EP 157 – Bob Wouters – FWD and bolttech- It’s Digital With a Human Touch


Michael Waitze worked in Global Finance for more than 20 years, employed by firms like Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, primarily in Tokyo.  Michael lived and worked in Tokyo from February 1990 until December 2011.  Michael always maintained a particular focus on how technology could be used to make businesses more efficient and to drive P/L growth. Michael is a leader in the digital media space, building one of the biggest and fastest-growing podcast listener bases in the region.  His AsiaTechPodcast.com show has listeners in more than 170 countries and his company, Michael Waitze Media produces some of Asia’s most popular podcasts.

Bob Wouters

Bob leads FWD’s General Insurance business in Thailand. This new business venture called bolttech covers digital underwriting, digital brokerage and device protection and is being set up in all countries where FWD Life is present. FWD recently acquired Siam City Insurance in Thailand. Bob is leading the transformation of SCI to FWD’s digital GI underwriter in Thailand. In his country head role, he also oversees Frank.co.th – Thailand’s leading digital broker. Prior to this role Bob was Chief Distribution Officer of FWD Life in Thailand, where he was responsible for business development and sales delivery in Agency, Bancassurance and Alternative Distribution. Bob was part of the pioneering leadership team that has built FWD and its brand from the inception in 2013.

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In January 2022, the Asia InsurTech Podcast was catching up with Bob Wouters who is in charge of FWD general insurance in Thailand and bolttech InsurTech Exchange. bolttech has entered the market in Thailand with its device protection cover, transformed former aggregator Frank.co.th into the bolttech Insurance Exchange and partnered with telco provider DTAC.

Listen to our previouse conversation with Bob here and find the transcript of our latest conversation below.

Michael Waitze 0:00
Okay, we’re on. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia InsurTech podcast. We are super happy to have a Bob Wouters in charge of the FWD general insurance in Thailand and bolttech InsurTech Exchange, formerly known as Frank. I love being able to say that I’ve always wanted to say that because formerly known as Prince, and the device protection business, Bob, it’s great to have you back on the show. How are you doing?

Bob Wouters 0:26
I’m fine. Thanks, Michael. And thank you for having me again.

Michael Waitze 0:29
I want to go back to the last time we did this in a second. But you know, we weren’t face to face. And I was joking with you beforehand, you probably didn’t think I was 900 years old. But I probably don’t look like what you expect. It’s just funny for me. Anyway, it’s great to have you back on the show. And before we really start, I just want to give a shout out to my FWD insurance agent, she was amazing, her nickname is Amp, who recently helped me get health insurance. I’m so thankful for it. And I want to say this too. It was an entirely digital process. You know, she met me in person, because that’s what she likes to do. And she’s really good at that. But just the whole thing happened on her iPad. It was a bunch of swiping a bunch of like talking. And before I knew it, it was done. And I thought that was kind of cool. Anyway, it’s great. It’s great to have you here.

Bob Wouters 1:17
Great to hear and thanks for the appreciation. And I think that that’s one of the key things that we tried to build is digital over the human touch. Yeah. But very often, it’s a combination that makes it so powerful.

Michael Waitze 1:27
Yeah, I mean, I don’t think anybody wants just a purely digital experience. And I’ve been saying this for years, I’m sure you’ve heard me say it is that the tech should supercharge the agent, make them so much better, so that they can then create this personal relationship with you so that if you do have any issues or any questions or problems, you have that person you can go to to ask those things. But the process for you is kind of seamless and frictionless you like the form filling out should not happen. And that happened really nicely for me. I just want to make that point. The other thing I want to say is the last time we had you on and we were joking about this a little bit offline, like I can’t ever be sure was it 1970 or 2020. It just time just passes way too fast. And a lot has changed since then. Can we talk about some of those things that have changed from your perspective? Yeah, just jump in wherever you want. Right. Like you talked about Frank, that’s been integrated right into FWD it’s now called the InsurTech Exchange. Maybe you want to talk about that a little bit in how that integration went? And what it really is and what it’s meant to do.

