The office of Brian Boisvenue, president and CEO at OUB Manulife in Singapore, has a long interior window covered with strings of paper cut outs shaped as people. There is row after row, and then a large gap, and then, in the middle of a glass pane, a solitary pink little person.

"That's my target this year - 500 new sales agents," Boisvenue says. "Today we've got 360 agents. Within three years we'll have a thousand."

The joint venture between Manulife and OUB (now acquired by rival banking group UOB) has been around since the mid-1980s. "We had been known as a professional and profitable company but we had not been concerned about size," he says. "But in the past few years, Manulife as a company has put a strong focus on growth." In Asia, that led to ' fast-growth' business models first in China and Vietnam, which saw rapid expansion from nothing to a 5,000-strong agency force. The firm is now repeating that throughout the region.

Boisvenue says this comes with the added strains of ensuring each new hire is efficiently creating new business for the life insurer. But he reckons a slight drop in productivity is more than made up for if the sales force achieves enough size.

"In Hong Kong the entire industry has 36,000 agents in a market of six million people. In Singapore there are only 16,000 agents for four million people, so as a proportion of population, there is room to grow sales forces. Singaporean income levels should produce the same number of policies and premiums."

Boisvenue's goal is to catch up with Singapore insurance's big four players, AIG, Great Eastern Life, NTUC and Prudential of the UK, which maintain their dominance thanks to large sales forces.
Although bancassurance and sales through brokers is on the rise, and the government is expected later this year to pass a new Financial Advisory Act that should fuel the rise of independent financial advisors, Boisvenue says news of the death of agency sales is premature.

He acknowledges good agents will go independent, but notes that in other markets such as North America and Australia, agents maintain a lingering loyalty to old employers and continue to push their products. Moreover he doubts the third-party model will be as successful in Singapore. "It's still Asia. Sales are based on who you know, not on tax breaks or sophisticated calculations."

Moreover while bancassurance will continue to grow, Boisvenue notes even in Europe, where the link between banks and insurance products was born, banks aren't great sellers of insurance vehicles.

If anything, growing the sales force is key to survival. Insurance companies are under pressure to cross-sell competitors' products for the sake of the customer. For instance, Keppel Insurance, a smaller player, and Great Eastern are now selling each other's products. In general, the big four have no incentive to play this game with smaller players, which would benefit from having giants marketing their products. (Great Eastern is involved with Keppel only because both are owned by OCBC Bank.) So Manulife needs to put on weight if it wants to have heft to throw around in the market.

There is only one catch right now, and that is the fate of OUB Manulife itself. Since OUB's acquisition by UOB, the JV has been under a cloud, as UOB has its own life insurance affiliate, UOB Life, which does not have an agency sales force. Manulife sold its products through the OUB network but now that relationship is up in the air.

Boisvenue declined to comment on the future of the company. For now he is keeping his focus on making that train of little people running across his window reach the target.