Harry Hoopis, On The Scent

New York

When Harry Hoopis first sniffed the Singapore air, he smelled the sweet scent of opportunity.

It was early 1995 when the Chicago general agent for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company flew there for a three-day, main-platform appearance before a large group of Southeast Asian agents and managers.

“The first morning,” he says, “Im wondering, ‘Will they understand me at all?’ The second day I felt more comfortable. By the third day, Im telling all my old stories and jokes.”

What he came to realize in those three days was this: There were 1,400 managers and producers before him from 12 nations, and not a translator in the room.

“It was a wake-up call,” he says. “These people speak English. Theyre dying for information. When you looked at your audience, you never saw eyes, because their heads were down making notes. People would come up to me and show me what they had written and ask me to fill in the one word they had missed. It was remarkable.”

“That was my introduction to the marketplace,” he says.

On the way home, Harry and a colleague marveled over the business energy theyd witnessed in Singapore and they resolved, in mid-air, to create a product that would address a core need of the market: management development.

In the region, says Hoopis, if you are not in management, you are seen as a failure, though most managers there produce as well. The ratio of managers to reps, he says, is five-to-one at best, though this pattern is slowly changing.

The outcome, two years later, was “The Essentials of Management Development,” published in conjunction with the General Agents & Managers Association of Washington, D.C., of which Hoopis is a former president. Its also distributed in the region in partnership with Prudential U.K.

To date, some 500 students in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia have been put through the basic, practical course, which has since been translated into Chinese and is being used in the United States as well. Prudential U.K. wants to bring it to three or four more countries.

The market is appealing, says Hoopis, not only because of its sheer size (more than 3.5 billion people, if you include India and China), but also because of its rapid industrialization.

When Harry returned from that first trip, people would ask, “Whats it like over there?” Hed say it reminded him of the U.S. industry 15 years before–certainly not as far behind as hed thought in that they were already beyond selling endowment policies.

He returned to the region two years ago (hes now been there nine or 10 times) and when he was subsequently asked the same question, hed answer, “Theyre five years behind.” And when he completed an August 2000 trip? “I think theyve caught up,” he says.

“What was remarkable about the whole region was that theyd already leapfrogged into a financial services marketplace, and in some ways [e.g., banks selling insurance] were actually ahead of us,” Hoopis says of the geometric progression.

“Its almost as though they just jumped over that period when we would have gone out and sold millions of life insurance policies,” he says. “They went to total financial planning.”

To Hoopis this headlong plunge into mutual funds and variable products (unit-linked products, they call them) isnt necessarily a good thing. “If we look at it 20 or 30 years from now, will we say it worked better?” he asks. “Are they backing away from the sale of life insurance prematurely, just when the marketplace is looking for it?”

These are cultures, after all, which are very caring of their families, he says, and they now have steady and rising incomes with which to take care of their long-term rersponsibilities.

Two years after his first foray into Southeast Asia, Harry smelled that familiar scent again, this time wafting in from Greece and from Hungary. Though market size pales by comparison (their respective populations are 10.7 million and 10.2 million), he detects parallels with the Southeast Asia experience.

For one, both are family-oriented cultures, where employment and income are on the rise.

In Greece, the number of agents, life and non-life combined, was 9,500 in 1999, split between 114 companies.

In Hungary, the scene is quite dramatic. There, workers have migrated back to the cities, hold regular jobs, and have money to spend as they recover from the Communist collapse.

Pre-Communist Hungary had 100 life insurance companies, says Hoopis, later reduced to one state company and now back up to 28 private companies. Life business there is generally transacted through tied agents (about 15,000 of them) who represent only one company and work on a commission-only basis. Their group life and pensions market is dominated by its 186-firm broker channel.

Both Greece and Hungary, he says, have been receptive to his “Essentials” program as well as to other programs like the Al Granum “One-Card System.”

Whats next for Harry Hoopis?

India, maybe, with its substantial dollars and highly educated society, and, of course, China.

Hes not saying for sure, but count on this: his nose is to the wind.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, June 22, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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