Bob Wouters 2:33
Oh, thanks. Yeah. Well, Frank is, you know, it’s been built by Prem, one of the co founders. He’s been on the show for many, many times, and it’s a fantastic job in, you know, from scratch create a solution to the problems that he as a consumer had, and why is it so difficult to buy insurance? And why is it so difficult to compare all the different products, because there’s too much jargon and the whole process specifically, the digital process at that time was very cumbersome. So it started off as a D2C broker completely digital, was acquired by bolttech. And in 2019, we did the further integration, that meant that, you know, part of the enterpreneurship got lost because you become part of a larger organization. But it opened up a lot of doors as well, where we could leverage the platform that Prem and his team in Portugal have built over the years, and expand that to become the basis for what we call bolttech InsurTech Exchange. Effectively, it’s a broker. But what we try to do is we try to leverage more on the platform and try to build partnerships, not only on D2C, but also with partners that have a large customer base, and are non traditional insurance partners. So one example that can highlight is the the partnership that we launched recently with Dtac in Thailand. So Dtac also recognized that one of the opportunities they saw for their customers to add value to their customers was to use their capabilities of making it easier for the customers to buy several products, starting with their own telco products. But that capability, they wanted to extend and see how they could add value to their customers by helping them for example, to buy insurance. They saw that the Thai insurance market is still very much under penetrated. And they also saw is that it’s very difficult to buy and compare products. So they are using our bolttech IE platform as the technology to link to their own customers.

Michael Waitze 4:38
This is super interesting to me. I always think that sales requires some kind of mindset change, right, particularly for a product that you don’t already have on your platform. And then we can back up even a little bit further before we dig deeper into the DTAC partnership. I think when most people think about insurance companies, they think about underwriting like this is the core one way that insurance companies make money. This is the sort of fence around their business that they have. But you’ve said the word platform a bunch of times already. Is it the platform that is the future of the business? Do you know what I mean? Is this the moat around the business? Is that platform? Or is it the underwriting that traditionally people have thought about?

Bob Wouters 5:17
It’s a great observation. And I think that we are different from many of the other insurance companies that we are not starting with the underwriter as a core engine. But it’s, as you said, it’s the platform. We really want to make it easier for people to buy and sell insurance. So that all goes around, it starts with the platform, especially in the digital era. And it also is a reflection of the increased competition that you see for the underwriters. Premiums are low, it’s it’s a red ocean. So trying to compete in all the products and be the best and the cheapest, and all the products is extremely expensive in a way. You need to build scale, and especially like a startup company as we are, we don’t have the intention to make the underwriting profit, the core of the profit of our of our ecosystem. So the way we look at this is we are selective in the risks that we want to put on our own balance sheet. But by partnering with the platform, it allows you to be selective in the risk. And at the same time, always say yes to your customers. So you can pass on the customer. If you don’t have a relevant product or not at the right price by your own underwriter, you can direct them to the platform where they can buy a more suitable product, or at a better price from one of the other carriers on the platform. So you, you can capture it both. You manage the basically your own balance sheet, but you still help the customer buy the product that they need.

Michael Waitze 6:45
I feel like if I close my eyes and change just some of the tech, some of the terminology. We could be talking about Shopify? Do you know what I mean? Let me just explain a little bit just to make it clear. In other words, they’re kind of in the E commerce business. But they’re much happier to have a ton of like a million sellers on their platform. I’m not suggesting you have a million sellers on your platform, but a million sellers. And then they also let people build plugins, but also like fully scoped businesses that connect to their API’s that then allow those sellers to use those API’s to make their businesses more efficient. And that’s kind of what I feel like you’re saying in a way, that it’s that platform business that then allows for this. I don’t know what the term is accelerated innovation in the insurance space, because in the same way that you said you have selected, you want to have be selective about the risks you put on the platform, in the same way that like Shopify should curate the types of shops that are on their platform so that they have the right sales, right? You don’t want everybody selling nails and hammers, because then it’s not effective. You don’t I mean? Is that a fair comparison?

Bob Wouters 7:48
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that, you know, we would IE business, as the owner of the platform also tried to curate it in a way that you mentioned it right. We tried to provide choice. But you don’t want to give too much choice that will then make it more complicated for the customers to compare and select.

Michael Waitze 8:06
right, because that’s noise, right? And again, we get back to this engineering question is trying to minimize the noise and increase the signals, right. And those signals are the products that people want to buy. And the noise is just the too many products and making discovery hard.

