Outstanding CEO of the Year: Sun Life Financial’s Dean Connor almost makes insurance sound cool

Dean Connor has been CEO of Sun Life Financial for over six years.

Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Dean Connor may never have imagined that he would be leading an insurance company at this or any other stage in his career, but he’s certainly made the most of his six-plus years as CEO of Sun Life Financial Inc. Starting with a bold pronouncement in 2012 that Sun Life was going to increase annual earnings by a third to $2 billion by 2015, Connor has not been shy about getting the most out of his employees and that drive starts right from the outset. Each new hire, he says, has to raise the collective bar at least a little. Given that there are about 21,000 direct employees around the world, plus another 12,000 employed by its joint ventures in Asia, constant improvement is the name of the game.

Earlier this year, Connor set a new goal for the company to become one of the world’s top asset managers and insurance firms within three years. Called Client 2020, Sun Life plans to grow earnings per share 8-10% per year and return on equity by 12-14%. To help get there, he’s tied 25% of employee incentives to client satisfaction. Technology, including a digital benefits assistant called Ella, is one way Sun Life plans to improve the customer experience, but even with that, employees will have to do most of the heavy lifting, just as they did in 2012 when Connor set his first goal. Analysts back then figured it wouldn’t take much to achieve his goal, just a few interest rate increases. Those increases, as we all know, are only now coming through, but Sun Life easily met a revised target of $1.85 billion after the company sold a couple of assets. It still blew by the original $2-billion target in 2015 and reached nearly $2.6 billion in fiscal 2016. The credit for making up the gap, Connor says, and for him being named Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year for 2017 should go to Sun Life’s employees. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for growing a company that now has ventures in 15 countries, including seven in Asia, and 99,865 advisors, including 71,410 in its joint ventures in China, India and the Philippines.

But Asia is just one of the company’s four pillars and Connor sees growth in Canada, the U.S. and asset management as well. Sun Life Investment Management has gone from zero to $55 billion of assets under management in four years and he wants to get to $100 billion organically by 2020. In the U.S., Sun Life has a thriving medical stop loss insurance business that protects employers against very large health claims by employees. And Canadian life insurance sales in the past five years have had some of the strongest growth that Sun Life has ever seen. “There’s actually one hell of a lot going on in all four pillars that gives us confidence about our medium-term growth objectives,” Connor says.

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