EP 158 – Amarit Franssen, Christopher Dennis, and Remy Dorflinger – The State of Digital Transformation in Thailand


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.

Ex-Plan & Policy Analyst and also one of the board members of Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) and with a well-known reputation in the Thai Insurtech Industry.

As CEO of Luma, a Thai-based MGA with activities in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Mongolia, Bangladesh and France, Christopher is currently driving rapid expansion of technology- based health insurance initiatives across the region. Prior to joining Luma Chris was active in the insurtech space for Danish insurtech company Tia Technology. Most of his career has been within health insurance and employee benefits with companies such as Bupa, Global Benefits Group, Europ Assistance, ERV and Euro-Center across China, Hong Kong and now Thailand. Christopher has established several operations for international insurers, overseen turn-arounds in China and Thailand, built health insurance strategies and launched new health insurance propositions in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

Remy is the Managing Director of Coherent in Thailand.

This episode is brought to you by:
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The Asia InsurTech Podcast in conjunction with The Digital Insurer recorded a panel with Amarit Franssen, a co-founder of Appman, Christopher Dennis, an advisor at Luma and Remy Dorflinger, a managing director at Coherent to talk about the state of digital transformation in Thailand. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the industry and the panelists discuss the biggest challenges as well as lessons learned.

If you would like to join the conversation and work toegther to accelerate the digital transformation of insurance, join the new community for digital insurance enthusists – TDI Connect. TDI Connect has established communities throughout Asia including Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and India.

Michael Waitze 0:00
Hi, this is Michael Waitze and welcome back to the Asia InsurTech Podcast. This is the only podcast in Asia focused on insurance that gives entrepreneurs, thought leaders and investors a platform to discuss how technology is reshaping the insurance industry in Asia, and frankly, the rest of the world. In conjunction with The Digital Insurer. We recently recorded a special roundtable episode. Our panel included Amarit Franssen, a co-founder of Appman, Christopher Dennis, an advisor at Luma and Remy Dorflinger, a managing director at Coherent. We started off with some introductions. Amarit, please go first.

Amarit Franssen 0:41
So, we are a tech company in Thailand that when we starting from InsurTech company. We start with the process of helping the insurer for selling everything on a tablet, crew agents, bank and brokers. But right now we trying to step out. Also to expand into other areas we have customer like in cryptocurrency market, banking market, finance market who using our system for not doing only selling product like a using, they use our spin off solution, like digital face-to-face, to onboarding clients through video call and do e-KYC. And onboard them through everything digitally.

Michael Waitze 1:29
Very interesting. Remy, do you want to go?

Remy Dorflinger 1:32
Yeah, absolutely. So I’m French. And I came six years ago to Thailand. Actually, I was working with a major insurer at the time. And I was actually for, for this insurer working on digital transformation in Asia, and especially in Thailand. But then, last year, beginning of 2021, I joined Coherent as the managing director of Thailand office, and and really Coherent is about building solution, creating solutions for the insurance and also beyond the insurance market. And to allow really to support the digital transformation of the insurance.

Michael Waitze 2:18
And Chris, why don’t we end with you on this one?

Christopher Dennis 2:20
Fantastic. So great to be here. My name is Christopher Dennis. I’m currently with Luma health MGA based here in Thailand and active in the region have a background in health insurance. InsurTech actually came to Thailand five, six years ago with a technology company before joining Luma. So I’m happy to be here to be to discuss how we can apply technology in the business.

Michael Waitze 2:44
It’s such a great group. I mean, why don’t you do this for me, we talk a lot about digital transformation. And maybe Remy because that was your job. When you were at the incumbent insurance companies? Well, maybe when Amarit is done, you can just pipe in as well. Amarit why don’t you start with what is digital transformation. And you can think about it in the context of all of this sort of sectors that you’re covering as well. You can be general if you want.

