How to stand with the country through the test of time

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BusinessWorld One-on-One exclusive online interview features InLife’s Nina Aguas

For all but the most cautious, the coronavirus pandemic was an unforeseen catastrophe that blindsided the global business community. In an instant, the world as we knew it has changed, and businesses, alongside, the government, are expected to chartthe path forward into an uncertain future.

More so for stalwart institutions that have stood the test of time. With almost 110 years of history, Insular Life Assurance Company, the first and largest Filipino life insurance company, has weathered both World Wars, natural disasters of all kinds, economic recessions, and even pandemics. But even they were caught by surprise.

“In 2019, we were very confident going into 2020,” Nina D. Aguas, executive chairperson of InLife, told Wilfredo G. Reyes, BusinessWorld editor-in-chief, in the fourth session of BusinessWorld One-on-One exclusive online interview series.

The company had recorded a 62% growth in consolidated net income in 2019 due to higher earnings from its investments, various businesses, and lower operational costs, while maintaining consolidated net income of P4.85 billion – up from P3billion, year-on-year.

“It’s like having 20/20 vision. We ranked number three in total assets, number three in net worth, and number five in net income. So that gave us the confidence to get into the year strong. Then of course, as we all know, Taal volcano erupted, and then COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. The world as we knew it was never the same,” she said.

While Ms. Aguas is confident that InLife would be able to weather the storm, change was in the air. Insurance, she said, is primarily a sold business, so their agency force has been severely hampered because of the nationwide lockdowns imposed to contain COVID-19. While there are no spike in insurance claims, there were more transactions to make sure their clients’ policies are in force.

Ms. Aguas shared about InLife HealthCare, which she said was “a rainbow in the horizon”.

“The heightened awareness about the importance of healthcare coverage resulted in an increased demand for our affordable prepaid emergency care. We saw a rise there. They are a big service, digitally, nationwide. And despite the exclusion of epidemics in our healthcare contracts or agreements, we decided to cover COVID-19 for claims until the end of the year. We set aside funds just to be able to do that,” she said.

Ms. Aguas believes that it’s too early to predict the future performance of the insurance sector.

“2020’s lost not just for us Insular Life but also for all the other businesses. It’s just unprecedented what happened to us,” Ms. Aguas said. “That said though, if this is any metric at all, we are keeping our staff. They are being paid full salary and given full benefits. We’ve been able to give assistance, not loans, to our agency force, during the period of lockdown, when businesses are practically stopped. There’s nothing we can do about it much, but we’re still here.”

Looking back through the lens of history

Ms. Aguas compared the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to the 2008 global financial crisis and marked its key differences.

“This one is unprecedented because lives are directly on the line,” she said. “Although the consequences are quite similar, there are significant differences between the economic recession of 2008. That one was more systemic. The origins are different. The crisis of 2008 was made because there were unsustainable debts carried by households as well as institutions and governments so that when it fell apart, it had a global implication,” she said.

She added, “But it wasn’t as abrupt as what happened to us this 2020 when COVID was declared a pandemic. Then, it was unsustainable debt. This one was a health crisis first, then it became a financial crisis, then a huge humanitarian crisis. Given all the effects the pandemic presented to us, there are many layers and the complexity of the problems as well as the solutions will have to be carefully measured and carefully studied. As far as I’m concerned it is a choice between life and life.”

The complexity of the current situation highlighted the need for responsible leadership, she said, as all businesses no matter where they were, needed to come up with resiliency and sustainability plans that can help them keep their company and people taken care of.

Ms. Aguas emphasized the importance of businesses taking care of their employees to carry them through the challenges of the lockdowns.

“From my viewpoint, COVID-19 really is three tragic events: a public health crisis, an economic financial crisis, and a humanitarian crisis. Keeping the people safe was top of mind,” she said.

This, for InLife, meant that employees are required temperature checks when they are allowed to go into work, a deep clean of all of the company’s offices, restricting access to essential workers, as well as suspending all travel across the board, even going as far as monetizing their agency force’stravel awards.

Charting a path forward

Despite being prepared for disruption, the complexity and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic still struck InLife as much as any other company. The imposed lockdown measures necessitated a more aggressive continuation of the company’s ongoing modernization and digitization plans, as well as adjusting their operations model to adapt to the changing situation.

“We need to intensify the way we do things,” Ms. Aguas said. “That will require us to visit our business models and see how we can streamline our operations even more with the help of digital. We also need to train and skill up our people for their adoption into digital. We may be working from home for the rest of the year. And we have to make sure that they are enabled and capable to do what they have to do from home.”

“We cannot overemphasize their safety and that lives are precious. Therefore, we have to do what we have to do in order to be able to continue operating during this very uncertain time. It’s allowing us to be creative, more responsive, and actively engaged,” she added.

The weight of InLife’s 110-year history is also something that Ms. Aguas is keenly aware of. As a respected name, they had a special responsibility to the Filipino people to do their part in helping the country chart a path forward.

This has led to the company shifting most of its initial efforts during the pandemic to give aid, such as PPEs to medical frontliners and care packages to vulnerable and affected communities, as well as a holistic approach to taking care of their employees and policyholders.

“Being 110 years gives us a special responsibility and accountability for the country, especially at this time when the need is far greater than any one of us can give or fill. We feel our obligation to be able to do our part. If our community and our country is in pain, we can’t do business,” she said.

“I’ve always said that life was a team sport. But this way of playing has magnified for us the more we need to stay connected, the more we need to raise our game, the more we have to have a common purpose and a common journey to be able to make sure that Insular Life stays for another hundred years.”

This interview is part of BusinessWorld’s 33rd multimedia anniversary report, the BusinessWorld One-on-One Interview, an exclusive online interview series that sits down with the country’s most prominent executives and luminaries to discuss the ongoing crisis, along the theme “The Road to Recovery: A Time for Leadership and Resilience”.