AXA’s CEO for Asia & Africa on the Corporate Drive to Successfully Align Business and Social Values
As Chief Executive Officer of AXA Asia & Africa since 2018 and with three decades of insurance expertise behind him, Gordon Watson has a bird’s eye view of the evolution of HNW and UHNW insurance solutions, covering as he does a total of 20 markets across the two continents. Hubbis recently ‘met’ with him from his Hong Kong home office to learn more of AXA’s current ambitions in Asia and what he expects for the development of life solutions in the years ahead. Gordon has plenty of global perspective, having worked with AIG/AIA in the US, London, the Middle East, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, and before joining AXA having led from the front as Regional Asia CEO of AIA Group based in Hong Kong, where he championed a range of major new initiatives ranging from health and wellness programmes to corporate partnerships. We met him not long after Africa was shifted within his remit in May, and as the business has increasingly been deepening its focus on what he calls holistic health since the onset of the pandemic, with insurance solutions aimed at delivering a comprehensive mix of support for physical and mental health needs. He explains that AXA has also evolved its approach to the customer experience and emphasised the vital importance of setting an example by acting at all times in the best interests of employees, customers and society at large.
Gordon opens the conversation by elaborating on the company’s focus on holistic health. “Our approach today is rooted on the idea that mental well-being is as important as physical health, and by doing so we are driving better, more comprehensive health insurance that covers prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Surveys show that more than 40% of the population in Asia searched for new insurance policies last year, which underlines that health insurance is something people want to buy, whereas other types of insurance are more what they feel they should purchase,” he reports. “This is relevant to clients of course, but also to our own employees.” The numbers speak for themselves, with AXA seeing 34% growth in APE in Asia as of end of September 2021.
He notes that the pandemic has significantly increased anxiety and depression, and that poor mental health is rising to the point where it could potentially be one of the top health issues in the coming years, yet few are addressing it properly. “I have been talking about this since before the pandemic, but to little avail,” he says. “However, I am pleased to say that the pandemic has served to elevate the focus on mental well-being, so that is a silver lining of this crisis.”
This emphasis is driven by a personal passion. Gordon is an advocate for the concept of Shared Value, where companies can identify new avenues for growth by identifying and providing solutions to societal needs. He was recently recognised with the Decade of Shared Value Award for the dynamic work he has done in helping nurture this movement. As part of this, he saw the opportunity for AXA to differentiate itself by going beyond the traditional health and protection solutions seen in the past.
“This is a wide-ranging shift. For example, we are seeing a significant increase in health needs among customers, so we see great opportunities in that space. We’re therefore encouraging our agents to prioritise talking about health first. This helps to reinforce a more consistent mindset, so whether a client is talking to their agent or engaging with us online, you get a holistic ecosystem to deliver your health benefits across physical and mental needs.”
He explains that a cornerstone of this approach has been Emma, AXA’s all-in-one digital concierge, which the company continues to invest in to meet the evolving needs of clients. Tailored to the needs of specific markets, it now offers a range of up to 25 different services that address physical and mental well-being in a personalised, proactive and seamless way across the continuum of healthcare.
Emma the digital concierge
He explains that AXA, as one of the world’s leading insurance companies, wanted to create a more consistent and personable brand throughout the region. The company therefore developed Emma as an Asia-specific solution that would enable it to create a more efficient user journey and brand experience for customers, which would also humanise the experience through a face and personality for customers to interact with across digital touchpoints. Hence, Emma the digital concierge was born.
“We began by conducting a multi-country regional segmentation, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative research across five key markets in Asia – mainland China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand and Japan – and surveying over 4,000 customers throughout the process to better understand what they wanted from an insurance company when it came to their health, well-being and mental health,” he reports.
To reimagine the digital customer experience, we took a fresh look at how to create a new insurance platform that combined insurance e-servicing, 3rd party health and wellness digital services. “We succeeded via Emma - AXA’s first humanised user interface – by elevating the AXA brand to an experience level never attempted at the organisation. Emma today offers a seamless experience for AXA customers, from claims to servicing, mental health counselling to a symptom checker, and more.”
Since Emma launched in the first half of 2020, it has drawn a strong response by adding a layer of digital engagement on top of agent advisors. “Emma was first rolled out in Hong Kong and Macau, and within a short time, far exceeded our expectations,” he reports. “It is now available in six markets and has approximately 3.2 million users across Asia. Emma has been a successful case study of how our ongoing digitalisation process has made support more accessible for customers.”
To boldly go…
A key trend during the pandemic has been the rise of telehealth, helping to overcome social distancing restrictions and hesitancy of visiting doctors in-person. In certain markets customers can now use Emma to make a doctor's appointment and join teleconsultations, a key feature amid social distancing restrictions. The process enables delivery of medicines or arranging for medical tests at home, so the end-to-end process is covered.
“We offered teleconsultations to more than 10 million customers in Asia during the past year, much of which has been available through Emma, and it is now available in all markets,” Gordon reports. “Whereas telehealth previously mainly benefited rural residents with limited access to healthcare, now everyone can appreciate the value of being able to remotely connect with doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals at their own convenience. And we are now increasingly integrating mind health aspects, such as AXA BetterMe in Hong Kong, a holistic wellness platform with a suite of programmes and services covering physical wellness support, mental wellbeing support and disease management.”