Amarit Franssen 3:05
Yeah, for me, what I really focusing about digital transformation is where the you’re touching experience with the clients? How can you get rid of all the manual processing and take automated process out, then you can replace it with digital process to make the journey to be more seamlessly and flow more better user experience? That is where we always focus on the user journey.

Michael Waitze 3:36
Fantastic. Remy, do you want to jump in a little bit, particularly as your previous role?

Remy Dorflinger 3:40
Yes, exactly. So yeah, as part of my previous work, I, I agree with Amarit, this is all about improving the whole customer journey coming from the direct interaction with the customer, whether it’s on a website on tablet or something, or through the distribution channels, such as agency and bancassurance channels, but also in the operation when you need to transform your operation to make it more digital in order to allow this process to go much more smoothly without human interaction as much as possible so that the customer gets a better service. And the last point that I seen in digital transformation is also about technology debt that insurance may have accumulated over the years that they need to get rid of, and probably that they need to find more modern solutions.

Michael Waitze 4:41
Yeah, so this is a really great, this is a really great point. And actually, Christopher, I want to come to you on this for a second. Do you consider digital transformation and Remy talked about technical debt? Which is really interesting, right? But do you consider just taking the offline processes that already exist and putting digital on top of them? Or do you also have to reengineer You’re all of the processes as well. So there’s like a process reengineering part of this too.

Christopher Dennis 5:05
Indeed. That’s a very big part of it. It’s a total transformation of the company. And there is a process reengineering because some processes disappear. So for me, for me, there are two parts to this whole transfer digital transformation journey one is, what we’ve just touched on, taking away manual processes, changing the processes, making things more efficient and faster, but there’s this also allows us to develop new products, new services, new propositions that weren’t available before. And I think if we go outside of Thailand, or China, for instance, and some of the stuff that Zhong An did in the early days with return shipment insurance, like really, really small insurance products that were just unviable before they had Have you had a digital platform. That could be one example of that. So so it’s very much I mean, it’s a total transformation of companies. That’s the biggest challenge.

Michael Waitze 5:57
And I want to go back to you, Amarit and talk to me about you’ve been at this for a while, right. And I like the fact that you started sort of as a development company, and then started developing your own products as well. First in insurance then branching out to other parts of the FinTech landscape. How do you look at digital transformation today, and its status in Thailand, its state of development, across all of the stuff that you’re doing?

Amarit Franssen 6:20
I think we see a great leap of take, not only Thai like the whole industry, when they think since the government starting like Thailand, 4.0, then everything start seeing the momentum of companies, or private or corporate start shifting into into digital era, they start setting up their own own VC firm, or even said set up their own tech arm which separately from the existing IT. So you see a lot of movement there. And a lot of competition coming in for for, let’s say, getting talent and to help the company becoming more digital. So you see a lot of change in that areas. And you see a lot of new solution come out. Like you have prompt pay today, which you can transfer any money, right without having any transactional costs at all. The all corporate willing to bear the costs for to take care of this. Because they see they getting much more benefit from from that from that area, or everybody using their own mobile banking apps. If you traveled to Hua Hin today, you don’t need to carry any cash. Instead of you need just 40-50 baht for going on highway. That’s all because if you don’t put on their wallet, you couldn’t use the highway digitally. So that’s the that’s the only problem that I see around. And you can use pay everything with your mobile pay right there.

Michael Waitze 8:04
Yeah, Pompeii is such a great example of this in Huahine is such a wonderful place to go. Why do I get the feeling that somebody just came back from there? I’d love to be able to go into the beach. Remy, I want to talk to you about this as well. Because you come out of an incumbent surance background into a company like Coherent, which is really just trying to completely change the game for how insurance is built, delivered and produced not just in Thailand, but in the rest of the world. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you look at the state of digital transformation in Thailand, maybe from an incumbent perspective? And then from a startup perspective, and if they’re different?

