Surya Nepal helped build my foundation

Vijaya Bahadur Shah, Chief Executive Officer, Himalayan Everest Insurance Ltd.

I started my first job with Surya Tobacco Co. (P) Ltd. (currently known as Surya Nepal Pvt. Ltd.), after completing my chartered accountancy examination in 1988. During that time, ITC Limited used to select a team from the main company and its subsidiaries and send them for internship. I was also selected for the internship at the ITC’s first cigarette factory in India, which is located at Munger in India. When there, I learned about the accounting method of tobacco, its dynamics and linkages as well as dealing professionally. It was like a hands-on experience, where I worked with diverse people in various positions from a clerk to a high-level manager very intimately.

I admit that whatever I am doing today is due to that foundation. I worked in Surya Tobacco from 1988 to 2000 in various capacities. After returning to Nepal from Munger, I was placed at the finance department, head office and factory accounting, availing loans from banks, preparing final account. I left Surya Tobacco in 2000, I was finance manager at that time.

Then I joined Gorkha Brewery. The rationale behind joining Gorkha Brewery was that it too was a foreign investment company and I knew there would be the same culture at the workplace like my earlier work. I joined Gorkha Brewery as the finance director, and I was enjoying my work but I had to leave in just two years because I got another opportunity. I received an offer from King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (currently, National Trust for Nature Conservation). They were looking for a talent who could replicate the skills learnt in the private sector to sustain the organisation by developing a perennial source of revenue. I accepted the proposal as the organisation offered me the position of chief of finance and administration. Thus, I switched my job from being in multinational companies to a public institution. In the meantime, the regime was changed following the people’s movement.

Again, I came back to the private sector in 2006. With the thought of doing something innovative, I established the National Investment and Capital Market Ltd., which was an asset management company. Nepal’s top businesspeople invested there and Citizen Investment Trust was the institutional promoter of the company. I worked in the company for two years, however, due to lack of legislation and regulatory clarity for asset management, I left the company.

Then my journey to the insurance sector began as the CEO of NLG Insurance, where I worked for nine years and served in Nepal Insurance as the CEO for one term. The reason I joined Himalayan Everest Insurance two years back is mainly due to the task of raising capital as per the requirement of the regulator. The regulator, Nepal Insurance Authority, had provided mainly two options for insurance companies – either they have to raise capital from their internal source/funding or go for merger with an appropriate strategic partner. There was lack of merger experience in Nepal’s insurance sector. Himalayan Insurance had approached me for the aforesaid responsibility.

After assuming office as the CEO of Himalayan Insurance, I successfully concluded the merger between Himalayan and Everest Insurance. It is my second year in the company, and we have successfully completed one year after the merger. The Board of the company and NIA have approved the balance sheet of the company prepared after the joint operation. I am continuing my work in Himalayan Everest Company as the head of the management.

Wherever I have worked in my career, I have carried my instincts, expertise and experience that I gained during my first job in Surya Tobacco. That was a unique experience of working in a multinational company in the beginning of my career. Whatever I have achieved in the long journey of my career is due to the knowledge, skills, expertise and experience that I gained from my first job.

The work culture of ITC and Surya Tobacco is well connected with its staff. They prioritise ‘work first’. In every institution there is hierarchy, however, there is no hierarchical barrier for conversations among the staff and there is a learning environment. Interdepartmental cooperation and coordination prevail there, staffs are highly empowered, and they can take decisions as per their responsibilities in their particular domains. The most important aspect of working there is career growth. If the company finds someone important for the company, they invest a lot in the human resources for his/her empowerment by providing them exposure and training.

The culture of exchange or the peer learning by deputing staffs and interns in different verticals of ITC in India and also in its subsidiary Surya Nepal was interesting. Discussions used to be held in the overall institutional goal of the company. The training and peer learning activities used to accommodate a heterogeneous set of people as they used to join from different verticals. The propensity of learning was really high as such, and it provided an opportunity of networking.

