As the biggest life insurer by far in the world’s most populous country, China Life Insurance Co. has an enviable, but not impregnable, position. The company raked in 295 billion yuan ($43 billion) in life premiums last year, three times the amount of its nearest rival, China Pacific Insurance (Group) Co.; net income jumped 72 percent, to 32.8 billion yuan. Competition is picking up, though, and with 31 domestic rivals and more than two dozen foreign players angling for business, China Life’s market share slipped by 4 percentage points in the past two years, to 36 percent.
Rather than playing perpetual defense, Chairman Yang Chao wants to go on the offensive. He believes diversification holds the key to keeping China Life on top, and over the past year he has outlined plans to expand the company into banking, securities brokerage, asset management and trust banking.
“China Life is adjusting its business,” says Yuan Wenli, a Hong Kong–based analyst with Celent, a Boston-based research firm. “It aims to have a complete suite of financial services.”
China Life holds minority stakes in Guangdong Development Bank and Minsheng Banking Corp., but Yang is looking to keep up with rival Ping An Insurance (Group) Co. of China, which recently bought a controlling stake in Shenzhen Development Bank from private equity firm TPG. Yang wants to gain control of a bank with a national license; he is also negotiating to take a stake later this year in Agricultural Bank of China, one of the country’s Big Four banks, as part of that bank’s $20 billion-plus initial public offering.
Is China Life nimble enough to transform itself into a financial services supermarket? Although it is one of the few Chinese companies to have listings in Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York, China Life is very much a state-controlled company, drawing much of its clout from close relationships with government agencies.
In Yang, however, the company boasts a chief with more international experience than most heads of state-controlled financial companies. The 60-year-old executive studied English at Shanghai International Studies University in the 1970s before going to work in insurance at an arm of the central bank. He spent five years in London running the European office of China Insurance (Holdings) Co., and while there he obtained an MBA from Middlesex University.
As the center of gravity in the insurance industry shifts toward Asia, Yang is determined to have China Life play a leading role.
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