Remy Dorflinger 8:40
Yeah, absolutely. I think when I know when I came to Thailand six years ago, coming out of France, I was quite surprised with all the paperwork and the manual process that were in the insurance market in Thailand. And also, I was quite surprised how business and IT were not speaking the same language. And it was taking forever to get everything sorted in terms of information systems. But then I have also seen a notice that after after that, in Thailand, people were ready to move to digital solution. And we can see that and Amarit was mentioning this example of prompt pay, about the wallet etc. that I see also with just people everywhere, looking at their phone communicating online, using web websites everywhere, so they are ready to use it. So now is just the insurance to take the leap and to actually implement these digital solutions. And they are started. These are started already. And what I can say also is in the past two years, we have had a pandemic crisis with COVID-19 and we see that also COVID-19 has been like a catalyst for the insurer to accelerate their digital transformation, and we see a lot more initiatives coming from the insurance in terms of digital transformation.

Michael Waitze 10:09
So do you feel like in the time that you were at your previous company, and you’re at Coherent that the mindset of the big incumbent insurance companies has changed to the extent that they’re happy to be introduced to new concepts and new ways of digitally doing things, and that they’re, that they’re willing to actually say, this is the way we’ve been doing it for 150 – pick a number of years. But we know things are changing now we really have to transform. Is that your experience as well?

Remy Dorflinger 10:34
I think they are quite amazed with the solutions, the new solutions that are on the market and the solutions that we propose as an InsurTech company. Now it’s taking the leap to actually implement the solution. Because as we were discussing with Chris before, it’s a whole transformation. So you transform your IT solution mature, so transform your processes and the skills that your resources needs to have. So it’s it’s a quite big project. And that’s why we try to bring solution very quite small solution to take step by step approach to this digital transformation. And not to have a big bang approach that never see the light at the end of the tunnel, actually.

Michael Waitze 11:20
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been when I was at Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, I was involved in so many big bang, technical technology transitions, the only thing that happened was a bang, nothing was really big about it. Chris Rose, want to get to you, because you mentioned kind of in passing, you know, Luma health an mga and I think maybe it’s important for people that don’t understand how an MGA is different. It’s a bit of a hybrid business. And it’s definitely different than most insurance companies. Maybe you could explain what that is first, and then explain your view on the state of digital transformation in Thailand and how you look at it differently.

Christopher Dennis 11:53
So I think, I mean, starting with the MGA questions, so So we’re broker and TPA, basically, we do everything that an insurer does. But we’re not an insurance company. So we partner with an insurer that underwrites the risk, and that makes the key decisions, we’re not authorized to that we typically partner with reinsurance to spread the risk out. What that does for the insurance and the reinsurance is it allows people, it, we bring products to market that the local insurance probably normally wouldn’t work with, because it’s not big enough, necessarily all it requires special skills. In our cases, complex health plans that go cross border is something typically a single country insurer wouldn’t touch and we allow access to smaller markets and your markets markets will be insurance. So that’s the MGA part of it. On the on the transformation side, I think, I mean, Remy has already made some some quite important points. In this context, I think. What’s important here is, again, when we look at the MGA landscape across the region, we see a number of tech startups, we’re not a tech company, but we see a number of tech companies that are kind of moving into that space, again, out of China, you got CareVoice, out of Singapore you got Igloo, you’ve got different companies that are moving into that space where they realize that in order to make the the technology work and bring that to market, they actually have to take the role as a regulated distributor, just as we’re doing. So I think that that’s probably the we’re that come, the MGA concept was not very common in Asia five years ago, 10 years ago, but it is with every, every their reports being published on it by Roland Berger and other other consulting houses now. So it is coming. And it is becoming more and more of a standard.

Michael Waitze 13:41
So you make a really interesting point where you said pretty explicitly, we’re not a tech company. And yet you still have to go through the digital transformation process yourself, right? Did you as a company have to go through that too.

