Investing in culture and leadership

Qiao Ma

Cooper Investors

Over the past few months, sectors such as IT services, online entertainment, e-commerce, and health and wellness-related consumer products have performed well, showing they're more immune to COVID-19 than others. We have invested in these sectors for a long time, and a lot of these long-term trends that we have predicted have accelerated over the past few months.

While we're still confident about these companies, we're getting increasingly excited about another group of companies. They are in industries that might make you cringe: insurance, manufacturing, or even tourism. But the best-in-class companies in these challenging industries have kept their heads down, worked quietly, usually led by an ambitious and tenacious founder. They've quickly captured market share from their weaker competitors with weaker balance sheets and cultures. We're seeing a strong culture coming out, and we believe that these companies are setting themselves up very strongly for growth in the next few years.

One of these examples is AIA (1299 HK), a pre-eminent life insurance company that has Pan-Asian operations through Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and even Australia. During the COVID-19 lockdown, AIA faced lots of challenges. There was the border lockdown - mainland tourists cannot come to Hong Kong to buy insurance policies. There was also the Hong Kong protest, and then in general, the low interest rate for insurance companies.

AIA's management team did not stand still as they faced these challenges. They did two things over the past few months that we think will substantially improve their operations for the long-term.

First, bringing digital operations to the business. They started the experiment of not only recruiting, but even training, and finally sending agents to digitally complete a life insurance policy application in China. China was the first country that went into the lockdown, and also the first country that eased. Having successfully completed this programme in China, they are actually copying and pasting the programme to other countries in Asia, and in countries like Thailand, it's already seeing considerable success.

Second, contrary to its competitors who are really hiding under the covers and not hiring agents, AIA is out there hiring the best in class agents. It's continuing to buffer and strengthen its agency network, and we think the gap in the quality of agents between AIA and its competitors will widen over time. Because of its challenging industry, AIA's stock price is down over 15% from is peak only a few months ago, and we think it's a great opportunity.

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Portfolio Manager
Cooper Investors

Qiao Ma joined CI in July 2017. Prior to this, she spent seven years investing in the technology and consumers sectors in Asia and the US. Most recently she was the Head of Asia for Jericho Capital, a multi-billion dollar global investment fund

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