Manulife’s Asia GC: Balance of trade

Manulife’s Asia GC Steven Yeo uses the Chinese philosophy of ‘yin and yang’ to safeguard the insurance company’s strong growth across Asia 

Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay district is a shopping mecca that recently overtook New York’s Fifth Avenue as the world’s most expensive retail location. It also hosts Manulife Financial’s Asia headquarters.

The robust retail market in Hong Kong is a reflection of the region’s growing private wealth and rising middle class. To the insurance industry, this means good business.


“Once people enter the middle class they become potential customers for insurance, and the insurance market in Asia is set to grow at double the rate of GDP,” enthuses Manulife’s Asia general counsel Steven Yeo. “In fact, there are more people worth $100m or more in Asia Pacific than in Europe or the US. That is leading to booming demand for services such as asset and wealth management.”

Yeo joined the Canadian insurance and financial management company in 2011. Prior to that he spent 18 years with Citigroup, most recently as managing director and general counsel of Citi’s corporate and commercial bank, and global transaction services in Asia.

Part of Manulife’s appeal to Yeo is the growth prospects in Asia for insurance. The company is active in 11 markets and the region’s share of total sales has risen from around a fifth to nearly half in recent years.

 Wide-ranging role

This means Yeo and his 200-staff legal and compliance team have had a busy few years. Yeo’s responsibility ranges from compliance,
legal and corporate governance to managing Asia-based M&A and joint venture transactions. The fact that Manulife is listed on both the Hong Kong and Philippines stock exchanges as well as in Toronto and New York adds another dimension.

One of the most significant projects the team has worked on involved a partnership deal with Indonesia’s Bank Danamon, the biggest Asia partnership in Manulife’s history. Among many challenges, it meant hiring 800 staff in just a few months. In the past year the team has implemented 10 new bancassurance partnerships in the region.

Yeo is also spearheading the legal and regulatory development of Asia’s pensions business, important for the region’s ageing population. Assisted by a local in-house team in Malaysia and support from the Hong Kong and Canada teams, Manulife is one of only eight institutions licensed to provide private retirement schemes in Malaysia.

Yeo also attends forum discussions on Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund legislation.

Meanwhile, product launches, partnership development and other transactions require substantial support from the legal department – and the issues differ from one country to the next. This is exciting, but challenging.

“Being part of a dynamic franchise in a region as diverse as Asia is certainly interesting,” says Yeo. “But there are many challenges. The biggest challenge is the complexity of the regulatory environment. In addition to complying with the regulations from our home market, Canada, we have added layers in each of our 11 Asia markets as well as global regulations. As an industry we’re probably seeing the fastest rate of regulatory change in decades.”

To do the job well Yeo says you have to accept that Asia is not homogeneous – it is no United States of Asia, nor even an Asian Union. Each market has distinct conditions, regulations, culture and habits. The solution, he says, is to be flexible. 

“But the need to maintain key standards is still important,” he adds. “The key is balance, a bit of ‘yin and yang’, while never compromising on core principles.”

 Close to the business

Manulife’s legal and compliance department has more than 200 members including legal advisers, auditors and certified public accountants. The legal team works closely with the business. In the department there are units dedicated to business streams including life insurance, asset management and wealth management. There are also staff based in each of the 11 jurisdictions in which the company operates, with the Hong Kong HQ housing the largest team.

“There are teams that specialise in business streams and practice areas, but we want to have the teams work together as seamlessly as possible,” says Yeo. “To get a multi-disciplined, multi-cultural cross-border team to do a complex job well time and again is satisfying, and the bonds you build last a lifetime – just ask the members of any successful sports team.”

The bulk of Manulife’s Asia work is handled internally but Yeo calls on external counsel, including Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where appropriate to tap into specific expertise or where the scale of a project is too big.

There is no formal panel, but the company maintains a list of preferred providers in each jurisdiction.

“International or larger Asian firms tend to have more consistent quality across practice areas, but smaller firms can provide excellent, service too,” Yeo says. “It’s possible for international or regional firms to stumble on that front. 

“There are firms that justifiably command a premium but it is often the partner or lawyer that makes the difference. With advances in technology and increasing internet access, pure knowledge-based advisory work is becoming commoditised. Any firm that thinks it can continue to charge a premium for this will soon realize to their detriment that it can’t last. So service consistency, quality and the ability to add value on a long-term basis will ultimately be the key differentiators.”

Yeo is not a lone voice. Like many of his insurance peers around the globe he is demanding more from his advisers. But, as he says, it is a balancing act, and Yeo has to get the yin of his 200-lawyer in-house team balanced with the yang of his external firms.

Steven Yeo 
Manulife Financial

 Position: Senior vice-president and general counsel, Asia

Reporting to: Robert Cook, CEO Asia, and Jean-Paul Bisnaire, general counsel

Company revenue (Asia): $10.6bn (£6.6bn)

Total legal capacity (Asia) excluding compliance and corporate governance: 65

Main external law firms include: Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Debevoise & Plimpton, Dechert, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters

Michael Rowe, head of legal and government affairs, MetLife Australia


MetLife’s Australian in-house team recently helped launch an innovative solution in the lucrative post-retirement market.

The company identified a need for a simple, low-cost retirement product that protects against longevity, investment and sequencing risks. We took this opportunity to create a solution to meet the needs of retirees while strengthening our partnerships with superannuation fund clients.

The Guaranteed Retirement Income Plan (Grip) is issued by superannuation funds and backed by MetLife. It pays investors a guaranteed income for life while allowing them to participate in market growth.

Of course, Grip was a big project for the legal team, involving complex product design, investment structures, offshoring and engaging with external investment managers. 

It involved superannuation and life insurance law as well as a number of prudential standards and disclosure rules, and the legal team was engaged at every point in the process. We took a collaborative role in advising the business in solving problems against a tight timetable.

The development of Grip also involved consultation with regulators and lawyers for superannuation fund clients, and working with colleagues in MetLife’s global legal practice. The Australian team led liaison with all parties and championed the product with the regulators and the board of directors.

The Grip project has paved the way for the expansion of MetLife’s suite of retirement products in Australia.