Christopher Dennis 13:52
But we would say we’re not we’re not a tech company. We are an insurance solution provider. So technology is not we don’t develop our own tech. We don’t own tech IP. That said, we’re a young company. So that means we are on a fairly I mean, we are fairly digital. So when COVID hit, shifting to work from home took us a day, it wasn’t a problem. We were first to market with COVID travel plans for inbound travelers would have to be distributed fully online, because we had the tech ready. Now it wasn’t a pay. I mean, we tried to we we bundled together different stuff. We use a bit of hope to help quite a bit of this a bit of that we’ve got it all tied together. We’ve got the wastage to look at it. We’ve got the registration part done took a bit of time but But that said, we so we don’t see ourselves as a tech company as such, but technology is an enabler and it helps us doing things faster than we otherwise would have done. And that’s where we see I mean whether it’s Coherent or other like new solutions what usually take took three to six months to bring products to market, now you can bring product to market in also minutes provided that the OIC allows. But but this is I mean, it’s not just Thailand, it’s everywhere. We have regulatory approvals that has to be followed, that slows down things sometimes. And that’s something that, but it’s not, it’s not a criticism of anyone. It’s just the way that the industry works.

Michael Waitze 15:18
No. And to be fair, you know, my conversations with the OIC are going to be different than everybody else’s conversations with the OIC on this call. But my conversation with them, I feel like they’re very progressive, they’re at least open minded enough to know that things are changing rapidly. And they want to be involved in not just promoting that change, but in facilitating it. Amarit I want to get back to you on something that that Remy mentioned. And that was the impact of COVID. On this idea of digital transformation. I want to dig a little bit deeper in this. Can you talk from your experience, right? You’ve been at this for a while? Did you feel like as April, May, June of 2020, rolled around, there may be some people that had been a little bit defensive about their own digital transformation started thinking, Wait a second, if we’re going to be working from home, if we’re not going to have agent face to face meetings, if all of these things gonna have to be more digitized than we had initially anticipated? Did you see that change as well?

Amarit Franssen 16:12
Yeah, we see that changed since since during starting on 2020 already, and the OIC at refresh on this part, they have digital face to face regulation sense what come out first, which we participate in the sandbox, also helping the our insurer because they impact the most of selling insurance, they need to sell through the our point of sale system, which they need to meet a client’s and they couldn’t. So we work around some few ideas, we have chat channel, we supporting them, we send them the link so they can do signing through the link this kind of thing until until this year, be during COVID coming out, we launched with our first client in Thailand that they can do selling insurance through video call with Thai Life Insurance Company. You go too long to men now we have a case study published, where Thai Life Insurance Company which which showing out that everything that they need to do a need to comply with the regulator. They can sales into run through with your core, doing eKYC in a video call upload auto document in New York or right away.

Michael Waitze 17:30
Got it? And Christopher Do you want to talk about this a little bit as well maybe dig a little bit deeper from your experiences during the whole COVID experience. I want to make a point here, which is really interesting is at least to me, in April of 2020, Theresa and I got on the phone. And we said we have to do a quick kind of emergency podcast and videocast about this. And the news that we had back then said COVID should be over in just a few months. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it. Amrit was actually one of the guests on that. And I still go back and look at that sometimes and think, wow, how naive we were. But I mean, we were just basing on the information that we had at the time. I’m curious about what your experience was, like Christopher.

