Seychelles, Republic of: Interview with Mr. John Esther

Mr. John Esther

CEO (Sacos)

Mr. John Esther

Seychelles has managed to position itself as one of the top tourism destinations worldwide while maintaining a good level of welfare and being a model of public health. In your opinion, what competitive and comparative advantages set this country apart?

I believe the advantages can be found in the policies of these times which focused on looking at infrastructure, education, health, utilities and other community-based services. These policies and prioritisations actually dominated the strategic development of the country for many years, which created a relatively large middle-income group.

Sacos was originally incorporated in Seychelles in August 1980 as the State Assurance Corporation of Seychelles. At that time, it was the sole insurance provider in Seychelles. However, after its privatization, you are no longer the sole provider but remain to be the most prominent one. To which features does Sacos own such prominence?

Indeed Sacos has been around for more than 36 years and has built a strong legacy in insurance. As a consequence, it is natural for most Seychellois to think of Sacos when they think of insurance.

As an important prerequisite for survival, you need to develop adaptability and versatility, the ability to continuously reinvent yourself to face the ever increasing pace of change and other challenges of the current times. I believe that Sacos has successfully achieved these. Despite operating as a monopoly for many years, from the time that the first competitor came into the market, Sacos has continuously evolved.  More recently, we have focused on a more long-term perspective, adopting a more inclusive and participatory approach to the evolution of our corporate strategy. This obviously means that we have become very clear about who we are and what we want to be for our clients, employees, strategic partners and other key stakeholders.
In mid-2016, we conducted a customer survey at the onset of our rebranding journey. As a result of this survey, we developed and gained valuable insights into what the people of Seychelles expect of us and we are doing our very best to try and deliver world class service to meet these expectations.

Sacos was the first company to list on Seychelles' first securities exchange, Trop-X, in 2013. What drove you to be the spearhead in such a momentous event?

The precursor to this listing was the original privatisation of Sacos in itself, where shares were offered to a very large number of the public, which means that Sacos shares were already widely owned within the country, so I believe the next natural step was to actually list it so those thousands of shareholders could trade their shares and liquidate them as and when they had a requirement for cash.

Sacos just underwent a rebranding exercise and the amalgamation of four entities into two: Sacos Group Ltd and Sacos Life Assurance Company Ltd. Could you elaborate on this process and the reasons behind it?

Both the process of amalgamation and rebranding have not yet run their full course and are still on-going. We are aiming for a  simplification of the corporate structure and a very clearly defined brand identity. The plan is simply to have one company, trading as Sacos Insurance Group, and then a separate Sacos Life Assurance Company Limited given that the life business has to be separated. These changes effectively mean that Sacos Group Ltd will undertake the general insurance business, the properties management and investments, which is also the holding company.

You recently launched the Wealth Enhancer Investment product, which is the first of its kind to be introduced on the Seychelles market. Could you explain what it consists on and how it is different from other products?

Hitherto, there were no indigenous investment products in Seychelles. We had bank current accounts, deposits accounts and treasury bills as well as longer term treasury bonds. As an innovative company, hoping to meet the needs of the people of Seychelles and other interested clients globally, we felt that there was a gap in the investment landscape that needed to be filled and this is really a medium-term lump sum investment product. Investors are expected to hold their investments to maturity of five, six or seven years, which then pays a combined return at the end of its term.

As it is the very first product of its kind in the market, how are you communicating it and what uptake has it had so far?

Of course, given its novel nature to this market, we need to conduct a lot of education as well as general awareness campaigns.

So far, the uptake has been very, very good. We are closing in on around SCR10 million in deposits at the moment. The second phase of this development is to launch the US dollar version of the product, which will become available internationally as well as to locals who want to invest in USD.

What is the timeline for such launching?

It is anytime now, really. We want to make sure that all the documentation is in order, and that our due diligence process sufficiently captures information that we need to maintain on all our investors in accordance with our internal processes and legal requirements.

Once prepared to launch the dollar version of the Wealth Enhancer Investment product, through which channels are you planning to offer the product?

It is going to be a multi-channel strategy. We will, of course, have investment forums with the advisers to educate all clients and investment advisors and make sure that they are up to speed with the on boarding of their clients, which they will introduce to us. We will also use our website, which we launched recently, where we have areas for promotions as well. And we will, of course, advertise on television, in print media, and whatever other channels are available.

Sacos is an institutional shareholder at the Trade and Development Bank. Could you elaborate on your participation in this financial institution? Are you looking at expanding your portfolio abroad?

The Trade and Development Bank, formerly PTA Bank, was a bank, which was owned by the member states of the COMESA countries, including Seychelles. It recently created a special category of shares, Class B shares, which became available to institutional investors from those member countries. We undertook a detailed analysis of the bank and we concluded that the shares constituted a very good investment. Consequently, we set aside an investment, which was just over a million dollars for us to take advantage of that opportunity.

It has been widely recognized that Sacos is a key and trusted institution in Seychelles’ financial sector, as the premium over the trading price shows. With presence internationally, how are you assisting in the branding efforts that the government is currently making in order to portray Seychelles economic potential?

I believe that  the best contribution that we can make  is to adopt international best practice in whatever we do. That demands, first of all, to look after our people, so an employee value proposition, which is comparable to the best companies. Looking at our corporate image, establishment of an effective corporate structure, and having an immediately recognisable and clear brand identity.

We must ensure that we aim for an international-standard brand, standing at par with the worlds very best. This can be achieved by not only looking at what we needed to be in order for us to compete in Seychelles but also about analysing our systems and processes and about getting feedback from clients so that we can adapt and reconfigure from the outset to meet international standards. Once we achieve this, it will drive expectations across the rest of the industry, as such standards will become a competitive imperative. It is extremely important that we understand the ever-changing expectations of the clients, so that we maintain market leadership by ensuring that these are religiously exceeded. We are always thinking and programming ourselves ahead of the curve, continuously anticipating the future.  These, I believe, are key elements to  maintaining the desired image.

Sacos supports sports in Seychelles by providing financial support to activities. In which other ways do you contribute to the Seychellois community?

In terms of our corporate strategy, we aim to be relevant in the community. Relevance means  that people would actually feel our presence not just from a business point of view as an insurer, but also as a corporate citizen  that  helps to make a difference in people’s lives.

Indeed we have historically participated in a lot of sponsorship of sports. We have five sports clubs that we support actively. We also support cultural activities, with the involvement of the Ministry of Culture.

In addition, we encourage our staff to take part in community-based activities. As part of their employment terms, they are currently required to perform a minimum of 8 hours of community service, in order to meet their performance objectives, so that we ourselves as a corporate can meet our social objectives. Our people are therefore constantly looking for community activities to support, over and above those officially organized by the company.

As the biggest insurance company in the country, your message will have a great impact on our readers because you can give a guarantee to investors concerning their financial and personal security in Seychelles. What will your message be to international investors looking to invest here in Seychelles?

I think Seychelles is actually a very good destination for investments because of the physical and legal infrastructure in place. Availability of well-trained professionals who can support the growth of a given business is key. The Seychellois people are versatile and adaptable and can be quickly trained to meet the requirements of the industry.   

Moreover, as a truly Seychellois company, we pride ourselves in our mostly Seychellois workforce. We  currently employ only one expatriate in the finance department, where we had a very specific skills requirement that was not readily available locally. We strongly believe in the capability of the local people to deliver work, which is of international standard.