Bob Wouters 8:19
And one of the other things that we’re trying to do with the platform is accelerate the whole digitalization of the general insurance business in Thailand. And I think that we, you know, we’ve seen with with COVID, that not only the general ecommerce sales grew significantly on on the back of the lockdowns, specifically in insurance. And I think it was a Forrester Research report that came out a year ago or something that said that COVID, only a year in had probably accelerated digitalization and buying insurance online with at least three to five years. Yeah. So we’re really trying to catch up on that. And one of the things that I think is until now is lacking is that the front end like our platform, buying insurance becomes a bit more easier because of the technology. But what is still missing is that many of the carriers and the underwriters still have products that were designed for the old world and are very generic. So this is what you said as well, in your example with Khun Amp, it’s easy if you have a product that you can not only compare online, but you can do the full transaction because the design of the product was already having a digital customer journey in mind when the product was set up. How can you and this is where I think having access to a lot more data once you plug your platform and your carriers into one ecosystem is that enables you as a underwriter and it’s not only our own underwriter, but it’s all the other partners that are currently on our IE platform to get access to more data and translate that into more relevant and more modular product design for a digital customer.

Michael Waitze 10:11
So are you suggesting that with all of the underwriters, all of the distribution partners, and then all of the data that you’re gathering, I mean, there’s all this talk about personalization, right, but we don’t have to go personalization per se. But then instead of creating generic products, you can actually use the data to create specific products, that then can get distributed in a way that couldn’t have been distributed before. So the insurance is more for me, as opposed to me trying to shoehorn myself into an insurance product.

Bob Wouters 10:42
Absolutely. That’s exactly where I see it going. And I think that we can really play a role in that, you know, for Thailand, for sure. But in other Southeast Asian markets, it’s happening more and more.

Michael Waitze 10:54
I want to get back to this example of DTAC. And I want to mention this thing about mindset change. So internally, for an incumbent insurer, there has to be this mindset change of, we’re gonna change this engine of growth, potentially, from the underwriting to the platform. So that’s one challenge. But the other challenge then is going to, you know, a company like DTAC that has, I don’t know, 19 million subs and say, you haven’t sold insurance before. But you’ve got this seamless and frictionless distribution mechanism that people carry around with them every single day. How can we work together to change your mindset, which shouldn’t be that hard to then distribute these products as well, to them?

Bob Wouters 11:31
It’s an interesting challenge, because I think you you might have learned by now by talking to so many people in the industry, is that, you know, it’s pretty conservative. And people are still very much when we talk about insurance, it starts with the underwriter and the product. And it’s still a lot of jargon. So trying to break away with that, if you do product designs stop talking about well, this is a PA, where none of your customers actually know what a PA is, leave alone, whether they need it or not. So I think, you know, we’ve done some interesting stuff. And I just want to highlight an example that we did with our GI business in in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, before COVID took off, there was a modular travel insurance product. So I think that, you know, this is the example that I like to explain a bit more on how we should be thinking about, maybe it’s not complete personalization, but it’s at least making a product more relevant or modular. So very often you have a traditional insurance product that is a travel insurance is like, you know, you got bronze, silver metal, and you got 10 coverages, which is your flight delay, lost luggage, emergency repatriation. And you have a choice right, if you choose, once you have a low coverage, and some of it is not covered. But it’s all pre fixed, it’s a complete package, and there’s not a lot of choice. So what we did is we use that technology, also on the underwriting side, that you can help customers use a switch to say, like, look, when it comes to flight delay, I want to have a coverage that is high but maybe I don’t want to have any access or lost luggage, etc. So I can switch it off. So is literally switching on and off. And by that you are creating a kind of an individual needs translated into a product. And that’s an example. And, you know, we are waiting for the post COVID era, that people start traveling more and more. And we can roll out this product and this actually where I think that you know, using technology in designing flexible and modular products is going to be the future. And integrating that between having the front end a platform where people can have a seamless digital customer experience and having a flexible underwriter with the technology on the background to support it. I think that that’s going to be a winning combination.