Christopher Dennis 18:07
But I mean, it was the same. So I was I was in China during SARS. And it was three months. And it was three months holiday. It was great. I loved it. So first, I thought it was going to be three months. And then it was not. So when we got to March, April, obviously, we had to start doing more. And then we had to start working from home which there was a little bit of about equipment, equipment, data security routines. But again, for us, we’re a smaller company, we’re fairly new. So we don’t have a lot of technology debt. We don’t have a lot of legacy hardware and setups were already on Cloud, for instance. So it was fairly simple for us. But I mean, in terms of practicalities, there was a mindset bit. And the mindset bit is obviously that the most difficult part, both in terms of just again, back to transformation, changing the way we work, making sure that everybody is on board and following the new ways of working less typical transformation challenges. Now during COVID, we’ve had all the issues with working remote to action, all that stuff, people are getting pressed people losing track or doing all of that assess all companies we’ve had that that’s not industry specific. But we didn’t we it was interesting for us because again, we also process claim states and we don’t do the decision to insurance to that. But we were quite I mean, we could get all the billing data electronically from the hospitals from the minute we asked for it, they have it but they used to sending it up paper so we got it right away. And we could process it just as we always do because so we get it on paper we scan it and someone works it on a screen now. We got it digitally for the insurance weren’t ready. So the payments stopped because we sent them all the process claims and then the answer and that slope slowed down for a while until they got up. It took them a couple of months to get up to speed So that was that was probably where we saw the challenges. But interestingly, just to close off on this topic after we’d work from home for about a month, we did a survey, we didn’t want to ask the staff for your getting depressed at home. So it’s more like how do you find it. And people actually liked it, because to save a lot of time, they didn’t want to work from home all the time. So by August 2020, we had reduced our office size to 60%, we had invested in new laptops and stuff like that. And everybody now worked from home three days a week in an office two days a week. And that’s just permanent. That we made that permanent from August 28. So that’s how we work. And it works really, really well.

Michael Waitze 20:44
And Remy, how about you? What were some of the challenges that you encountered? And again, I’m curious, I don’t know exactly when your transition was from the incumbent insurer into coherent. But I’m curious if it was different if you saw different challenges as well.

Remy Dorflinger 20:58
So actually, I transitioned in the middle of the crisis, as of now, because it’s been two years, and I just changed a year ago, from this big insurer to coherent. So yeah, the transition. Actually, I when I was working on the digital transformation with my former company, I got a demo of Korean solution. And, and when I received this demo, I got really enthusiastic. And I received, I actually discussed then with the CEO of the company, and we got to open an office in Thailand, based on the project that we are launching already in Thailand. So yeah, interesting. In, in really, this is because there was this wheel of changing the information system landscape in Thailand, that we decided in Korean to open an office in China. We had already initiated three projects here, and it was really, we could see it roll.

Michael Waitze 22:09
Do you think that then was necessary to do this really rapid mindset change? Right? In other words, I think about my day sitting at Goldman Sachs and just trying to convince some of the guys and gals that had been around for 20 years back then. And remember, I haven’t done that in 10 years. So the times were very different to but just convincing them to use like, multiple computers, different mouse’s all these different screens in different technologies was just so hard, that it really couldn’t necessitated a mindset change, did you find that as well, particularly when you were in your old company, was it real easy, you saw this demo of coherent, you went to the CEO, and everyone was just on board right away.

Remy Dorflinger 22:43
I think they were quite impressed with the solutions that they saw from Coherent and also other InsurTech. But the where, when, when you are in a big insurance company, usually you’re you have to go through a number of approval processes. You sometimes have to go to your regional entity to your group entity, to get solution implemented, or project started, and, and to get also the funding to actually launch the project. So it was not not much on the will to move them on the processes that you have to go to in order to start a project.

Michael Waitze 23:25
Yeah, and I want to start with you on the kind of the final question I’m read. And that is this. I have this philosophy that nobody succeeds alone. And I don’t think that digital transformation actually takes place in a vacuum. Right? And I think Christopher kind of alluded to this, he was like, Yeah, we were ready for this right away. But the insurance companies couldn’t accept that type of digital information. What is the what is the best way? Do you think for all of the pieces and parts of this puzzle? Because there are many of them to work together to make sure that this digital transformation that’s been happening, doesn’t decelerate?

