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Ingrid Johnson, Sun Life Financial Inc.’s new President of Sun Life Asia, at the company’s Toronto office building on Nov 15, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ingrid Johnson, the new president of Sun Life Asia, has spent a lot of time inside her hotel suite overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor for someone keen to meet with her staff in eight different countries.

After accepting the job in late November, replacing Léo Grépin, Ms. Johnson began to juggle packing up her life in London with tying up loose ends in her hometown in South Africa. She arrived in Hong Kong in early February – only to immediately head into a 21-day quarantine, followed by seven days of mandatory testing. Then, at the beginning of March, just as she was about to start apartment hunting, Hong Kong declared a citywide lockdown as the number of COVID-19 cases began to spike.

Watching the ferries from her hotel room for weeks isn’t exactly the start Ms. Johnson was expecting when she joined Canada’s second-largest insurer.

But two years into a pandemic, she – like many executives – is learning to roll with the punches.

“I’m devastated for Hong Kong because what we are facing now is what the rest of the world began the pandemic with, but the level of fatigue is just so much greater now,” Ms. Johnson said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Hong Kong has now recorded more than a million cases and more than 8,000 deaths, as of April 1, one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world.

Ms. Johnson is facing a real challenge in Asia, where a new pandemic wave may cause a significant slowdown in sales in markets where face-to-face interaction continues to be the preferred way of doing business.

Originally from Johannesburg, she began her career in financial services at one of South Africa’s largest independent banks, Nedbank Group, where she spent 21 years in various roles. In 2014, she was appointed group finance director of Nedbank’s parent company, U.K.-based Old Mutual plc, where she was also a member of its various subsidiary boards.

Today, Ms. Johnson spends most of her work days on company Zoom meetings from her hotel suite while Sun Life’s offices in Hong Kong remain empty.

Despite being in lockdown, she has a positive demeanour as she speaks about establishing herself at a global company while trying to boost the morale of more than 31,600 employees, two years into a pandemic that continues to affect the regions she now oversees.

“We are blessed that we have very distinct, diversified markets where there’s been consistency in really strong leaders. And those leaders have been fantastic at making sure our employees are engaged and supported in any way they need during these difficult times,” she said.

In addition to Hong Kong, Sun Life operates in mainland China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Together, the Asian operations account for more than 16.5 per cent of the company’s profits, up from just 6 per cent in 2011. Sun Life chief executive Kevin Strain – who also spent five years leading Sun Life Asia, starting in 2012 – told The Globe last year that the region is on track to become an “even larger part of the insurer’s footprint.”

Ms. Johnson spent her first 100 days in the job “listening and learning” from local leaders to gain insights into what makes each market unique and where the company can find market share.

For example, in certain regions – such as the Philippines and Vietnam – opportunities lie in the developing middle class, while China is more focused on high-net-worth clients.

“We have been No. 1 in the Philippines for years, with a strong bancassurance relationship, and the maturity of the business just continues to evolve,” Ms. Johnson said. ”The opportunity now is how do we leverage that for other markets we operate in.”

Last year, Sun Life’s Asia division reported annual underlying net income of $586-million, up from $550-million in 2019.

But, like many of its competitors, the company has also been hit with higher levels of insurance claims because of COVID-19, paying out more than $200-million in pandemic-related claims to clients in Asia.

“This was about $64-million over what we had planned, but it is the exact reason we are in this business – to support our clients,” Ms. Johnson said.

For the year ahead, she remains “cautiously optimistic” about the overall impact COVID-19 will continue to have on sales, particularly in Hong Kong, where some products still require documents to be signed in person, and in the Philippines, where face-to-face cash transactions are still common.

For many Asian countries, the spike in cases has also put more restrictions on the movement of sales staff. As a result, digital applications accounted for more than two-thirds of Sun Life’s business in Asia last year.

But the shift to digital is also a challenge, Ms. Johnson said, as not everyone has access to the infrastructure needed to support it.

“Similar to Africa, the branch network and agents remain very strong components for distribution in Asia, particularly in local markets where the technology may not be as accessible for some clients.”

Getting out there is at the top of the to-do list for Ms. Johnson, who hopes air travel will be in her near future when pandemic restrictions are lifted later this year.

For now, local rules only permit two people to meet at a time. But Ms. Johnson is grateful for the opportunity to get outside and meet colleagues face to face at a local coffee shop or to hike one of the trails that lead to Victoria Peak or Pok Fu Lam Reservoir.

“Most surprisingly, the city has easy access to beautiful, green hilly spaces, which is a lovely contrast to the dense city living,” Ms. Johnson said. “And the food in Hong Kong is sublime.”

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