This even applies to the company’s approach to disaster relief. In the wake of devastating floods that struck Henan in China this summer, AXA responded by setting up holistic support for those affected, including teleconsultation access and a hotline staffed by nearly 1,000 mental health professionals to address the emotional trauma of the event.
He expands further, noting that AXA is particularly focused on offering upstream interventions that focus on prevention, such as meditation apps that help with managing stress. This is in contrast to downstream interventions that treat major issues after they have surfaced.
The pandemic and a new reality
“We believe that the upstream side is a priority, as it can help people to manage potential concerns before they become problems. That means offering people a safe place that they can turn to for access to counselling services, supportive apps, and so on. Later, downstream support is also available should it be needed. The key point is that the pandemic has really opened eyes and ears to the suffering caused by clinical depression – so many people have either suffered directly or know people or loved ones who have. We are tackling these important issues for customers and also for employees in the workplace. There is no panacea, but enabling access can help cover the gaps in existing systems.”
Gordon also expands on the digital evolution at the firm and how it affects its proposition. “We are using digital to make it much easier to engage with us, such as via Emma, and to generally make the whole experience more pleasant for customers. We are thereby disseminating a key element of our brand, which is to be a trusted and reliable partner to them so that they have the confidence to live full and happy lives.”
Gordon says that a key priority is to deepen the company’s holistic health offering, ensuring both physical and mental health are covered while moving support further upstream to facilitate prevention.
He also wants AXA to be easier to do business with. “We want to ensure customers have the flexibility and ease to interact with AXA whichever way they prefer, whether online or through an agent, but underpinned by the efficient use of technology and data to deliver a streamlined experience.”
Beyond personal healthcare, another key priority for AXA is ensuring a healthy environment by taking action on climate change. The company is spending a lot of time and effort on educating its employees via a unique online AXA Climate Academy, which it also makes available to its business partners. “We have a two-hour certification programme, designed to ensure that everyone in our company really understands climate change. As one of the leading insurance companies in the world, we feel a deep sense of responsibility in setting the direction for the industry, particularly here in Asia where it sometimes doesn't get the same airplay as it does in Europe or the US.”
He closes the discussion by reiterating the vital importance of aligning corporate strategy, employee welfare, customer service and societal well-being. “In everything we do and represent, we aim to hold trust to these values, all of which have become even more important since the pandemic hit last year,” he concludes.
Getting Personal with Gordon Watson
As the Chief Executive Officer of AXA Asia & Africa, Gordon is responsible for overseeing the group’s operations in Asia, Africa and selected Middle East markets, covering numerous countries such as Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal. He also serves as a member of the group Management Committee.
Prior to being appointed to his expanded role as Chief Executive Officer of AXA Asia & Africa in May 2021, Gordon had served as Chief Executive Officer of AXA Asia since January 2018, spearheading the Group’s operations in seven key markets in the region.
He hails originally from Glasgow, Scotland, and has come a long way since those days. With more than 30 years of experience in the insurance business, he is clearly one of the industry’s more accomplished talents and says that his credo is the power of collaboration, diversity and innovation to drive results and to help others achieve success.
Gordon has plenty of global perspective, having worked with AIG/AIA in the US, London, the Middle East, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, and before joining AXA having led from the front as Regional Asia CEO of AIA Group based in Hong Kong, there championing a range of major new initiatives ranging from health and wellness programmes to corporate partnerships.
He is also active outside of the insurance industry, for example as the founding Chair of the Shared Value Initiative Hong Kong, a non-profit membership organisation that helps private companies create measurable economic value while generating value for the community by improving social or environmental conditions. As if that were not plenty enough, he is also the Non-Executive Chairman of Tricor, a member of Cyberport’s Advisory Board for FinTech, a board member of LL Global, the parent company of LIMRA, LOMA and Secure Retirement Institute, as well as being part of the Leadership Circle of Unusual Pioneers, affiliated with the World Economic Forum. He sits on the Asian Board for the Saltire Foundation and Entrepreneurial Scotland and is a member of the Global Guiding Council of One Mind at Work.
“I have been fortunate to work all over the world,” he reports, “starting at just 21 when I moved to New York, and then across the world over the following years. The recent integration of Africa within my remit is natural, as I gained considerable experience in those markets years ago, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to once again be actively involved with markets there at this stage in my career. Another career highlight was a great stint in Japan, one of my favourite times; AIG had taken over a bankrupt life insurance company there, Chiyoda Life, which was one of the biggest Japanese companies. We managed to turn that around, which was an incredible experience and deeply rewarding in so many ways, certainly a great adventure for a rather young CEO at the time.”
Spare time is often spent at home painting with acrylics or playing golf with friends. “As you might see from my various non-AXA business and board activities, I like to be involved in projects and initiatives that have good intentions, create value for the community, and that positively improve our society,” he says. “I believe that a strong sense of purpose infuses my mission, as well as those of AXA and all the ventures I am involved with. That is what really gets me motivated and makes me feel energised each day.
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