March 13, 2017 / 5:14 AM / 5 months ago

As Tucker steps down, new AIA chief has big shoes to fill

FILE PHOTO: AIA Group Chief Executive and President Mark Tucker attends a news conference on the company's annual results in Hong Kong, China February 24, 2017.Bobby Yip/File photo

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Insurer AIA Group Ltd's new CEO, Ng Keng Hooi, will have big shoes to fill as the group faces the prospect of slower growth and digital disruption in some of its key Asian markets, industry insiders and analysts said on Monday.

The group's shares fell 3.3 percent on Monday afternoon in Hong Kong as investors digested the news that current CEO Mark Tucker will be retiring in September after what was regarded as a stellar seven-year stint at the helm.

"Clearly, Tucker has been a driving force at AIA and anybody taking on that CEO role is stepping into a big legacy," said Keith Pogson, senior partner of APAC financial services at EY. "There will now have to be a period of thoughtful reflection as to how AIA moves forward post Tucker."

A one-time professional footballer who has held several leadership jobs including running Britain's Prudential, Tucker is leaving the world's third-largest life insurer as it faces new headwinds amid a regulatory crackdown in China and sluggish growth in markets including Thailand and South Korea.

He will be succeeded on Sept. 1 by Ng, who has served as AIA regional chief executive for the past six and a half years. Ng, 62, joined AIA in 2010, before which he was group CEO of Singapore-based Great Eastern Holdings and served a 20-year stint at Prudential.

Tucker, 59, is a tough act to follow. Since taking the company public shortly after his appointment in 2010, the British-born executive has presided over a doubling in AIA share's price - driven for the most part by a pivot in focus towards Asia.

Over the past seven years, the company has expanded rapidly into key growth markets including India and China, leading to a quadrupling in the value of new business at AIA to $2.8 billion between 2010 and November 2016, according to the company.

"Under his leadership, AIA has achieved impressive growth via steady topline expansion, ongoing product mix improvement, expansion in distribution channels, accretive acquisitions, as well as expansion into new markets," analysts at Citi wrote on Monday, noting the company was still well-positioned with an experienced senior management team.

The group put in another strong performance in 2016 buoyed by steady demand for policies in Hong Kong, with mainland Chinese seeking overseas investment opportunities to cushion the impact of a weakening yuan. China and Hong Kong together accounted for about half of new business growth globally at AIA.

But last year's surge in mainland Chinese seeking policies in Hong Kong has led Beijing to crack down on such purchases, and worries about further regulatory tightening are weighing on investor sentiment, according to analysts and industry insiders.

AIA shares dropped 15 percent in the December quarter, and were down 6 percent for 2016 - their first annual decline since the insurer's market IPO. Citi said on Monday the group's historical growth had set a high base and that much of the easiest expansion had already been realised under Tucker's tenure.

"We also continue to believe lingering capital controls in China may further dampen growth from here," it said.

The group's other major markets include Singapore and Malaysia - the Southeast Asian countries that have become a battleground for foreign insurers attracted by the region's lower insurance penetration levels. Industry insiders said these markets had also seen a tough start to the year.

“It has been a difficult start to the year for the insurance industry. The very profitable mainland (Chinese) business is showing signs of slowing down because of the crackdown on capital outflow channels," said a senior executive at a rival group in Hong Kong.

"Secondly, some other regional markets like Thailand, which have been strong growth areas, have showed a decline recently. So the Asian insurance industry is braced for a few tough years."

Beyond slowing growth, AIA and its rivals, which have been lightly regulated compared to their banking peers, will face a greater compliance burden going forward as well as increased competition from digitally-savvy competitors.

"Are you opening yourself up to being disrupted, and how does digital fit into that picture? These are the big challenges in the Asian insurance market," Pogson said.

Reporting by Michelle Price and Sumeet Chatterjee; additional reporting by Saikat Chatterjee in Hong Kong; Editing by Stephen Coates

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