It is already 24 years since I left Surya Tobacco and I am still getting invitations for the anniversary of the company or staff get-together or any other important programme and event. Furthermore, the company has been connecting generations. ITC has a culture of three generations of people working together. Surya Nepal has also been trying to replicate that culture in Nepal. During my days in Surya Nepal once we had invited Shiv Khera, the motivational speaker to Kathmandu. We had invited guests from various fraternities including parliamentarians, however, due to some circumstances the parliamentarians were not able to attend. We decided to attend the event with our kids. I do remember that event, which was attended by my daughter; the motivational speech of Khera had a huge impact on her. She was so inspired and started seeking exposure related opportunities and applying, which she assumed was fit for her. She was selected for the Model United Nations and went to the UN Headquarters in the United States of America. She was quite young and had not travelled independently. We were in a dilemma on whether to send her or not. But I decided to allow her to go and she went to the UN and participated in exchange programme. She also got the opportunity to meet with the then UN Secretary General. While coming back after concluding the exchange visit, she expressed a will to visit Singapore (transit country) individually, and I did not stop her. When she came back home, I found her so encouraged and confident that she could do anything ahead in her life. Thus, I can acknowledge how important motivation and exposure are and I have given high priority for motivation and exposure.

I have spent the longest period of my career in the insurance industry. I have spent 15 years as the CEO of insurance companies. I led the Nepal Insurers’ Association for two terms. Insurance is considered a second-tier industry following the banking industry. We have a challenge ahead to make it a top industry in the financial sector by making the insurance industry more attractive, transparent and establishing coordination among the insurance companies. As the president of the Nepal Insurers’ Association, I worked in the aforesaid areas. The organisation was at an infant stage, we established a full-fledged secretariat of Nepal Insurers’ Association, where the CEOs of different insurance companies and other relevant stakeholders could meet and interact. When I was at the helm of the organisation, I attended different forums and urged the insurers abroad to come to Nepal citing that the insurance business is growing in Nepal. As a result, some of the reinsurers came to Nepal and are still operating in the country.

To further showcase Nepal’s insurance market, we organised the international conference of AIRDC (Association of Insurance and Reinsurance in Developing Countries), which has member base in 32 countries and the organisation is headquartered in Manila, Philippines. I was elected the president from the conference. I was the first president of the organisation from Nepal. I served as the president of AIRDC for two terms because the Covid-19 pandemic started at the end of my first tenure, and I took charge for the second term too to manage the transition because movement was restricted during the pandemic. I think we have been able to showcase Nepal’s insurance market across the world and bring in best practices from different parts of the world.

The insurance market was very small in Nepal when I joined the sector. The overall annual transaction of the insurance sector was below Rs 10 billion. Insurance penetration was limited and only city centric and only in the obligatory type of business like insuring loans of banks or vehicle insurance if that had a loan component. The outreach of insurance today is among 60% of the population. To expand the insurance penetration the insurance companies diversified the business by making people aware of the insurance by exploiting digital technologies. Nepal’s insurance companies issue two million insurance policies each annually, however, Himalayan Everest through the use of digital technology issued 3.1 million insurance policies. We are reaching out to Karnali Province and other disaster-prone areas of the country to protect the unprotected people by making them aware of insurance and its importance.

The major transformations, I have witnessed in the insurance industry during my 15-year career in this sector is rollout of digital insurance policies in the post-Covid era. Prior to Covid, the insurance sector regulator had compelled us to hand over the policies physically. We had to provide physical documents, but now we can immediately issue policies by accepting digital signatures as it is as good as the other signature. Further, companies were previously operating with Rs 100 million paid-up capital, which has now been raised to Rs 2.5 billion and companies are expanding client base, being innovative in service delivery and product design to generate business to serve the equity/paid-up capital requirement.

Those fresh graduates, who are willing to join the insurance sector, have enough room to demonstrate their creativity and expertise to take the insurance sector to a new height because we still have a chunk of population deprived of insurance services. This sector has now become a happening sector and it will be more happening in the coming days. Further, it is a regulated sector and people can easily learn the rules of the game and things are transparent in this sector.
After working in the insurance industry, any person can work in different businesses. The core business of insurance is to sell insurance policies; beyond that insurance companies invest in greenfield projects, secondary market or sell insurance by bundling that with financial products or through other ways. The new generation willing to join this sector will have comprehensive exposures and opportunities to perform as insurance companies themselves are investing in study, training and exposures of staff and rewarding them by upgrading them if they do well in study and trainings. In our country, the number of insurance professionals is limited and if anyone has good knowledge in insurance their will move ahead in a quick pace.

(Based on conversation)

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