IT IS unusual to see open expressions of love and support in a corporation. But the chief executive officer (CEO) of NTUC Income, Mr Tan Suee Chieh, has been the recipient of such endearments from his staff.
Recently, more than 100 staff members were so moved by his efforts to remake the cooperative that they spontaneously gave him a gift containing many encouraging messages. In the simply bound book, they compiled messages written on post-it notes, 1cm thick.
It's all part of a new buzz permeating every corner of Income, after a so-called 'cultural revolution' the new CEO has declared at the insurance cooperative. It aims to encourage creativity and independence of thought, and a mindset that challenges every past practice.
In February, insurance veteran Mr Tan, who used to helm Prudential Assurance Singapore, took over the reins at Income from Mr Tan Kin Lian. The latter had led Income for three decades, strongly imprinting his personal style and making many decisions top-down.
Thus, company insiders say it was inevitable the organisation would be itching for change with the arrival of a new chief.
IN A recent interview, the new CEO told The Straits Times that a mindset change among the staff was his 'single most important challenge'.
'I want to move to a culture where there is greater ownership at every level of the organisation...a culture where there is a greater spirit of achievement orientation and also a willingness to express views fairly independently,' he says.
This means that if a staff member at a branch has a better grasp of a customer service problem than the head of department there, he should be given the freedom to settle the issue.
Mr Tan sees the Income culture of the past as 'fairly safe, fairly comfortable and not very achievement-oriented'.
Such a culture is 'fairly paternalistic, in the sense that good decisions are made at the top and people execute them, but they are not given much say or have much freedom of choice'.
He is quick to stress that Income 'has been an amazing success' in the past 30 years. Nonetheless, he does not think it will become a significant world-class financial player by treading the old path.
'We're talking about an Income for the next 30 years, where our competition is no longer local but global financial institutions with tremendous resources.
'We should aim much higher and, to do that, we will require a new energy and a new mindset,' he emphasises.
This explains why he spent much of his first few months as the new Income chief making sure he met every single one of the company's 1,600 staff and 1,760 agents - soliciting their feedback and explaining the need to transform the company and the urgency involved.
There were big meetings with 1,000 staff at one go, department meetings with 120 people, intimate sessions with teams of 10, as well as retreats with agents and management staff. The retreats were held at Sentosa, The Legends country club and Downtown East in Pasir Ris.
Mr Tan's key message? Income needs to be transformed into a 'professional, modern and progressive' organisation that will take over as Singapore's top insurer by 2009. Currently, it is one of the Republic's top three insurers.
To better understand staff concerns, Mr Tan has visited all eight Income branches and plans to continue doing so regularly.
He has dedicated much time to building his rapport with his agents. This is not surprising, observers noted, as he was known to be very close to his Prudential agents when he was CEO there.
This has been particularly important at Income, where some agents had felt marginalised. Former CEO Tan Kin Lian had set up a direct salaried sales force and had many times publicly extolled the virtues of 'going direct' to the insurer instead of going through agents. Observers believed the move was partly behind Income suffering a net loss of 303 agents over the past four years.
Mr Tan started repairing the damage by making it very clear to Income agents that they make an important contribution to the insurer's multi-channel strategy.
In his inaugural address to Income staff in April, he said to his agents: 'You are central to the future of Income. You felt you were not loved. Income loves you and I love you.'
Under his charge, the trend of agents leaving seems to be reversing. There was a net gain of 100 full-time agents from March to July this year. Currently, Income has 560 full-time and about 1,200 part-time agents.
SO FAR, Income's financials have also been encouraging.
For the half-year ended June 30, its annual premium income increased 89 per cent over the same period last year, beating the industry average of 29 per cent growth. Its market share rose to 15.3 per cent from 10.5 per cent. Over the same period, its single premium income grew 55 per cent, boosting its market share to 12.6 per cent from 10.3 per cent.
This can be attributed partly to a new range of products launched under Mr Tan's watch - products that are simple to understand and carry catchy monikers such as 'Revosave' and 'Drivo'.
Combining the features of traditional endowment and investment-linked plans, Revosave is a savings product that gives customers the option of investing the regular payouts in a fund. The 'Drivo Premium' motor plan lets customers return to the car distributor's workshop for accident repairs; under the 'Drivo Classic' plan, repairs will continue to be carried out at Income's workshops.
Even the way the products are marketed has changed. Before, Income relied mostly on print advertisements and the occasional major roadshow. Now, Revosave ads are plastered all over town, and will be complemented with roadshows at Ngee Ann City, Tampines Mall and Chevron House in Raffles Place.
With this type of increased visibility, staff members benefit from the positive mood of change, says Ms Pauline Low, who heads Income's call centres.
'We have a lot of good initiatives and good products, but the branding in the past was more conservative. Now, we will be more bold and more New Age. We can see a new image for Income now...in the way we advertise,' she says.
TO UPGRADE its professional image, Income recently had 150 telemarketing staff members attend a grooming course. Soon, staff will have the use of upgraded facilities, such as conference rooms and lobbies, at the NTUC Income Centre in Bras Basah. Also in the pipeline is a plan to change the staff uniform.
As part of the revamp, Income now designates its full-time agents as 'financial consultants' rather than 'development officers'. The change in title is meant not just to attract new agents but also to better reflect what the consultants should be doing, explains Mr Tan.
An Income financial consultant, who declined to be named, was delighted to note that current incentive trips for sales people who achieve sales quotas, are to more exotic places such as China and Vietnam. In the past few years, such trips had been confined to Malaysia and Pulau Ubin, he said.
It will take some time before Income's 1.8 million policyholders feel the full impact of the revamp. In the meantime, Mr Tan can at least be assured that his initiatives have received much support from his staff, such as Mr Pius Peter Callistus, who heads the salaried sales consultants at Income's Bras Basah Business Centre.
'Everyone is impressed with the changes. Our CEO's efforts to transform Income have touched the hearts of the staff. We are now more focused on growing our life insurance business,' he said.
'When our market share was slipping and we were losing our development officers, we were concerned. The positive results now make you want to stay and grow the company.'