Michael Waitze 13:52
So there’s I want to talk a little bit of another distribution thing that I’ve seen as well. So there’s so many changes taking place in the Health Tech, right. And the big changes in the health tech investment in Southeast Asia with companies like HalloDoc in Indonesia, I was thinking about and finding nightingales in India and then homage and Singapore did raise some super large rounds, right. But a lot of what they’re doing is they’re trying to decentralize the provision of health care, meaning, not only taking it away from just gigantic hospitals, but moving it out into the suburbs and exurbs in all of these countries. Right. But that also means that they have if they’re connecting with people that haven’t had health care before, they’re probably also connected with people that haven’t had health insurance before. Do you see that as an these companies are well funded, right? I mean, just HalloDoc doc raised a total of 145 million bucks. It’s just one example. But do you see those companies as well, kind of fitting into the DTAC example of getting them on the platform to and then using them as distribution mechanisms for insurance?

Bob Wouters 14:52
Absolutely. And I think that that’s where, you know, the whole health and wellness ecosystem that’s being built in many countries in Southeast Asia needs insurance. And the insurance companies are very often a bit reluctant to step into it. Because it’s all new. And it’s, it’s, it’s still developing, right. And it’s a lot of people that never had any health insurance before. So very traditional underwriters are a bit scared to move into that math segment, because they don’t know exactly what risks they will put on the books. But if you can combine the insights of your customers, because you get access to the data, and relate it back to the right coverage, and be more flexible to be more meaningful, in terms of coverage that these customers need, that will definitely be a solution going forward.

Michael Waitze 15:39
Yeah, I think so. This is the second time you’ve brought up this idea of data analysis, is there a big investment being made? And you know, you don’t have to talk specifically about this, but into these like data science, data analysis, ml ops, and all that other stuff, as well as a core part of providing the best platform experience as well?

Bob Wouters 15:56
Yes, very much. I mean, it’s, we’re building, we don’t even call them data lakes, but we call them data oceans.

Michael Waitze 16:04
Data lake sounds so small now, doesn’t it?

Bob Wouters 16:08
We’re going to fill them very rapidly. And we’re investing heavily, not only in the technology, but also is you know, finding the right way. Because having a lot of data. That’s only number one, right. And this is where I believe in, in the partnership model that you’re trying to get. If I go back to DTAC, for example, they know that customer base, they know their customer needs and the customer behavior, but they’re not specialists in insurance. We know about insurance. So if we can get both our data scientist teams working together, to really look at the specific needs of the DTAC customers and come up with a product design for it, then you really, I think you’re winning the race.

Michael Waitze 16:48
But this is why I think the platform business is so interesting. And we’ve touched on this a little bit, but I want to be really explicit about this. So as an as an investor, right? To me, I want to look at a business, that’s a platform, I don’t want to look at a vertical business, because I can’t tell which one of those vertical businesses are going to succeed. I don’t know if e commerce Company A, B, C, or D is going to be better. And frankly, there’s so much easier to build. But if there’s a platform that can gives me access to all these different products that I know has a moat around, it’s going to be really hard to build over time. Right? So this the DTAC thing is actually really interesting. But there are so many other places where you can put this platform into play, that seems to be where like the real strength of this is. And with all the data that you’re gathering, I don’t know that that just seems the way that this is going to grow for sure. Yeah.

Bob Wouters 17:37
And maybe to give another example, the third, the third pillar that we not really touched upon right now is within bolttech is the company called device protection. We offer extended warranty, plus services, for pickup and repairs to customers. So if you get a mobile phone, and it breaks it down, you’re one of our customers, we come and pick it up. And we guarantee that in urban areas in Southeast Asia, you will get a repaired mobile phone or gadget back in your hands within six hours. And if we can’t repair it, we’ll give you a replacement one. And we started in Thailand in I think it was the third quarter of 2020. And we started our device protection business here, because we are partnering with Samsung. So Samsung Care+ ended warranty program of Samsung in Thailand, if you buy a Samsung phone to one of their Samsung experience centers, and you buy extended warranties, we run the whole network of servicing, picking up and repairing it. And we can also provide the insurance the needed insurance coverage. If, if that’s something that the partner wants.

