Partnerships are like marriage

新年好 (Xīnnián hǎo), Happy New Year!

Today we celebrate Chinese New Year and to all our partners, friends, and colleagues I hope that the Year of the Tiger brings a year of goodness, a year of happiness to you and your families.

Xīnnián hǎo, Happy New Year!

This occasion is also a great opportunity to reflect a little on our partnership in China and partnerships in general.

Last year we celebrated 20 years of partnership with China Taiping. From little acorns to mighty oaks, today Taiping Life has become one of the leading and most respected insurance brands in China. It is a story of growth but also a story of sustainable collaboration built on trust, respect, and mutual ambition.

Over the past 20 years, partnership management has really become part of the Ageas DNA.  And I am often asked the question whether this can last forever, and why it is that Ageas partnerships seem to thrive through macro-cycles, market changes, evolving customer needs and even through geopolitical turmoil?

So, what have we learned about what it takes to build and sustain successful long-term partnerships? Here I often draw the parallel with marital life.

As in a marriage, which I trust most people do not enter with a limited time scope in mind, it can and does still sometimes go wrong. So, what makes the difference?

How do you select the right bride or groom? How do you make it work? How do you sustain it after the honeymoon period is over?

Let’s first talk about the dating phase, about finding the right partner. Understanding the partner needs, ambitions, goals but also culture and values is critical. They do not need to be the same, but they surely need to be compatible, and there must be mutual respect for this diversity. Also, you need to agree on the purpose, the joint obsession of the partnership, and this goes beyond the initial compelling strategic or economic logic. Thirdly, don’t make a partnership a matter of control. Parasitism will not work. Nor will coercion.  And finally, please do not showoff. Yes, pitch your strengths and capabilities, but also pitch your weakness, why you need a partner and why you believe he or she is the right one. Stay humble and give face to receive face.

This is the true basis for a joint story of growth, a story of collaboration built on trust, respect, and mutual ambition.

After this initial ‘dating’ period, carving out the right prenuptial agreements (governance and legal matters) is still thorough and necessary, but the emotional connection and the eagerness to embark on a joint journey ensures that these pieces also fall into place and the honeymoon period can start.

But after the honeymoon period is over, how do you make it last? How do you stay attractive to your partner in the long run? Staying relevant and attractive to a partner over years is hard work indeed. If today we would still be relying on our initial value add to our Chinese partner, we would have become irrelevant. This has nothing to do with loyalty. Complacency is a disastrous disease in relationships. You constantly must reinvent, rejuvenate yourself, bring continued relevant know how and innovation to the table.

Within Ageas we have setup an entire structure that is fully focused on this, both towards our own operating entities as well as our partnerships. We are very inclusive in these domains and this really extends the lifespan. We talk about knowledge-broking, referring to the fact that there is always something that someone in the group does best or better, and that can be leveraged across other entities. Here in fact, we include our partners as sources of competence that we also reciprocally leverage between them. We teach and learn from one another at the same time which creates sustainable value add.

To do this relevantly, it is important to ensure you keep a finger on the pulse of the partner, that communication channels are wide open, partnership satisfaction is measured, feedback captured and acted upon.

And of course, the entire team, all the people in your partnership need to embrace this logic. They make all the difference.

As we look back on our 20-year collaboration with China Taiping Life, each of those core ingredients on the list have been ticked. In rejuvenating the relationship, we have extended our partnership beyond Life insurance into the world of asset management and, more recently, reinsurance. And we are together exploring future engines of growth in health and care and digital platforms.  From a standing start in 2001 of zero customers, 250 employees, 500 agents and four offices, Taiping Life has today 19,000 employees, 400,000 agents and 1,350 branches and sale offices. It is one of the largest and most trusted insurance brands in the marketplace.

There is a Chinese saying, “Dream different dreams in the same bed”, meaning that people, partners who are close and intimate may have different interests and pursuits which are unrevealed and unknown to each other. It is also used to refer to indicate the state of marital life. A couple may be living under the same roof but with quite separate lives and aspirations. They are as good as divorced.

In the case of our partnership with China Taiping, after 20 years of marriage, I can ensure you that we still “Dream the same dream though in different beds”, that this dream is ambitious and that there is indeed still this joint obsession: our duty of care for the local customer and society.

Filip Coremans, MD Asia