“The roots that we planted earlier of promoting financial literacy are bearing some fruits. This is happening, thanks to the internet and the millennials, who are becoming financially aware and investing at a much younger age.“
Insurance chief shows there’s growth out of the comfort zone
BENEDICTO “Benedict” Sison doesn’t just walk into a room. He bounds into it, radiating such positive energy that this interviewer was momentarily floored by his exuberant arrival.
The chief executive officer and country head of Sun Life Financial Philippines had just flown in several hours earlier from a senior leaders’ pow-wow in Toronto, Canada and jet lag was keeping him revved up and garrulous. Sison, however, is no different even during those rare weeks when he stays put in Metro Manila.
Clients for life
The man obviously enjoys his job; revels in the insurance and financial services industry he leaped into nine years ago from the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector; and relishes being part of an organization with an altruistic goal — to help Filipinos achieve financial security and lead healthy lives.
“The operative word now is ‘lifetime,’’’ he says when asked to highlight the most immediate issue trending with Sun Life executives. “We’d like to make our clients, clients for life. We want them to have more than one policy with us, for different stages of their lives.”
“My response to these [challenging opportunities] was always to say: ‘Kakayanin ko ito. [I can do this]. I’m determined and driven that way.“
Next year, Sun Life Financial will mark 125 years of serving the Philippines, having introduced insurance to the local market in 1895, three years before Spanish rule ceased. It suspended business when the Japanese invaded the country in 1941, but continued to operate underground. It paid out the equivalent of $1.2 million in death claims after the Second World War, the only insurance company that reportedly did so without documents attesting to the validity of the claims. Such was its staunch trust in the Filipino market.
By 2020, the company will make good on reaching the 5-million client target it announced in 2015. Says Sison: “Five years ago, we celebrated our 120th anniversary, and we asked ourselves: How many Filipino lives had we touched? We discovered that it was only 1.5 million. So we said: Why don’t we shift from being successful to being significant; let’s be bold and aim for 5 million lives.”
By the end of June this year, Sison reports that what seemed like an impossible goal at the time was on its way to becoming a reality. Around 4.8 million clients are recorded to have signed up for Sun Life Financial’s products and services, which not only include insurance, but also mutual funds and education and retirement plans. That tally is still growing.
The secret to that feat? “Really focusing on the client” is Sison’s unequivocal response. The company also expanded its distribution channels, enhancing its valued financial advisers’ (which is what the traditional pool of insurance agents are called these days) network with links to new partners, including banks, online shopping platforms such as Lazada, and electronic wallets such as GCash of Globe Telecom Inc. “We discovered so many organizations just wanting to help Filipinos achieve lifetime financial stability,” the Sun Life Financial Philippines chief says.
The increase in Filipinos exploring financial literacy has been the consistent bright spot for Sison in recent years.
“The roots that we planted earlier of promoting financial literacy are bearing some fruits. This is happening, thanks to the internet and the millennials, who are becoming financially aware and investing at a much younger age,” he says. “Last year, we received about 10,000 inquiries about Sun Life Financial products or how to get connected to a financial advisor.”
But Sison knows there are still some ways to go before his organization’s mission can fully accomplished. “It won’t be, as long as people don’t realize the benefits of being insured and investing,” he says.
Having worked in the FMCG space earlier in his career allowed Sison to borrow some useful leaves from the pages of that particular industry. “We just don’t want to educate people about financial literacy; we want to change their behavior [toward financial literacy]. And how to change behavior is one thing we’ve learned from the FMCGs,” he says.
“First, we’ve had to make it (financial literacy) understandable, telling people the benefits of being insured and investing. Second, make it desirable, telling them what the benefits are. Third, make it easy to acquire, offering them products at low price points like the policies we offer on Lazada, which can be purchased [for] about P200. These would hopefully bridge the gap with Filipinos not wanting to try insurance at all and educate at the same time because they have to read what they’re buying on a one pager before being permitted to sign on.
“We also make the insurance product attractive by allowing consumers to enjoy [the] benefits as soon as they join like our health policy that gives them access to a wealth of information about nutrition and wellness and the ability to join some of our fitness programs. Finally, we’ve are helping clients develop the habit for investing. For example, we’ve set up an auto-debit facility [with banks] to help them establish the discipline of setting aside and investing a portion of their money regularly. Being pre-scheduled and automatic, it becomes a discipline and reduces the temptation of spending all their money, since they’re committed to allot a certain amount to be invested in their chosen fund monthly.”
Filling the gap
Sison and his team also discovered that many companies don’t know how to help their employees manage their money smartly. “That’s the gap we want to fill,” he stresses. To make the process easier to digest, Sun Life Financial executives volunteer to run a workshop onsite using a “gamified” approach, which everyone will enjoy and hopefully help clarify the principles of financial literacy.
Compared with its Asian neighbors, the Philippines lags behind coverage and acceptance of other financial products. According to Sison, the life insurance industry’s penetration of the Philippine market is less than 2 percent, while Malaysia is 3.3 percent, Thailand is 3.6 percent, Singapore is 6.6 percent and Hong Kong is 14.6 percent. “I see this as an opportunity, a matter of us taking advantage of the situation,” he says. “All the insurance players are now building up their distribution capabilities as they realize there’s a huge market [in the Philippines] for insurance products.”
