People’s Insurance: Resilient amidst the Covid Storm

Isuru Balapatabendi, Chairman, People’s Insurance PLC

Covid-19, with its lockdown and new normal, has not altered this non-life insurance company’s course.

People’s Insurance has a customer-centric and technology-driven approach to dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation in its aftermath. Isuru Balapatabendi, Chairman at People’s Insurance PLC, says the company is emerging stronger and poised for growth due to its foresight and early response to Covid19, investments in digital tech and synergies from the People’s group.

How is Covid-19 impacting People’s Insurance?

Balapatabendi: The unprecedented economic turmoil caused by the pandemic spared few industries worldwide. In Sri Lanka, Covid-19 impacted the non-life insurance sector with industry gross written premium (GWP) incomes declining 5% in the first six months of 2020. Although insurance companies stayed open as essential services, restricted customer movement and dwindling disposable incomes challenged their operations.

Premium incomes fell across the industry from the economic challenges precipitated by the lockdown, and the moratorium on premium payments which has since expired. The industry had a particularly tough June 2020 quarter. It was no different for us at People’s Insurance.

However, I must say that it was, in a way, a satisfying and exciting period for us. Why? Because the crisis proved our corporate strategy. We found ourselves with a lot more manoeuvrability despite many things related to the pandemic being out of our control. And now, while everyone is changing track and preparing for a new normal, People’s Insurance is emerging stronger with our medium and long-term plans still intact, and still relevant.

We began a digitisation drive which held us in good stead when the pandemic hit. This was a part of initiatives to deepen and widen synergies with the People’s Group. People’s Insurance, People’s Leasing and People’s Bank make up the People’s Group with combined assets exceeding Rs2.2 trillion.

It is the largest financial sector group in Sri Lanka. There are synergies around reach and digital technology. People’s Group has a customer base of over 15 million, served by over 1000 branches and digital touch points. Asiamoney recently crowned People’s Bank as Sri Lanka’s Best Digital Bank. It has 270 cash deposit machines and over 200 self-banking units across the island, covering some of the hardest to access regions in the country.

Exploring synergies and widening the captive base within the group was only part of the strategy. We have plans in place to grow market share from outside the group. Product innovation and digital technology will help us do this. So, despite all the challenges from Covid-19, the lockdown, and the economic slump we are experiencing now, People’s Insurance was able to record a 119% growth in profits in the first six months of 2020. This is a testament to the company’s visionary management and resilience.

How did the company navigate the lockdown period?

Balapatabendi: We responded to the Coronavirus outbreak even before it hit Sri Lanka. Around early February 2020, we appointed a restructuring committee to monitor the global spread of Covid-19 and prepare People’s Insurance for any eventuality.

Our IT department was already on their annual digitization plan and was implementing a digitalisation strategy which improved internal processes and cost efficiencies, and enhanced service delivery standards. Our primary concern was providing uninterrupted insurance cover and services to customers.

The lockdown was tough on everyone, we understood that. We felt that it was our duty to be assuring and helpful to our customers during challenging times. We did not want to take an aggressive approach to collections although premium incomes took a hit across the sector. First, we made sure critical staff including those in the frontlines had curfew passes. Second, our amazing in-house tech team made it possible for the organisation to quickly pivot to working from home.

We upgraded online payment platforms so that customers can make their premium payments. We had developed a mobile sales app for our sales teams which paid dividends during the lockdown because they could reassure customers and help them reschedule their insurance policies as needed.

While our premium incomes declined during this period, we are experiencing a fast recovery. Premium incomes will reach pre-Covid levels much sooner than many would expect, I believe. Let me give another example of People’s Insurance’s resilience and strength.

In 2019, the Easter attacks triggered an economic downturn which led to stringent restrictions on vehicle imports. Motor insurance accounts for 89% of our business and despite the challenges, we recorded an 8% growth in GWP in 2019 which was higher than the industry growth rate of 3%.

What is the near-term outlook and how will People’s Insurance generate growth in the post-Covid environment?

Balapatabendi: We cannot predict when this pandemic will end or when we will have a vaccine. But a few things are certain, Sri Lanka can come out of this crisis with an economy poised for growth. As I said, motor insurance accounts for 89% of our business but our long-term plans will see this share decline.

Digitalisation will improve cost efficiencies and service delivery which will help us gain market share in a competitive and overcrowded motor-insurance market. However, long term growth will come from elsewhere and other insurance products will gain momentum faster. This is because People’s Insurance is positioning itself for quite a different yet exciting economy.

For instance, Sri Lankan consumers are becoming more health conscious, and improving incomes will lead to new lifestyle choices. While non-motor insurance penetration is low in Sri Lanka, that will quickly change. The R&D division at People’s Insurance are watching these trends and developing innovative insurance products to meet the aspirations and expectations of discerning consumers.

We already have insurance policies that cover healthcare, personal accidents, dwellings, and homes.

We also have a comprehensive suite of business insurance products including fire, burglary, business interruption, cargo insurance, goods in transit, public liability, product liability and professional indemnity which cover some of Sri Lanka’s growth sectors like construction and housing, and services.