Amarit Franssen 24:01
I think right now, the momentum is already there. So so it’s difficult to go back for the integrand size, but But what we see is, it’s still challenging where a lot, a lot of compliance and regulation were then within the same company, and sometimes the difficulty of each insurance. define their own regulation. Because actually, when it’s come up from the regulator, there’s only one rule, right? Okay. But the way everybody interpreted in every company is completely different. And what the more interpreted the way it is, this solution never be standardized. So one should never be standardized. It’s always go back with a solution provider that okay, you need to do a lot of customization. It doesn’t fit in my company regulation by the compliance. Actually, I think Right now the best way is somehow you need to work with the regulate molded Wenders who really specialize in the market. And they understand the regulator rea very clearly that what the regulator really want and how to interpret and in, in the same way that the regulator one does or the need, then then all the process of implementing the solution would be much faster, the cost must be becoming more cheaper. Everybody will use keep, keep, keep doing more stuff about changing the process to be more digital. I think that is my key takeaway.

Michael Waitze 25:51
Okay, because I want to introduce this to you and just get your take on this. When fix, which is an acronym for something I can’t remember anymore, was being implemented across the financial services in the trading industry. When I was again, at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. It was a standardized way of message exchange between clients and service providers. So they were fixed messages that got sent this is when we started taking orders digitally. Stock codes had a fixed code, all these things were were predetermined. So if you sent an order to somebody, our system just abided by these fixed regulations. And we knew what it was, is there a way you think, in the insurance industry to standardize things digitally? So that the communications between incumbent insurers excuse me, I mean, InsurTech startups and other participants then can be standardized and make that communication easier, and then hence, make digital transformation easier across the board?

Christopher Dennis 26:51
I think it depends on the insurance slide. To a certain extent, it’s already there. In terms of coding standards, for instance, on a familiar work in health and got procedure code, you’ve got diagnostic courts, it’s fairly, it’s fairly simple in that sense. Now, the insurance products risks are built slightly different. But again, they’re not too different. So I don’t see that as the biggest problem. The integration so that, I think the key issue is now is Emmerich touched on the compliance piece, not so much the regulator, the regulator, as we already touched on are actually moving very, very quickly. But under compliance understanding internally, very few of the insurance, Thailand has actual technology knowledge within the compliance team. So that’s a big, big problem, because again, each of them interpreted differently. And you can have two compliance people from two insurers reading the same regulation completely different. I think in Thailand, there is an overall lack of transformation skills. And that is that is, I’ve seen a couple of the large Thai insurers, one of them is now not here anymore. But but that is a really big issue, because that makes it very, very difficult. And then there’s all the conflicting internal agendas, which will help it’s not a legacy thing. It’s just saying, Should I look at distribution and sales tools? Should I look at a smart AI driven claims analytics solution? What comes first? That’s all the different that’s that’s a typical large corporate, I think that’s where the issues are. I think back to the I think the coding the standards, the structures, I don’t actually think it’s a problem. And today with API’s and all the ways we can integrate, if if the legacy systems are not too old, and I think most of that, also that is actually there and works.

Michael Waitze 28:43
Okay, and Remy, do you want to add anything before we wrap this up?

Remy Dorflinger 28:47
Yeah. So what can we do in order to keep this same momentum of the digital transformation? I think one point that we need to do to make as a group is to raise the awareness to educate the Thai market on what is on the market currently, in terms of digital solutions. I’m thinking about where should we focus our energy into the digitalising? And what are the current solutions available? I think these are the points that we need to do raise the awareness of the of the insurance on these solution. Because for example, now you see on the you have a lot of local to no code solution that comes into the market. You can, for example, have your business teams create an API out of an Excel spreadsheet directly without any coding knowledge on their side, and only to have programming skills or to create their API’s with such solutions. So I think yeah, we need to have the the awareness raised and the second point In a, I fully agree with both emirate and Christopher is probably to work together in order to get the compliance both by by YC, but also the internal insurance compliance to get to do understand these solutions and then to get them implemented to approved for the implementation.

Michael Waitze 30:25
Understood. Look, I want to thank all of you for coming on and doing this today to for participating in this TDI Connect conversation. Amarit Franssen, Remy Doerflinger, Christopher Dennis, thank you all so much for coming and doing this today.

Episode 221