Sison could be said to be the person who was always in the right place at the right time, the way his career has seen a steady upward trajectory from the day he graduated from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. But he would rather see it as “being so blessed and having so many people help me along the way.” One mentor was former UP president Emmanuel V. Soriano.
Soriano, says the business administration major and magna cum laude recipient, was instrumental in making possible several flashpoints in his corporate journey. Soriano invited the young Sison to teach at the UP College of Business Administration as a junior lecturer, as well as join his consultancy firm EVSA Corp. as research assistant.
At EVSA, Sison learned what it was like to function in the marketplace. He recalls being asked by his boss to produce a feasibility study for a client, which he did and duly submitted on time. Soriano called him in to discuss the paper, saying: ‘‘‘You’re now in the real world; you have to do real things. Don’t just go to the library and pick and choose… You have to go out and talk to people.’ That made such an impression that, to this day, is imprinted on my heart. He reminded me to be grounded and feel the pulse. I will never forget that, and it made me a better worker and a better person.”
Soriano obviously believed in his protégé that he helped facilitate a six-month research experience for Sison at United Technologies in Farmington, Connecticut, and later a teaching assistant post at the University of California, which allowed him to pursue his masters of business administration degree. He won two years running, the school’s “best teaching assistant” and was awarded the coveted George DuBois Memorial Award for scholastic excellence. He then took the CPA exam there and passed to become a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “When there was an opportunity for me to work in the US, Mr. Soriano encouraged me to go for it if I believed it would help me grow. He wasn’t selfish, expecting me to return to the UP.”
Sison’s path has been studded with a number of career-defining moments, including his first foreign assignment as country chief financial officer for India for US food manufacturer ConAgra. He and wife Candy were based in Hyderabad, and to this day, both agree that of all the international postings that were to follow, India was the best. “Candy has about 30 saris (traditional wear for Indian women), and we still keep in touch with our Indian friends,” he says. Assignments in Toronto, Canada and Shanghai in various ascending financial leadership roles for Sison ensued until 2010, when as ConAgra culture demanded since he had spent a decade overseas, he had to be “repatriated to head office” to be reimmersed in the company’s way of life.
But Sison wanted to remain in Asia, where he believed economic activity was on the cusp of phenomenal growth. “And I also wanted to broaden my knowledge, and not just focus on food manufacturing.” His feelers to a headhunter in Singapore yielded interest from Sun Life Financial to meet with him. With no previous experience in financial services, particular to the insurance industry, as well as actuarial science, he was initially concerned that it might not be a good fit. But the rest, as they say, is history, and Sison has spent the last nine years with the company, first as chief financial officer responsible for Sun Life Canada Philippines and its subsidiaries; then after two years, as Asia chief financial officer based in Sun Life Asia’s regional office in Hong Kong, handling seven countries: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and India; followed by a new position created for him back in Manila, as chief strategy and financial management officer in charge of eight departments: actuarial, strategy, finance, investment, risk management, program management and core planning. He assumed the role of Sun Life Financial Philippines’ CEO and country head in July 2018.
Sison’s journey has certainly consisted of challenges with a capital C. What he didn’t know, he says, he made it a point to learn and master. “Sun Life is very good at developing leaders — they like to stretch you with unusual assignments and environments. My response to these was always to say: ‘Kakayanin ko ito [I can do this]. I’m determined and driven that way.” Perhaps, being the 12th of 14 children honed this gritty attitude. His parents, Rafael and Juanita Sison, may not have been able to provide their offspring with too many luxuries, but they did give them an invaluable foundation — an education and the sound advice “to help one another and do things with all your heart.”
Sison and Candy, a fellow accountant and classmate at UP, are incorrigible travelers. To date, they’ve chalked up 81 countries (Liechtenstein was the last destination), and are aiming to reach visiting 100 countries. They want to spend their next adventure in Bolivia, Colombia and the Galapagos Islands — that is, if Sison’s hectic work schedule will allow them to take off anytime soon.
With the way this resolute and ebullient professional has been creatively devising ways to transform the Philippines into a financially astute nation, the question is: where will he find the time?
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WHAT HE’S LEARNED SO FAR
It’s just been a year and some since Benedicto C. Sison assumed the reins of Sun Life Financial Philippines, and already he’s gathered so many rich insights along the way. He shares five memorable lessons:
• Gratitude is key. You need to count your blessings, no matter how small they are. It leads to a positive outlook.
• Be prepared to join a selfie. I never thought taking selfies would be part of my job, but I’ve realized it’s the quickest way to connect to young people, to the millennials.
• Authenticity is important. People will rally behind a leader whom they trust. And they will only trust one whom they feel is genuine.
• Optimism leads to better decision making. Always start with a mindset that things will be successful and be open to exploring possibilities. A pessimist will immediately decide to turn down an opportunity. So what if you make the wrong decision — learn from it and move on.
• Words matter. People pay close attention to what leaders say. So, it’s important to be very discerning with your words. Things one would say casually could either be a source of inspiration or cause for disruption.
PHOTOS BY HERMES SINGSON