A conversation with Sun Life's Rowena Chan about the power of purpose

Insurance speak


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Amid a recent realignment of its senior leadership, Sun Life also took the opportunity to refresh its strategy to keep pace with changing client expectations, as well as the rising need to accelerate growth and bolster its competitive position as part of its digital transformation agenda. As it pursues these changes, one thing remains constant and at the forefront for Sun Life: The need to stay true to the company’s purpose.

PwC Canada’s Allan Buitendag recently sat down with Rowena Chan, President, Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc., Senior Vice-President, Distribution, to talk about the importance of connecting your strategy to your purpose, the company’s path to digital transformation, how diversity, equity and inclusion creates value in the organization and why Sun Life was one of the first financial institutions in Canada to embrace a hybrid workplace model.

Allan: Hello everybody, welcome to our Insurance Speak series. I'm Allan Buitendag, PwC’s Global Relationship Partner for Sun Life. I'm delighted to be here today with Rowena Chan, Senior Vice-President of Distribution for Sun Life Canada. Hello, Rowena.

Rowena: Hello, Allan. How are you?

Allan: Fantastic. Rowena, Sun Life recently had a realignment of its senior executive ranks. A new CFO, a new CEO and a new CIO. Along with that you've re-imagined your strategy, globally. I'm interested in your perspectives and if you'd spend a bit of time talking us through your strategy and what most excites you about it.

Rowena: Thank you for the opportunity to share with you our refreshed strategy under the leadership of Kevin Strain, who is our new CEO. I would say this is not a complete revamp of the strategy, it's just a refresh because it's still anchored on our purpose. We keep clients at the center in everything that we do. Whether it's about helping clients navigate health concerns, build and save for retirement or having financial securities for their loved ones.

There are four key elements in this revised strategy. They are financial discipline, distribution excellence, digital leadership and sustainability driven. I think you're familiar with the fact that financial discipline and distribution excellence are our core strength, is our foundation. Digital leadership is really about acting and thinking like a digital company with the goal to get closer to our clients and deliver personalized experiences. Sustainability driven is an imperative for us. Our sustainability plan is tied to our purpose, it's tied to what we know best, health, financial security and sustainably investing, and so all to the benefits of our clients and our communities. So we think that this strategy, these elements, will accelerate our growth and our competitive position globally.

You asked me what excites me most about this. I have always been excited about our purpose, to help our clients live healthier lives and achieve financial securities. It's the anchor. It's about the ability to create peace of mind alongside our clients. The new elements will further advance how we deliver on this purpose.

Allan: Fantastic, and when you reflect on the global strategy, how does that translate into specific activities and strategies within the Canadian marketplace?

Rowena: Well, it actually fits in very nicely to what Canada has been doing and will continue to do. As you know, Canada has a leadership position in the marketplace. We continue to play on our strengths and we know we are in a growth market, so our strength in health protection, and wealth in our diverse business portfolios, in the group and retail space, are very strong. We'll continue to build on that, but we have been making very strategic investments as to how we continue to grow, particularly on the digital front, to drive impact for our clients. I'll give you a few examples.

In 2020, very early on in the pandemic, we entered into a strategic agreement with a telemedicine company called Dialogue to provide virtual care to our clients, and earlier this year we announced a brand new business unit called Sun Life Health, that really speaks to our emphasis and our commitment to the health space. Also earlier this year we announced our partnership with Conquest Planning, best in class financial planning tool because that will help advance and deliver on our Sun Life one sun vision, that every client will have a financial plan, so that clients can have a roadmap to achieve their goals and dreams. 

Allan: And if you think specifically about your area of focus, what kinds of initiatives have you been driving in the distribution space?

Rowena: In the distribution space we deliver for our clients. We want to make impacts and as you know clients' behavior and expectations have evolved significantly during the pandemic. It is really about every interaction with us or any service provider. It's about being seamless, transparent, personalized, whether they want to work with us digitally or with our advisors. 

