Hansard: holding its own in challenging industry during turbulent times

Surviving the past 30 years in global financial services is an achievement that has eluded many big name banks and financial services firms, particularly after the financial crisis in 2007/2008. Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Northern Rock, Bear Stearns, New Star Asset Management,  Barings Bank, Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander and Landsbanki are just some of the companies that never made it to 2017.
Below, Gary Robinson explores how the Isle of Man-based, LSE-listed Hansard Global life company has managed not just to survive but to even retain its identity, focus and name since 1987, in an industry that has seen considerable consolidation and down-sizing over the past few years – and which, its executives say, is still planning for the future.

To many Britons and citizens of certain Commonwealth countries, the name “Hansard” brings to mind an official transcript of Parliamentary debate. Since 1987, though, growing numbers of investors around the world have come to know it first and foremost as the brand name of a Douglas, Isle of Man-based financial company.

According to Hansard chief operating officer Leslie Wong, the company wasn’t named after the Parliamentary transcripts – or even Thomas Curson Hansard, the London printer who gave his name in the 1800s to the Parliamentary transcripts – but had its own origins.

“The name was a combination of the names of the founder – Dr Leonard Polonsky – and Hans Gerling, the CEO of Gerling Reinsurance, with whom Dr Polonsky had a long-term business alliance,” Wong, pictured above, says.

The roots of Hansard actually go back as far as 1970, when Polonsky founded a company called Liberty Life in the UK, with an investment of just £80,000. He later sold Liberty Life to Lincoln National, but continued with Hansard, which he’d established alongside Liberty Life some years earlier.

Hansard was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2006.

Déjà vu

Looking back, Wong says much has changed since the company was launched, although there are some similarities with the late 1980s: The US president back then, too, was a man of a certain age who had made his name in a business other than politics (Ronald Reagan, the former US movie star); turmoil also stalked the world’s financial markets (in the wake of “Black Monday” in October of 1987); and terrorist attacks also featured regularly in the news.

At the same time, though, “our clients had the same needs [then] as they do today,” says Wong.

Such now-key offshore financial centres as Dubai and Hong Kong, were, however, “significantly smaller and less well developed than they are today”, he notes.

“The industry hadn’t started to focus as heavily on customer needs, and contract terms were often written in impenetrable legalese. There was also a lot more paper – no emails or instant messages – and the associated delays with passing premiums and documents back and forth.

“Almost every aspect of the industry has seen change over the last three decades – the focus in recent years on customer expectations and outcomes is possibly the most important and beneficial to the long-term health of the industry – and it goes without saying that there are likely to continue to be changes within the industry in the future.”

Isle of Man’s ‘Conduct of Business Code’

Among these changes, Wong notes, is a package of proposed regulatory changes for the Isle of Man’s insurance industry that comprise what is being called the Isle of Man’s ‘Conduct of Business Code’.

Wong believes this code, once it comes into force, will have a major impact on all life businesses based on the island – and he adds that it’s his and Hansard’s view that the increased focus on the customer that this code will usher in is “the right thing to do” – although he notes that this has already been “a core part of our values and strategy for a number of years”.

“More territories are starting to improve their regulations in this area, and because we operate in several different markets, it is increasingly important that these regulatory changes are introduced carefully to prevent customer confusion, or market disadvantages,” says Wong.

Longevity

At Hansard, the company’s longevity is much on the minds of company employees, as the company prepares to formally mark its thirtieth anniversary on 21 July.

Asked what he thinks the main reasons have been for Hansard’s surviving, and prospering, for three decades, Wong cites, first, the fact that its employees “on the Isle of Man as well as the Middle East and Far East work well together as a one team, solidly supporting a global network of distributors and their clients”.

“Everyone embraces the core company values: innovation, quality, integrity, respect – and there is a real drive to deliver better value and an excellent service to our customers,” he adds.

He also believes the fact that Hansard saw the opportunity inherent in an online proposition very early on has helped the company cement its place as an online portal for brokers and customers.

“This approach of understanding our customer needs and expectations, and regularly delivering new and improved services, has been the key to the last 30 years, and will be equally as important for the next 30,” he says.

Looking internationally, Dubai is “a large and important part of the global financial market”, and he notes that Hansard’s recent deal with Union Insurance there will be a big factor in “helping the company support customers in this region”.

That deal is also seen as helping the company with licenses for its product launches, given the perception of reluctance by local regulators to issue new ones to new companies.

Curriculum Vitae
Les Wong, chief operating officer, Hansard Global
 

  • Wong has spent more than 40 years working in the financial services industry. He started out in banking, with National Westminster Bank.
  • It was with NatWest Offshore that he first came to the Isle of Man in 1998, as head of retail marketing. He then took on several different senior roles in change management and operational risk before RBS acquired NatWest in 2000.
  • He moved into the offshore life industry in 2002, when he joined Royal Skandia (now Old Mutual Wealth International) as head of change management.
  • He joined the Hansard Group in 2010, initially as assistant director of operations, then as director of marketing operations. His appointment as chief operating officer is recent.

Regulatory change

Regulatory change is often cited as a challenge to the industry and to international IFAs, but  Wong says that Hansard views this more as an “opportunity to deliver a better proposition” against a more level playing field, where “the customer comes first”.

“Commission disclosure will clearly have a significant impact on IFAs, and it will become increasingly important for them to be able to demonstrate the value of advice to their clients – and in turn, product providers will need to be able to deliver products that provide appropriate ongoing revenue,” he says.

Generally, the importance of an international jurisdiction to the overall finance industry, the life industry or Hansard specifically, is due to “the attitude” of the local regulators and how commercially-minded they are, as well as how customer-oriented their policies are, adds Wong.

And the fact that many regulators are increasingly working together across jurisdictions, as well as with representatives from their industries, to implement policies is also important, he says.

 Consolidation

Within past few years alone, the consolidation among life companies, particularly in the offshore marketplace, has been relentless. Some brands, such as Clerical Medical, have disappeared completely; others have retreated from markets but remain active elsewhere.

Wong acknowledges this trend, but says Hansard has managed to avoid being swallowed up in part because it is smaller and thus more agile than some of its rivals.

“People know us, and know our track record, and can see that we’re still here,” he says. “Larger companies may theoretically have more resources available, but it can take them longer to seek approval from their parent and to get changes made, whilst trying to juggle other priorities.”

As for the Isle of Man, its windswept Crown Dependency base in the Irish Sea, Wong calls it a “fundamental element of Hansard’s identity”.

“Not only is it a robust and well-regulated territory with a business-friendly approach, but it is also a beautiful place – and has a good supply of enthusiastic, hard-working and well-educated people.

“There is a real community spirit on the island, and we are proud to be part of it,” he says.

Looking forward to the future, Wong continues to see opportunity beyond 2017.

The next two years are expected to see significant change in the industry, particularly in relation to the Isle of Man’s soon-to-be implemented Conduct of Business code, Wong says.

“Alongside this, we are continuing to develop our proposition to ensure that it meets our customer’s needs and remains competitive, and we will be keeping a close eye on other market and industry developments, to seize opportunities.”

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