'Mr Income' puts his feet up
After 30 years with insurance cooperative, the chief calls it a day
FOR once, Chinese New Year was all play and no work for Mr Tan Kin Lian.
Reason: Two days earlier, on Friday, he served his last working day as chief executive officer with the giant insurance cooperative which he helped build over the past 30 years.
Mr Tan, who is perhaps better known as Mr NTUC Income, devoted the holiday to his family and friends. He also threw a party for 120 of his former colleagues. He was very touched when his colleagues presented him with a piece of Chinese calligraphy.
It had one large character, liang, which means "bright, light, enlightened, open and clear". The small characters said, among other things: "You are honest, upright and fair-minded. You are a person of integrity, someone who is fair."
When Mr Tan resigned last September, it was under rather dramatic circumstances and the news sent shockwaves through the insurance industry.
Mr Tan had to call a "very rare midnight meeting" to tell his key managers of his intention to step down before they learnt about it from the media.
In an exclusive interview with Today recently, Mr Tan - when asked why he was moving on - said: "Any decision is never one-sided but has to be in the interests of both sides. Sometimes, preferences diverge - when the shareholders and the board of directors prefer something and I prefer something else. But we don't take arbitrary decisions."
So how did the parting of ways come about?
"We must recognise that in any organisation, there will come a time when somebody will have to decide what is better for the future. It doesn't matter who is right or wrong."
A glistening of the eyes, a catch in the voice, betrayed his sadness at the parting.
But he added: "I am confident that any organisation which acts ethically, and on principles, will find the right way ... It does not have to be my way."
On Mr Tan's last working day, incoming chief executive Tan Suee Chieh paid a glowing tribute to Mr Tan, who helped NTUC Income grow from a fledgling into the largest composite insurance company in Singapore with $17 billion in assets today.
"The many strengths of Income are his legacies to us," said Mr Tan Suee Chieh in an email to Income staff.
Mr Tan's persuasive, consultative ways went down well with many of his staff. "His policies were transparent ... and he was a people person," said a senior employee. Yet there were others who found Mr Tan a tough boss.
In his tribute to Mr Tan, the new CEO said: "He is a man who is well known for his strong and independent views."
Admirable attributes but could they have rubbed some people the wrong way? Nobody's talking.
What of the future? "I will continue to write my blog about insurance, finance and current affairs in Singapore, but in my personal capacity," said Mr Tan.
His topmost plan would be to make insurance affordable to all with his new insurance outfit, IC21. It is built round a software platform which allows customers to deal directly with the company. "No need for agents ... The savings in commissions would be tremendous," said Mr Tan.
At NTUC Income, Mr Tan had set up a Business Centre to allow customers to deal directly with the company. "If he (an agent) were to go out to make the approach to potential clients, he could see two in a week. But if they came to the Centre, he would be able to service two to three customers a day," said Mr Tan. This would increase the volume of business, make insurance more affordable and assure agents of a regular income.
Is the nature of business at NTUC Income set for further changes?
The answer could lie in what a close former associate of Mr Tan told Today: "I remember Mr Tan's advice when I first joined NTUC Income. He told me: A company boss will always say: How much money can I make for it? A coop boss will say: How many jobs can I create and how affordable will the product be to the consumer?"
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