Michael Waitze 18:48
Yeah, and I want to talk about fundraising and being a well funded company and how that changes the landscape for startups and just the insurance business as a whole. But I want to point out for people that don’t understand how big this device protection business is, as well, is that Extend, which is a company based in United States in the middle of last year will in May of last year raised a $260 million round just for their device protection business on a $1.6 billion valuation. So it’s not like this is just some small business that you’re running on the side. If you think about the way devices dominate our lives, it’s actually quite massive, right? And there are plenty of places where this can be employed where it hasn’t been employed yet. So that should be a big engine of growth as well. No.

Bob Wouters 19:34
And that’s where I think, the power it’s even a motto for bolttech The power of connection is that we can connect the three capabilities the underwriting, the distribution with a platform, and device protection is a meaningful product to customers. We can combine that and Thailand is one of the spearhead countries where we are combining all three capabilities already.

Michael Waitze 19:57
And look I want to talk about this now explicitly, right so according Willis Towers Watson and I’ve referenced this before, right? More money was invested globally in InsurTech companies. And that was just an example of it in 2021, then all of 18 and 19. Combined, that’s a lot, right. 20 is a little bit of an outlier because of COVID. And a bunch of other stuff was going on. But 18 and 19, were just regular years where regular investment was going on. Can you talk about what that means for the InsurTech landscape in general, but also for bolttech in particular, because you all announced the capital raise last year as well? Yeah.

Bob Wouters 20:28
Yeah, we did. And I think you you talk to our Group CEO, Rob Schimek. And one of the previous ones I did, yeah. So there was our Series A at 247 million, which is one of the largest series A for InsurTech worldwide. So I think that that’s already positioning us. And I believe that, you know, there will be many other players to come. Because I agree with you. And with Willis Towers Watson, that it’s, you know, it’s it’s only starting to take off. The other piece that I see is, is that a lot of the funding originally came from some of the tech investors. And what I’m expecting to see more and more is the more traditional insurance players starting to get a bit more nervous that InsurTech is really developing very fast. So what I’m expecting as well is that over the next couple of periods, you will see more of the traditional insurance companies acquiring startups and insurtechs, even more than this, and I think it will put more pressure on the general pace of the market to to adapt and to innovate. And this is what, what I like about bolttech is, is that it’s got a great combination of people that had long careers. And it’s both in bolttech and FWD by the way. It’s it’s driven by people, either with a tech background who see the opportunity, but it’s very much initiated and driven by people coming from the insurance industry. So fed up with the low pace of innovation and the crap service that we do that we says like, look, we are now seeing the best of both worlds. So we’re not just pure an InsurTech with a couple of tech guys who don’t really know insurance, and they could have sold dog food or plastic flowers online as well. Right now, it’s really insurance people understanding the needs of insurance customers, but also understanding insurance distribution. And that’s when we go back when we talk about still having the need for an agent. Yeah, how can you make the whole process as seamless as possible, and make sure that you can get in touch with a real person, if you want to have some advice, and that you can really get the human connection at the right time, wherever it is. And for the rest of you try to simplify and make it as smooth as possible, by digitizing wherever you can.

Michael Waitze 22:50
Yeah, exactly. And you’re right. The digitalization should make it easy, both for the policyholder, and for the policy seller and provider, right, not just the agent, but the business that provides the agent with that product. And there’s a whole bunch of things we can talk about there. But I do believe that having a human in the in the equation is just it’s completely necessary. Do you think that there’s going to be just again, from your perch, right, that there’s going to be a mainstreaming of blockchain style technologies or DLT style technologies into the insurances into the insurance industry as well. Right? It’s not going to happen overnight, for sure. And I’ve seen plenty of new technologies, whether it was blade servers using Unix that took about five to seven years to become, I won’t even say popular, but just useful for big investment banks, where I used to work to now just being there all the time, right at the beginning people like no one’s going to use Linux, but then everybody used it kind of thing. Do you see the same thing happening with Blockchain tech?