In distribution, we have been on a very strong, exciting path of digital transformation and I'm proud to talk about some of the milestones we have achieved. Since the pandemic our clients are able to work with us via Zoom, on the phone, face to face with advisors, using e-form, e-signature, they can complete their transaction easily at home or anywhere they want. Our advisors are being enabled digitally significantly, in the past couple of years. We have launched a lot of digital tools and we just completed the migration of our CRM system to the Salesforce Financial Services Cloud. Why did we do that? Because we want our advisor to run their practice more digitally enabled, so that they can have more time to spend where it matters most. I earlier talked about Conquest Financial Planning right? So that is a tool where Sun Life is the first Canadian organization to introduce digital planning capabilities across insurance and wealth so that every client can have a plan to achieve their goals. So these are just a few of those transformations.

Allan: Lots on the go. Very exciting. So Rowena, you're regarded throughout the industry as a transformation enthusiast and a huge proponent of D&I initiatives. Through the course of the past few years in the pandemic, what kinds of opportunities and challenges have you had around managing your teams and driving the execution of your agendas?

Rowena: Yeah, thank you for that. I do consider myself super talent obsessed. I do think that talent is the core of everything because they are the one that delivers for our clients, the one that makes things happen and I think Sun Life overall and our team managed the pandemic quite well. Now it’s complex, it’s difficult to navigate, but I think we managed it well because we have a very diverse team. And I always say that we need to have a diverse representation of advisors to represent the communities that they serve. We have over 36% of our advisors that are women, which is industry leading, so we're pretty proud of that. When I talk about diversity all the time, I talk about whether it's about race or gender or age or sexual orientation, it is really all about diversity of perspectives, experiences and knowledge. So when you can draw from different strengths, then you can deliver more for our clients and you can have better innovation, you can have better creative ideas. So, I think that helps us navigate through the pandemic because we listen, we are agile and we have diversity of thought to help us get better.

Allan: Rowena, as we think post the pandemic and the return to work or return to the office, Sun Life was one of the first financial institutions in Canada to announce that they would fully embrace a remote working environment. Can you comment on your thoughts around how you will organize, as you move past the pandemic and how people will work in a hybrid model for you?

Rowena: You are right Allan. Sun Life is the first financial organization that announced our approach for the future of work, which is about flexibility and choice for our employees, based on business needs and clients’ needs. We do not have maximum or minimum days of work in the office. Our employees can choose how and where they work based on the activities they need to complete to deliver for our business and for our clients. When we launched this, we got really good feedback. We listened to our employees first, we surveyed them and therefore we came up with this approach. We'll continue to be agile as to the approach. This approach really speaks to empowerment, trust and flexibility and that's the culture. This is the culture of Sun Life where diversity of thoughts, diversity of representation is so important because we want everyone to be their true best selves when they come to work.

Allan: Well thank you very much for spending some time with us today. Congratulations on your transformational journey and the road ahead and we look forward to many more discussions.

Rowena: It's my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

“Empowerment, trust and flexibility: … This is the culture of Sun Life where diversity of thought, and diversity of representation is so important. We want everyone to be their true best selves when they come to work.”

Rowena Chan, President, Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc., Senior Vice-President, Distribution

About the speaker

Headshot of Rowena Chan

Rowena Chan

A seasoned financial services executive with decades of experience, Rowena is passionate about bringing wellness and peace of mind to Canadians. Rowena leads Sun Life’s retail distribution business, an omnichannel organization that delivers protection (life insurance), wealth, and health solutions to clients at all life stages. Through personalized trusted advice, holistic solutions, and innovative digitally enabled experiences, her team of advisors helps put Canadians on the path towards achieving lifetime financial security and living healthier lives.

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Allan Buitendag

Allan Buitendag

Partner, Financial Services Consulting Leader, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 416 815 5239

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