Ashok Shah’s tale of winning in the insurance game

Ashok Shah is one of Kenya’s most respected business leaders. The Applied Chemistry graduate who stumbled into insurance by chance is the CEO of East African insurance group Apollo.

Ashok Shah, CEO of Apollo Investments

Ashok Shah, CEO of Apollo Investments

After completing his studies at Kingston University in the UK, Shah was offered a monthly salary of the equivalent of US$23 to take up a job related to his degree.

“Someone else was offering me the equivalent of KSh. 5,000 ($57) per month in the insurance business. Just imagine, KSh. 5,000 a month. So I decided to take up the job and learn insurance. I did very well in [selling] life insurance and I started getting fairly large cheques.”

Born in Nyeri, about two hours north of capital Nairobi, Shah left his thriving career in the UK and settled back home in Kenya after making what was supposed to be a short holiday trip.

Shah offered his expertise in reinsurance and marketing, on a part-time basis, to help his brother who was then running a small insurance business in Mombasa. Founded in 1977, that small company has morphed into Apollo, now headed by Shah.

The company provides general and life insurance through its subsidiaries APA Insurance, Apollo Life Assurance, Apollo Asset Management and Gordon Court. It has a presence in Kenya and Uganda and is a shareholder in Reliance Insurance in Tanzania.

An award-winning entrepreneur, Shah has been instrumental in shepherding the business over the last three decades.

“In 1983 when I joined full-time, I started marketing the business in Nairobi. We started to get business from international brokers and large corporate firms,” he says.

Shah eventually took over control in 1996 “because the company needed direction change”.

As the new CEO, Shah moved the firm’s head office to Nairobi and began exploring new opportunities.

“We saw there would be organic growth but it would be difficult. We talked to a lot of other companies for a potential merger or acquisition which would make the growth easier. It did not happen quickly.”

It wasn’t until 2004 that Pan Africa Insurance Holdings agreed to merge its struggling general insurance business with Apollo Insurance, giving birth to APA Insurance.

“That immediately created a lot of synergies… it increased our premium base. We started growing very fast… and became more customer focused.”

In 2011 Apollo bought out the shares of Pan Africa Insurance Holdings. That same year, LeapFrog Investments, a fund focused on insurance to under-served people and markets, made an investment of $14m in Apollo to help it venture into micro-insurance.

Overcoming challenges

Shah tells How we made it in Africa it has not been smooth sailing for Apollo.

“We faced many challenges when we were looking at growth and when we were expanding and getting into new product lines. We did not have sufficient skilled manpower and we struggled a lot. As we grew and got bigger we were able to afford to hire good talent and train our staff,” he says.

Shah laments that rampant unethical competition has given the “insurance industry a very bad reputation and that becomes a challenge when you are trying to grow your business” due to mistrust among potential clients.

“There are many companies in this country which will get people to purchase insurance policies but their intention is to not pay claims or to delay payment. Some pay people to get business for them, and this is not the normal commission but more of backhanders. We don’t allow any underhand deals and because of that we sometimes will not get the business.”

Spreading the risk

In the last eight months Apollo’s subsidiary, APA Insurance, has paid billions of shillings in insurance claims following two significant events: the August fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and the September terrorist attack at the Westgate shopping mall.

Following the airport fire, APA insurance paid the Kenya Airports Authority KSh. 1.97bn ($22.7m), “the largest fire claim in Kenya’s history”.

Shah says the company has reinsurance treaties that take care of large losses to ensure its “balance sheet and financial strength is not badly affected”.

“Insurance, at the end of the day, is a law of large numbers. You must always spread your risk.”

In the face of economic ups and downs over the last 37 years, Shah says Apollo has stayed strong and continued to grow because of its team’s vision and focus. The group is now planning to expand to Rwanda and South Sudan.

Award-winning entrepreneur

In 2010 Shah became the first recipient of the Think Business Life Time Achievement Award for his contribution to the Kenyan insurance industry. This year, he was a finalist in the EY Eastern Africa Chapter Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

He describes entrepreneurship as being “visionary and working hard to accomplish your vision”, and urges other people to exploit the continent’s emerging opportunities.

“There are lots of opportunities in Africa but you have to work hard and make sure that you do things right. Taking short cuts does not help because you will do things poorly or end up on the wrong side of the law. It is best to offer quality services, be focused and fully commit to your business.”