Aviva Newsroom - 14 April 2008

Aviva's Asia-Pacific chief aims to be approachable

Insurer's Simon Machell seeks diverse staff input; joy in a one-page summary

The number-crunching art of accountancy not only honed Simon Machell's people skills, but it also led him into the insurance industry, where he has worked for one of the world's largest insurers, the U.K.'s Aviva PLC, for 23 years.

"Your sole job as an auditor was to see people who probably didn't want to see you or speak with you and try to get information from them. The experience taught me a lot about what motivates people and how getting along with people is crucial to running a business well," said Mr. Machell, 44 years old, whose first encounter with Aviva was as an auditor with Ernst & Young while he was training to be an accountant.

Mr. Machell joined Aviva's group-audit division before going on to be the finance director for one of its estate-agency subsidiaries. He also was an accountant in the life and pension sales division. In July, Mr. Machell was appointed chief executive for Aviva Asia Pacific, and moved to Singapore from London, where he had been chief executive of the group's Norwich Union Insurance, a provider of life and general insurance.

From Singapore, Mr. Machell spearheads Aviva's operations in China, India, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, communicating with all levels of staff, from front-line executives to the heads of departments and managers.

"If I make myself as approachable as possible, I can collect lots more information and make better decisions," said Mr. Machell, a chartered accountant who holds an economics degree from Durham University in Britain.

Today, the region is one of Aviva's fastest-growing markets, with sales of life insurance, pensions and other long-term investment products up 60% to £4 billion ($7.89 billion) in 2007, or 11% of the group's total new sales of such products.

Aviva entered two new markets, Taiwan and Malaysia, last year, and announced plans to enter the South Korean long-term savings market in January. Aviva is now among the largest foreign insurers in China, with a presence in eight provinces. Reflecting the importance of the Chinese market, Mr. Machell has adopted a Chinese name on his business card and is learning to speak the language. Aviva Asia Pacific aims to achieve average annual growth of 20% through the end of the decade.

Tor Ching Li interviewed Mr. Machell at his office in Singapore.

WSJ: What principle of management do you wish you knew when you were starting out in your field?

Mr. Machell: If you have a way of making a complicated thing simple, it means you understand the subject and are more likely to get it done and do it pretty well. That's why I get my staff to submit proposals using a summary on a page, or SOAP. It's helpful to me and tests if they really understand the issue.

WSJ: What is the one thing you wish every new hire knew?

Mr. Machell: When you come to work, you will learn something new every day and you will never learn it all. It is a continuous learning process even if you have been doing the same work for 25 years.

WSJ: What is the most important piece of technology you use personally?

Mr. Machell: It has to be the BlackBerry because with it, you can keep up with everything all the time. The downside is that it can become addictive. I use it when traveling but otherwise leave it in the office at night. If you send an email at 2 a.m. and you're the boss, there's a perception that people have to respond to it, which is not a healthy environment.

WSJ: How different is the insurance industry in Asia from the rest of the world?

Mr. Machell: Insurance is a less well-known industry here, and is at the beginning of its life cycle. But the fundamentals are the same: It's about selling a promise to say we'll look after you. The hardest bit for insurance companies is communicating the importance of what we do, and the benefits of working with us. Since insurance is all about trust, we use the bank-assurance route to market entry -- the offering of insurance products via banks -- as people in Asian economies generally trust their banks. We're also able to point to what we've done in Europe for credibility in what we're doing. Generally, what people want is the same all over the world: competence and commitment.

WSJ: Was there an instance when you felt you let your company or colleagues down?

Mr. Machell: In general, you never help things by putting off a decision. It is important to act with resolve and timeliness, and this is especially true for tough decisions. At the same time, it's fine for people to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.

WSJ: Have you ever had a bad boss? What did you do about the problem?

Mr. Machell: To me, a bad boss is someone who does not listen to you. What you don't do is give up, but persevere.

WSJ: What was the toughest decision you've had to make as a manager?

Mr. Machell: One of the toughest was when I led [Aviva unit Norwich Union] through a restructuring exercise and streamlined the business to ensure synergies and optimal operating efficiency. Although part of the restructuring process is about numbers, you can't lose sight of the fact that you are dealing with people, who are our most important asset.

Restructuring is also about how to find the best solution for everyone involved, ensuring that structures are built to help employees develop in the future organization. For this to happen successfully, an open dialogue is essential to ensure employees' understanding and buy-in. Constant communication is vital to keep people informed of why the decision was made and what it means for them and their job. This won't solve the problem, but it will help them cope with the situation better.

WSJ: What was the most satisfying decision you've made as a manager?

Mr. Machell: One of the most satisfying decisions that I had to make was to identify opportunities specific to Asia and put together an Asia-Pacific executive management team to implement the new regional growth strategy. As we are committed to the region, our aim is to build our Asia business into a market leader.

WSJ: Would you recommend that someone starting out in your field attend business school, or skip the M.B.A. and learn along the way?

Mr. Machell: Skip the business school and learn along the way, as you learn much more in a practical real-world environment than you would in a classroom.

Article originally published on The Wall Street Journal Online (

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