The firm now sells its mutual funds and pension products via bank channels in Hong Kong, India and Malaysia, and is in talks with potential bank partners in Japan. Its strategic partners include Punjab National Bank and Vijaya Bank in India, and Bumiputra-Commerce Bank in Malaysia. It also has sales deals with other local banks in those markets as well as global names such as Citibank, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Standard Chartered. In Hong Kong it is on the shelves of Bank of America, Bank of China, Wing Hang Bank, and others.

Principal does not have, nor intends to have, its own in-house sales force. Rather it relies on third-party distributors. Therefore the firm saw the need to put one person in charge of penetrating the bank market, says Rex Auyeung, managing director and CEO in Hong Kong.

"We need someone who can concentrate on communicating with banks and making sure they understand how our products are structured," he says.

Cheng, who began her new job this week, was a natural choice, Auyeung says, partly because she used to be the head of Principal Insurance's operations department. She re-joins the firm from AIG, where she had worked in its bancassurance section. She has also worked at Manulife in Canada and Hong Kong.