Bob Wouters 23:45
Oh, it’s here, and it’s never going to go away. I am always a bit surprised that it’s apparently taken a bit longer to be integrated in all the processes. So that’s, you know, and I remember, you know, back in the days, probably 15 years ago, when we were being warned by all the bankers and consultants that, you know, Google was already having, what is it 20 banking licenses and they come and eat you up? Right. But I believe that, you know, for some of the tech providers, especially in the regulated side of the business, understanding it, and it requires transparency, right. And the regulators are probably the ones blocking all this or delaying all this. We are ready to use all the technology. But if it becomes a crucial part of your complete value chain as an insurer, the regulator will want to see what’s under the hood, on how things work, and if they can get a full, you know, answer to how the blockchain element of that transaction is working. They’re going to be very hesitant to approve it. And I think that that’s going to be one of the key, you know, the key challenges that the industry will face. I think the customer is ready for digitalization and buying online. The carriers are, all the other partners are. But the regulators and I’m have to be a bit careful here because I see that they really want to do it. But I feel that there’s a lack of understanding and comfort. Also from their role like this, if the first major incident with one of the InsurTech will come up, people will start pointing at the regulator and says, Well, yeah, how could you have ever allowed this to happen?

Michael Waitze 25:19
Right? Yeah, right. I want to comment on this Google thing, because I remember reading a book years ago, I may get the title wrong called inside the Googleplex, or the Google, I can’t remember what it was. And it was this idea, this thesis that with all of the data that was that Google was gathering, that they were 10 to 15 years ahead of everybody else, but also with all the engineering talent, that whether it was banking, investment, banking, underwriting insurance, all this kind of stuff that they were just going to eat everybody’s lunch. And I think history has shown to us, you know, in the same way, it looked like IBM was gonna destroy the entire PC business, but companies have their core competencies. And when they try to go outside of them, they fail, because there’s some sort of DNA problem that says, I know, that’s a big opportunity, but I don’t know how to take advantage of it. Even if I have all the component pieces. Do you know what I mean, in the sense that, you know, like you said, if you get a bunch of guys and gals together to understand insurance, and a bunch of guys and gals together and understand distribution and technology, well, you’re probably going to build something great. If everything just looks like an opportunity, you’re grabbing at straws to do it. I love when Google moves into a market, because to me, it just confirms the fact that that’s actually a good market. But I’m not afraid, actually that they’re going to dominate. Is that a fair thing to say?

Bob Wouters 26:36
Yeah, definitely. And I think that that’s also one of the challenges, you know, we need to show resilience. That’s what we tried to do, specifically, Southeast Asia and Thailand. Right? Is that, are you able to launch some of these partnerships that are proving your point? Because on paper, it looks good, but can you make it work? Can you work around the obstacles that will definitely come whether it’s from the regulator, or what we have in COVID, the challenges that we have with some of the insurance markets and insurance carriers in Thailand, that took too much risk on the balance sheet. And that is putting a lot of pressure with them, you know, having to stop the business, which will have a negative impact on the people stressed in insurance companies. And that will likely have an impact also, on buying insurance online. Because if people feel that, well, wait a minute, there is a risk that, you know, one of the insurance companies might go bankrupt, then that also means that I want to see whether they actually, you know, exist other people picking up the phones, if I have something. And this is something you know, in I started my my career with ING in, in the Netherlands, and we were hugely successful with ING Direct all over the world. And that was one of the first complete digital retail banks that was very competitive, because we didn’t have any branch network. And I remember them is that we made a decision to actually start building your then ING Direct coffee shops, because we needed to have a physical presence because people were saying as well, your interest rates are so competitive. It’s so it’s nearly too good to be true. Can I trust you?

Michael Waitze 28:13
Can I talk to somebody so I can believe that this is real?

Bob Wouters 28:17
Yeah exactly. So this is why we had to come up with physical branches. That added a lot of cost, but we actually didn’t need it. But it’s just, you know, there is a bit of a gap to win the trust of the consumers that you can service and be as good as any of the other insurance companies that have their agents or a lot of people that can you know, jump in the car, come over to you and help you out if you got a problem.

Michael Waitze 28:41
Exactly. And I think that’s the perfect way to end this. The humans are never going to go away that type will be the differentiator for sure. And the platform matters. I want to thank Bob Wouters for coming on the show and doing this today. That was really super, thank you so much.

Bob Wouters 28:55
My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Michael and looking forward to come again next time.

Michael Waitze 29:00
Thank you

Listen to our conversation with bolttech CEO Rob Schimek

Episode 219