Filipinos in terms of saving for the future,” he adds.
Hora sees this as a great opportunity for financial institutions to come in and educate Filipinos on wealth management and security. “Insurance is not a fake need,” he says, admitting, however, that many people still have difficulty grasping and accepting the concept.
Perhaps, it is a necessity that does not manifest itself as aggressively as others. “Like you don’t need someone to come up and say: ‘Hey, you need clothes.’ You know you need clothes and can’t walk out the door without wearing any.” Insurance, on the other hand, deals with the somewhat “intangible,” but it is one of the most important and often least prioritized needs.
Insurance is more than just a numbers game, it’s understanding the value of your life, your future, your dreams and protecting it, Hora says.
Explaining his important role as a leader and educator, he adds: “There is indeed a huge opportunity to educate our customers on things like savings, on preparing one’s self for events in their life both predicted and unpredicted. So the whole concept of financial literacy is becoming more and more relevant, and there is an existing gap between where we are and where we should be.”
Today, AXA Philippines – a joint venture between the AXA Group and the Metrobank Group – has become the second leading life insurance company in the country, with P21.6 billion in gross premium income reported in 2016, and over 811,000 customers protected under various individual and group life insurance products.
“We, as a company, always ask ourselves how we can be more effective and efficient, and that’s why we’re exploring digital tools to connect with more consumers,” Hora reports. Recently, catering to the growing cyber-savvy consumer, AXA Philippines launched “My Ambition,” its latest investment and life insurance plan that can be accessed and managed online.
He says: “Going digital doesn’t mean we’re disregarding the other channels. This initiative is just another means to make our products more available to our customers and to be able to reach out to more Filipinos.”
In addition to being another means to communicate with the public, Hora believes, this also serves as a vital channel towards honing more potent financial educators. “Some Filipinos believe that saving for yourself and your future is selfish. I beg to differ. The reason being: if you don’t save for yourself, you may be setting yourself up to face big things which you’re not prepared for. And when that time comes, the burden falls on those you want to protect and care for.”
Hora speaks passionately about his work, likening financial literacy to one’s physical well-being. “Your financial health is much like your physical one, you have to start taking care of it now. And the sooner that you’re able to set healthy behavior and routines, the better,” he says. “Saving is not selfish,” he stresses yet again. “It’s ensuring that when the time comes, you can take care of yourself, protect others from the pressure and burden of supporting you, and enabling yourself to become self-sustaining.”
Thankfully, Hora’s father, Vinod Kumar Hora, a banker, shared the same foresight and acquired insurance plans for his children upon their birth. “Typically, that’s how it’s done in India,” his son says. “My dad bought me and my brother insurance plans and kept investing in our names. He wanted that at different stages of our lives – whether it be college, marriage or the first years of our jobs or business – we’d have a little money available.”
As a parent of two kids, a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old, who is poised for university, Hora has taken a different route and decided to leave concerns of that nature to them. “I’ve always believed that you should be making your own financial decisions. I think the best time to get individual insurance is when you start working. So when my eldest finishes school and begins her professional career, I’ll definitely make sure that she gets one,” he says.
Educate and excel
The herculean task of educating a population about financial awareness and wealth management takes time, and AXA Philippines, along with other financial institutions, are contributing to this endeavor.
“It’s a tough job, but I get inspired by that,” Hora reveals. “Challenges such as these allow me to push myself more, whether intellectually or by the sheer number of hours of work from an effort point of view. I would choose to be in this situation any day, because that’s the only way you can improve as a leader and as an individual. If things go very smooth all the time, you will never improve. The only way you can excel is by being in tough situations. Tough situations always give you the opportunity to learn and grow,” he says.
And that’s a golden nugget of wisdom you can definitely take to the bank!
Empowerment – allowing his people to do things by themselves – breeds future top executives, Hora believes. Here are more lessons he’s learned along the way as team leader.
Believe in your team’s strength because...
your different department heads should be better than you. The best person to figure out how to do that particular job should be an expert on the subject matter. They should know more than you about the subject.
A leader’s role is…
to give proper direction, to ensure that whenever collaboration is required, you are able to pick everyone’s brain. My goal is to ensure that everybody is included and gets the opportunity to add to the decision-making process.
A leader needs to know…
when to zoom in and zoom out. As the leader, you may have a bigger overview of the organization, but you should also be able to zoom out every now and then because there are times when things are not as they appear. There might be some gaps in executions, which, unless you zoom in, you won’t be able to figure out.
You need to learn from others because…
you become a better leader by keeping an open mind and embracing learning moments even from those who are more junior than you.
The best way to deal with stress is…
if you know you can do something about the situation, do it. If you can’t, you might as well accept it and move on to other problems.
dealing with stress is uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar. Like any skill, you get better by taking on these stressful situations and embracing each as an opportunity to learn.