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Winning friends and influencing people

Ping An's co-CEO believes in-person relationships are key to building a strong work culture in an ever-evolving organisation.

Ms Tan says: "We don't do international expansion just to make a lot more money. We can easily do that in any of the provinces in China, but we go international because we see a lot of potential to create a much broader, diverse base."

THE value of physical workspaces has been tested amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic, with remote work structures predicted to become the norm for many companies after the crisis.

But Chinese tech giant Ping An Group's co-CEO Jessica Tan remains a firm believer of face-to-face interactions with the 52,000 employees under her management.

Her weekly trips to the Shenzhen office were halted during the "circuit breaker" period, which meant nearly two months of working from home here in Singapore.

"I realised then there was something missing. I really needed to be there in person with my teams, to motivate them to work together and solve problems together," Ms Tan tells The Business Times.

"Covid-19 has reinforced that while we can work remotely efficiently, a leader needs to be there in person to ensure that everyone is still excited and motivated to work."

In the first two months after business travel resumed, Ms Tan spent every weekend in China participating in team bonding activities, from singing karaoke to climbing Mount Emei in Sichuan.


The need to keep staff morale elevated and build a strong work culture is crucial in an ever-evolving organisation like Ping An, she tells BT.

As a Singaporean helming a Chinese financial services juggernaut, Ms Tan has been named Outstanding Overseas Executive of the Year for 2019/2020 in the Singapore Business Awards.

The US$200 billion financial services behemoth manages 35 companies serving more than 210 million retail customers and over 560 million Internet users.

While its core business is in insurance, Ping An has been actively building a wider digitech ecosystem of financial services, property, automotive, healthcare, and "smart city" services.

"My people need to work extremely hard because we are constantly doing things that's never been done before," says Ms Tan, who leads Ping An's deep dive into tech.

She oversees the group's 11 tech businesses with a combined annual revenue of over US$11 billion.

"As a leader, I have to create a culture, an environment where my folks are able to take risks because innovation comes with risk. They must also be able to persevere for a long time to turn an idea successful," she adds.

For example, it took five years to launch the "Auto Owner" app that connects car owners to car dealers and other auto service providers in China.

"We had to recognise 60,000 different types of cars and 25 million different parts. . . and 26,000 dealers and 90,000 repair shops and all their different pricing. It took a tremendous amount of work," Ms Tan recalls.

"Being on the ground really helps. Regardless of which country or culture you work with, going to the root of the problem will make a lot difference," she tells BT.

Ping An's "Auto Owner" platform - with over 117 million registered users - now handles 14 million auto insurance claims a year, of which 90 per cent are paid within a day. About 88 per cent of total claims are settled via self service.


Being "on the ground" has always been a key focus in Ms Tan's professional career, even before her rise up the ranks in Ping An.

Prior to joining the group in 2013, she had requested to work in multiple countries during her 13 years as a McKinsey consultant, including Russia, Germany, India, London and most of South-east Asia.

"I really wanted to learn about different countries, different businesses, and across different people," she tells BT.

Her work experience in 15 countries helped ease the career transition into Ping An, which has businesses internationally.

Besides having a strong business vision and the ability to attract different talents to work together, a leader has to "look beyond just initial contact" and build a deeper rapport with people, she tells BT.

"I've been in meetings where (people) were upset because I didn't give my name card at the start. They saw this as a sign of disrespect, because that's their established norm.

"I'll never be able to make sense of all the different (norms) that the different cultures have, but I always try to invest time to understand, to come across as genuine as possible. As an entrepreneur working overseas, it's important that people trust you," she notes.

After almost eight years at Ping An, Ms Tan now helms the company with co-CEOs Xie Yonglin and Jason Bo.

The Covid-19 crisis arguably presents the first big test for her. She tells BT that while other countries are still reeling from the economic impact, China is "pretty much back to exactly where it was before". "You have to imagine that there are two different worlds," she says.

All of the group's 11 tech businesses have seen traffic volumes increase significantly this year, with safe distancing and travel restrictions accelerating digital adoption by about three years, Ms Tan adds.

For example, Ping An's online healthcare services platform Good Doctor saw traffic volumes jump eight times year to date.

In H1 2020, the number of monthly active users and monthly paying users reached 67.27 million and 2.95 million respectively, a year-on-year increase of 7.3 per cent and 32.3 per cent.

"In traditional healthcare services, only about 3 to 4 per cent (seek consultation) online. "We think there is a huge potential to increase that by at least 10 times," says Ms Tan. Between 15 and 20 per cent of Ping An's new financial customers are acquired from its healthcare ecosystem every year.


While deepening its domestic presence, the group has also been making strategic inroads into other markets.

"What we've built in China is very unique, we spent 32 years perfecting that ecosystem. Outside of China, our belief is not to replicate that, but take our existing technology and domain expertise to enable and work with other players," says Ms Tan.

Ping An's fintech unit OneConnect currently serves over 3,000 financial institutions in China and 15 other countries, for instance. Virtual bank Ping An OneConnect launched in Hong Kong last month to serve small businesses there.

Over the next decade, the group plans to continue building on its five key ecosystems, though revenue from outside of China will remain a small fraction of total earnings.

Ping An raked in US$180 billion in revenue last year. "Very few companies outside of China can generate bigger," says Ms Tan.

"We don't do international expansion just to make a lot more money. We can easily do that in any of the provinces in China, but we go international because we see a lot of potential to create a much broader, diverse base," she adds.


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